Matthew Lesko’s Life Lessons
VICE meets Matthew Lesko, the self-proclaimed federal grant researcher and infomercial personality who made it big in his “question mark” suit. He has written more than 20 books telling people how to get money from the US government.
This 16-Year-Old Made an App That Exposes Sellout Politicians
With US politics swimming in so much corporate money that it’s pretty much an oligarchy, it can be hard to keep track of which particular set of lobbyists is trying to milk more cash out of healthcare, fossil fuels and other very important issues from one week to the next.
But thanks to 16-year-old Nick Rubin, keeping track of just how much politicians have sold out has become a lot easier. He created Greenhouse, a new browser plugin which operates under the motto, “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” The plugin aims “to shine light on a social and industrial disease of today: the undue influence of money in our Congress.” It sounds like a bit of a lofty aim for an app, but it’s actually pretty simple and effective—it provides a break down of a politician’s campaign contributions when that politician’s name comes up in an article. It is currently available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari and is completely free. As you can imagine, reading about how your Member of Congress voted in a recent health bill becomes all the more enlightening if you know how much money the health industry showered him in at the last election.
I spoke to Nick Rubin about the plugin, politics and what he calls the “money stories” behind what you read in the news.
VICE: Hi Nick. So how did you come up with the idea for Greenhouse?
Nick Rubin: Back in seventh grade, I gave a presentation on corporate personhood and ever since then I’ve been really interested in that issue. I think the one problem is that the sources of income for members of congress haven’t been simple and easily accessible when people have needed it. More recently, I’ve been teaching myself how to code and I thought that something like Greenhouse that puts the data at people’s fingertips would be a perfect solution. It really is the intersection of these two passions of mine—coding and politics. I made it after school and on weekends on my computer.
Why the name?
Well, green is the color of money in the US, and house refers to the two houses of Congress [the Senate and House of Representatives]. The name also implies transparency; greenhouses are see through and they are built to help things thrive.
Where did you get the information on the politician’s donations?
It uses the data from the last full election cycle which was 2012. This is simply because it’s just the most complete set of data that we have. But, the browser does provide access to the most up to date 2014 information by just clicking the name of the politician on the top of the window or theOpenSecrets.org link in the popup. So the 2014 data is just one click away.
I’m intending to update the data as a whole later in the election cycle as the 2014 contributions are more complete. These are updates I’m currently working on, as well as thinking of other ways I can expand the tool.
I Helped Division I Athletes Cheat in College
People were outraged when basketball player Rashad McCants admitted on an episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that student athletes pay tutors to write their term papers. What the former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill basketball player revealed wasn’t a big surprise to me. But the sports world freaked out and commentators, columnists, and fans bickered over ethics, the lack of oversight in the NCAA, and the opportunistic nerds who get the athletes A's.
For years, I willingly did homework for a number of student athletes. To this day, I don’t consider any of it unethical. It all started back in 2007, when I was finishing up my degree in radical economics at the University of Utah, which is also a Division I school. To help cover food and booze, I worked a variety of odd jobs including tutoring undergrads.
Tutoring worked like this: I’d tell the campus tutoring center which classes I could tutor, and when a student came in and asked for help in one of those subjects, the center would pair us together. The students would pay $10 for a “slip” from the tutoring center. They’d give me that slip at the end of each session and I’d turn it back into the tutoring center and wait for my measly check. I made a whopping $6.25 per hour, which was just enough for a pint and a bagel. The school pocketed the leftover $3.75 an hour—I guess they had to make theirs too, on top of my massive tuition and the beaucoup bucks coming in from sporting events.
Seattle Just Started a Nationwide Push for a $15 Minimum Wage
Last Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed into law a $15 minimum wage, by far the highest in any major American city. A policy that was once a left-wing pipe dream is set to become reality in the Emerald City over the next few years, and a handful of cities across the country are scrambling to keep pace lest they be exposed as enemies of a galvanized working class. If the predictions of disastrous job loss as a result of the higher wage are off base, Seattle may have created a new benchmark for what it means to do right by the poor.
"It’s quite earth-shattering in some ways because if you look concretely at what it is, it’s a transfer of $3 billion from the richest to the bottom-most workers," Seattle’s Socialist city councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who won her seat by campaigning for the proposal and led her grassroots army in pushing it through, told me in an interview. "That represents the opposite of the status quo we’ve had for decades, when the wealth has been gushing to the top. From that mathematical angle, it’s historic even that it happened."
Reasons Why Paris Is the Worst Place Ever
I got a lot of hassle after telling my friends that I wanted to move out of my parents’ place in central Paris. None of them, even the most rational, could fathom why I wanted to rent a cheap, spacious apartment in the suburbs over an expensive, poky shit hole in the middle of the city.
Perhaps I just don’t look for the same things in life as them. I’m aware that regularly stepping in dog crap and having to avoid fawning honeymooners is chic and sophisticated and all that other stuff that people write about Paris on novelty dish towels. But there are things I’d rather do than worry about not being cosmopolitan enough, like making sure I can afford some kind of sustenance after handing my landlord Bermuda’s national debt in rent, every single month.
