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Pentagon Hasn’t Held A Press Briefing Since May 2018

Friday marked exactly one year since the Department of Defense held an official press briefing at the Pentagon. The last briefing was given on May 31, 2018.

“The Pentagon press corps has chafed for months at what reporters see as a sharp decline in access to information, including limited access to officials during trips,” Politico reportedWednesday.

In the 365 days since the last briefing, the Pentagon briefing room has been used for media events with KISS band member Gene Simmons and actor Gerard Butler (King Leonidas in “300”) — but not for its intended purpose of informing the press and the public about important developments related to national defense.

During the media blackout, and continuing to this day, the Department has been without a permanent leader — a serious issue that reporters would be able to ask about if regular briefings were being held.

Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned his position in December, which he announced in a letter highlighting his serious concerns about Trump’s destructive approach to military and foreign policy.

Since then, the position has been held by Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. His “acting” tenure, currently at 149 days, is the longest period in American history that the country has lacked a permanent defense secretary.

Trump finally officially nominated Shanahan for the position in early May, but that nomination is also fraught with controversy. Shanahan was described as a “a toady and a yes man” by veterans groups upon the announcement, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) immediately opposed the nomination due to concerns about Shanahan’s ongoing investigation into the ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers in 2017.

Reporters have also been denied the opportunity to publicly question officials about significant scandals and controversies involving the defense department.

The spokesperson who conducted the last briefing a year ago, Dana White, resigned her position in January after allegations surfaced that she misused her staff by having them run personal errands for her.

The press hasn’t been given a chance to ask her replacement about that scandal.

The Pentagon also did not have to answer questions about the thousands of troops that Trump deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border in a political stunt shortly before the 2018 elections. Trump used fear-mongering about refugee “caravans” to justify the unnecessary military action, even though it was obviously absurd to claim that a few thousand people fleeing oppression could be a serious threat requiring thousands of troops in response.

“You’re going to find MS-13, you’re going to find Middle Eastern (sic), you’re going to find everything,” Trump claimed at the time about the “caravan” — a claim even Fox News admitted had “no evidence” to support it.

The number of troops at the border reportedly peaked at about 5,800 in November, but reporters never got the chance to publicly question officials about the policy or its related logistics.

U.S. soldiers have remained deployed in combat during the media blackout as well.

There are over 8,400 troops in Afghanistan and in active combat against the Taliban. As recently as April, three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb.

American soldiers are also fighting ISIS abroad, and while Trump has been quick to prematurelytout the terrorist network’s purported defeat, they remain a threat.

“They are dispersed and disaggregated, but there is leadership, there are fighters there, there are facilitators there,” Gen. Joseph Votel said of the terrorist group in February.

These deployments and related policies are not being subjected to questioning from reporters.

Also being avoided are questions on the military’s role in global hotspots like North Korea and Venezuela. The Trump administration is making life and death decisions while doing all it can to avoid scrutiny from the press.

Reporters can’t even question the Pentagon openly about the Navy hiding the name of the USS John McCain last week in an attempt to soothe Trump’s ego.

On issues big and small, the Pentagon under Trump is avoiding scrutiny — a chilling development also seen in the White House, where press secretary Sarah Sanders has not given a formal press briefing since March 11.

America has the most powerful military in the world — and the world is being kept in the dark about what it’s doing and why.

Published with permission of The American Independent. 

IMAGE: Aerial view of the United States military headquarters, the Pentagon. REUTERS/Jason Reed

IRS Audits Poor Taxpayers At Same Rate As Richest One Percent

Every year, the IRS, starved of funds after years of budget cuts, loses hundreds more agents to retirement. And every year, the news gets better for the rich — especially those prone to go bold on their taxes. According to data released by the IRS last week, millionaires in 2018 were about 80 percent less likely to be audited than they were in 2011.

But poor taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of the IRS’ remaining force. As we reported last year, Americans who receive the earned income tax credit, one of the country’s largest anti-poverty programs, are audited at a higher rate than all but the richest taxpayers. The new data shows that the trend has only grown stronger.

Audits of the rich continue to plunge while those of the poor hold steady, and the two audit rates are converging. Last year, the top one percent of taxpayers by income were audited at a rate of 1.56 percent. EITC recipients, who typically have annual income under $20,000, were audited at 1.41 percent.

Part of the reason is ease. Audits of EITC recipients are largely automated and far less complicated.

“While the wealthy now have an open invitation to cheat, low-income taxpayers are receiving heightened scrutiny because they can be audited far more easily. All it takes is a letter instead of a team of investigators and lawyers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have two tax systems in this country,” he said, “and nothing illustrates that better than the IRS ignoring wealthy tax cheats while penalizing low-income workers over small mistakes.”

In a statement, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson acknowledged that the sharp decline in audits of the wealthy is due to the agency having lost so many skilled auditors. And he didn’t dispute that pursuing the poor is just easier.

Because EITC audits are largely conducted through the mail by lower-level employees from a central location, they are “less burdensome for taxpayers than in-person audits as they mail in their documentation and don’t have to take time out of the workday,” Patterson said.

“Correspondence audits are also the most efficient use of IRS’ limited examination resources.”

In April, Wyden, citing ProPublica’s reporting, asked IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to deliver a plan to address the agency’s disproportionate focus on auditing the poor. The deadline has passed, but Wyden’s office said the senator still expects a response. The IRS did not comment on the delay.

The agency audited 382,000 recipients of the EITC in 2018, accounting for 43 percent of all audits of individuals last year. When we mapped the estimated audit rates for every county in America, the counties with the highest audit rates were poor, rural, mostly African American and in the South, a reflection of the high number of EITC claims there.

Natassia Smick and her husband were among those unlucky 382,000 households. We wrote about them last year. They live outside Los Angeles and saw their entire refund frozen in February 2018. For a couple who earned about $33,000 in 2017, that $7,300 refund was big money ($2,000 of it stemmed from the EITC). When it didn’t come, Smick said she had to abandon plans for catching up with her credit card debt.

After Smick sent in all her supporting documents, it took until this May to get a final answer from the IRS. Fourteen months after it all started, the IRS said it agreed Smick and her husband were due about $7,000, she said. But the agency disagreed on the remaining $350, because it couldn’t verify her husband’s employment for part of the year. Smick said the IRS was wrong to hold back the $350, but she couldn’t afford to contest it and further delay the $7,000.

“I’m not going to fight anymore,” she said. “We have already waited too long, and we are not in a financial position to wait another three months to appeal.”

A new study by academic and government researchers shows that there has been a big cost to these audits: They’ve discouraged hundreds of thousands of families who might qualify for the credit from claiming it in future years.

For poor taxpayers, the worst part of the EITC audits is usually the beginning. That’s because they almost always begin with the shock of the refund being held.

But the audits also hardly ever end well. According to data in the new study, most end without the taxpayer responding at all, and the poorer the audit target, the more likely that is to happen. Those with wage income under $10,000 per year, for instance, didn’t respond at all in 64 percent of the EITC audits. For those with income over $40,000 per year, that rate dipped to 35 percent.

The diminished response rate of the poorest taxpayers in part reflects that they are harder to reach: In 15 percent of those audits, the mail couldn’t be delivered. But earlier studies have also shown that many poor taxpayers don’t understand they are being audited or have trouble deciphering what the IRS is asking in its letters.

The EITC is aimed mainly at low-income workers with children. Last year, 26 million households received an average credit of about $2,500. Most EITC audits require taxpayers to dig up documents to show that a child meets the legal threshold of a “qualifying child,” a status that’s distinct from a dependent. The IRS has long blamed the law’s complexity as the main reason taxpayers may incorrectly claim the credit.

Smick was among the rare audit veterans who prevailed. Taxpayers rarely win against the IRS regardless of how likely they are to qualify for the credit, according to the new study, which was done by Day Manoli, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and researchers with the IRS and Treasury Department.