Yes, there are some redeeming factors about the city; there’s slightly more to do than in the suburbs and I love those Haussmannian buildings along the Rue de Rivoli. But they’re buildings—who gives a fuck? I have Street View on my phone.
Paris is the worst place ever. Here’s why:
When I was younger they were called “chachas.” Nowadays, they’re called “bobos” (which stands for bourgeois bohème). But the name-change really doesn’t matter; They’re still the same jerks who’ll actively bum out an entire house party by putting down a stranger’s wardrobe choices, despite the fact they all look like cognizant uncircumcised penises, their heads swaddled in layers of garish printed scarves.
If you’re a tourist, here’s the most effective way of identifying a bobo: They are that unique breed of dickhead who, when you ask for directions, will smirk at you like you’ve just confused APC for YMC—or some equally embarrassing oversight—before ignoring you completely.
I wanted to avoid making generalizations about the city’s fairer sex, but the problem is that pretty much all of them—that they’re arrogant, sulky, boring, and hot—are true. Seriously, it’s like Kristen Stewart, standing in a Hall of Mirrors, lecturing you about her beauty regime.
Enjoy consciously risking your life every time you cross a road? Disappointed at the lack of peril involved in three-minute car journeys? Move to Paris! Drivers here don’t sweat the small stuff (traffic laws, the lives of pedestrians) whenever there’s a brief chance to shift into second gear. The rest of the time, however, be prepared to waste your entire day sat in traffic.
Class of 2014, You’re Fucked
It’s that time of year again, when deans across the country wear out their palms like chronic masturbators, shaking the hands of glee-eyed diploma recipients. Collegians of America are aiming high; the class of 2014 has helped push total student debt in the United States to over a trillion dollars.
A person could make it more than a fourth of the way to the moon traversing the tower of cash that would arise if all those loan dollars were stacked up one on top of the other—all $1,181,622,000,000-plus of them. It would make a great dare for pledge week, but unfortunately most of this year’s graduates will likely be crushed beneath their debt rather than surmount it.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have just gone to work in a factory,” Cindy Klumb, who borrowed $30,000 to attain graduates degree in art and design at Pratt University in Brooklyn in 1992, reflected.
After consolidating and re-financing her loans over the years, Cindy owes $87,000 on the principal and $42,000 worth of accumulated interest. She is four years away from retirement and her social security will likely be going into the hands of Ed Financial, which took over her loan from the federal government. Cindy is one of 40 million Americans strapped with student debt, many of whom will never be able to pay off their loans.
“College is a bad investment that only pays off if you don’t have to go into debt to get your degree,” she said. “Borrowing to get an education guarantees you will never get anywhere or have even the most basic aspects of the so-called ‘American Dream.’”
FaceTime Girls Are the New Webcam Girls
The future of cybersex is in the palm of your hands.
Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right?
Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
Why Obama’s Regulators Let Wall Street Bankers Off Easy
If there’s anything more maddening than the sheer scale of the financial fraud that sent America and the rest the planet spiraling into the economic abyss in 2008, it’s the fact that no Wall Street bankers have gone to jail for causing the mess. As in zero, zilch, none at all.
So at his farewell party last month to celebrate a lengthy career at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—the US regulatory agency that supposedly keeps Wall Street in check—James Kidney, a trial attorney who had been hamstrung for years by indifferent bosses, broke his silence and went off on an awesome rant about how no one in the financial sector fears the body supposedly policing their behavior. The SEC, in essence, is a joke.
Describing it as “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors,” Kidney told an audience of fellow employees that they had dropped the ball because of a revolving door of corruption between the SEC and Wall Street megabanks. “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses, whose names we all know, who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket. They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the Commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances,” he said.
Will Unions Save College ‘Student Athletes’ from Poverty?
The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to its frantic conclusion on Monday night, with hundreds of millions of dollars in bets, ticket sales, and ad revenue changing hands across the country as young men hurled themselves at each other in desperation on national television. In the end, UConn point guard Shabaaz Napier was basking in the glow of victory, smiling for the cameras with his teammates, which made it easy to forget that he recently expounded on the seedy underbelly of college sports in America.
"I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving," he told reporters in late March when asked about the Northwestern University football team’s ongoing effort to unionize.
In case you haven’t noticed, big-time college athletics is a pretty sordid business that rests on the exploitation of the labor of young men and women, many of them from poor backgrounds, under the auspices of the dubious “student-athlete” construct. Supposedly these kids are on campus to learn first and play second, ridiculous one-paragraph essays notwithstanding. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, the universities, coaches, and NCAA brass rake in huge profits each year—college sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry—while the kids who don’t make the pros (or suffer heinous injuries before they have the opportunity) are largely left high and dry.
Fed up with the status quo, the Northwestern Wildcats—a mediocre but widely identifiable Division I football program—filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union and earn legal recognition as employees earlier this year, and, in what is being hailed as a potentially landmark ruling, they won. Now the students are set to vote on April 25 on unionization, and there is at least some chance they will embrace the opportunity, assuming the university overlords don’t scare them away from the idea. With employee status and union bargaining power could come protection for those with athletic scholarships from suddenly being cut off from receiving an education if they became injured or didn’t perform as expected—and maybe, further down the line, they could receive a real share of the cash generated by the massive advertising revenue their athletic endeavors make possible.