The authors sliced the population of EITC recipients into categories. At one end of the spectrum were tax returns with red flags that made it almost certain they would be audited. On the other end were returns very unlikely to be audited. But, looking over time, the outcomes of those audits weren’t all that different. When those returns with red flags were audited, the taxpayers prevailed seven percent of the time. The taxpayers at the other end of the spectrum — the group seemingly most likely to qualify for the credit — only prevailed 10% of the time.

The audits have a long-term impact on the lives of those who go through them, the study found. In the years after they were audited, wage earners were 68 percent less likely to claim the credit compared with similar taxpayers who had not been audited. They were even 14 percent less likely to file taxes at all.

These taxpayers surrender “benefits from potentially legitimate EITC claims,” the study authors write, and, when they fail to file taxes at all, leave money on the table in the form of other credits and withholdings.

Because the IRS conducts so many EITC audits — between 380,000 and 600,000 per year over the past decade — at the very least, hundreds of thousands of taxpayers have likely avoided claiming the credit in response to having it denied through an audit. By discouraging people from claiming the credit, the audits clash with an avowed goal of the IRS: to encourage people to claim it. About a fifth of those eligible for the credit don’t claim it, and the IRS runs education campaigns to increase uptake.

EITC recipients are audited at such a high rate in part because Republicans in Congress have long pressured the IRS to reduce incorrect payments of the credit.

The IRS estimates that there was about $18 billion in incorrect claims in 2018. In most contexts, $18 billion is a big number, but when compared with the full scope of unpaid taxes, which likely total more than $600 billion each year, it’s not so big.

And while that $18 billion number, which Republicans touted as a “big problem” in the April hearing, is often cast as a kind of government waste, the study shows things are far more complicated.

In the years following an audit, the study found, children who were claimed on one taxpayer’s return often were claimed on a different taxpayer’s return. In other words, the kids might have just been claimed on the wrong return, and if that’s the case, the money should have been paid out, just to someone else.

The authors distinguish between the $18 billion in “gross overpayments” of the credit, which would include such misdirected payments, and what they call “net overpayments,” money that shouldn’t have been paid out at all. The “net” number, they say, could be one-third to one-half smaller than the “gross” one.

The IRS, in its statement, said the study had focused on a sample of only one type of taxpayer (single and head-of-household filers), and so the estimate of “net overpayments” should not be generalized to the entire EITC-claiming population.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks with reporters as he arrives for the weekly Democratic Caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Lost In The Jungle, Bleeding To Death: Would We Survive As They Did?

Lost for 17 days in a Hawaiian jungle, all alone in only a tank top and capri yoga pans, I’m not sure what I would do. Would I work past my fractured leg, blistered wounds and terror to survive? Would I eat mystery fruit and moths and sleep in the mud or a wild boar’s den? Would I do the things Amanda Eller did, or would I go crazy after two weeks and throw my emaciated body into a ravine?

A less plausible scenario for me would be doing what Nebraska farmer Kurt Kaser did. Having gotten his leg caught in a farm machine’s rotating steel blade (foot already gone), would I have had the guts to take out my pocketknife and cut the leg off? Would I have had the brute strength to then crawl about 200 feet to a phone to call for help? Or would I have stayed there alone on that day, screaming for help as I bled to death?

Both stories fascinate because they center on regular people who were not out looking for adventure. A 35-year-old physical therapist and yoga instructor, Eller thought she would be taking a short walk on a trail in Maui’s Makawao Forest Reserve, a path she had taken before. She didn’t even bother to take her bottle of water. Kaser, 63, was just moving grain between bins on his farm outside the town of Pender.

Kaser is someone to look up to for advice. His lesson, he said, was, “Take time and think — and don’t get in such a hurry.” That’s something we might consider the next time we rush absent-mindedly down a perilous flight of stairs.

But the bigger lesson from Kaser is not the easily learned one: the importance of staying calm in the face of catastrophe and carefully doing what must be done. “He was his own 911, his own pre-hospital, his own surgeon,” a surgeon at the Bryan Trauma Center in Lincoln said about Kaser. “He saved his own life,” he added, “and he made it very easy for us.” All the doctors had to do, really, was clean up the amputation.

Well, everyone is being modest here.

There are other lessons. Stay focused on the present. On this, Eller’s yoga practice must have helped. She later called her trial a “spiritual journey” to stay alive.

A few other practical pointers: Don’t go out alone without your cellphone. Both Eller and Kaser did that. Also, it helps to maintain physical strength. Eller was obviously in good shape through exercise, and Kaser through farm work.

As we’ve seen, Kaser’s feat of self-preservation was basically a one-man effort. Eller, on the other hand, survived not only through her own perseverance but also through that of her rescuers. Amazingly, they were volunteers.

The Maui fire rescue squad had stopped the search upon reaching its 72-hour limit on missing-person work — although it helped support the volunteers who took over. (One would be hard-pressed to blame anyone who stopped looking after more than a week.)

Even the experienced search-team members faced dangers in this very difficult terrain. They need machetes to cut through the dense forest. A wild boar attacked at least one of them. But the army of volunteers kept looking.

Recognizing that her happy ending was a group effort, Eller said, “This was all about us coming together for a greater purpose of community and love, and appreciation for life.”

Needless to say, she came from a very different cultural landscape than the Nebraska farmer. But both worlds made people strong in body and determination. Their stories must lead many of us must ask, Could we survive as they did?

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

America’s Declining Population Is No Reason To Worry

Total births in the United States fell last year to about 3.79 million, the smallest number in 32 years. The fertility rate hit a record low of 59 childbirths per 1,000 women. Americans are not having enough children to replace themselves.

This supposedly is bad news. Headlines are crying about a “Shortage of Americans” and “Demographic Decline.”

I don’t know. There seem to be plenty of Americans to go around. If population growth were the mark of national greatness, Oman, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola would be the stars.

Of course, a sharply falling population would be cause for concern, but that’s not the situation here. The United States has been below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman for decades. The total continues to grow because of immigration.

Fewer workers, we are told, can be problematic for an aging society. An expanding elderly population needs more taxpayers to support its health care and, in many cases, more caregivers to make meals. This is true, but these demographics were totally predictable. It’s odd to see handwringing over the need for more tax revenues shortly after our leadership pushed through deep tax cuts that will drain the Treasury of said revenues.

As for who will fill caregiving jobs, the answer may be those whose previous work was taken over by robots. And if caregiving pays too low to attract workers, the answer is to pay more.

Meanwhile, there are nuggets of very good news embedded in the U.S. population numbers.The birthrate among teens and unmarried women has plummeted. More women are having children when they’re older and, presumably, better able to support them. Also interesting, women with college degrees are having more children.

And thank you, Affordable Care Act, for making birth control, especially the long-acting kind, more available to women. That, not abortion, is behind the drop in unwanted pregnancies. Abortions are now at their lowest number and rate since around 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade.

Some causes of falling births were expected. The birthrate among Hispanic women — once high relative to the rest of the population — is now more in line with that of other groups.

Fewer Americans would be a welcome relief for those living in our highly congested urban corridors. One can argue that America’s big, open spaces provide room galore for a far bigger population, but somehow natives and the foreign-born alike choose to shoehorn into densely populated areas.

Sadly, the habit of associating a dipping headcount with decline still plagues city leaders unable to deal with the numbers they already have. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was so upset by the census report showing that his city’s population shrunk by 40,000 — a mere drop in a sea of 8.4 million souls — that he questioned its methodology. At rush hour, some of the subway trains get so overcrowded the doors won’t close because passengers can’t get their hands and legs inside. And we can light a candle for the drivers consigned to the flames of perpetual gridlock.

Some take falling birthrates as a sign of lost confidence in the future. But those fretting about the millennials’ lack of enthusiasm for reproducing might investigate deeper. They might start addressing the onerous burden of student debt. Babies are expensive.

They might look into today’s crazy work schedules and, for those without college degrees or specialized skills, low pay. There was a time when parents could come home at 5:30 in the afternoon.

What makes for a strong society is healthy people, prosperous people, and happy people — not more people. Americans can put low birthrates at the bottom of their worry list.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: A packed New York City subway car.