Sunday Reading – 05/13/18


The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

U.S. Posts Record Monthly Budget Surplus of $214 Billion – The U.S. posted its largest monthly budget surplus on record in April, which the Congressional Budget Office said reflected stronger economic activity over the past year.

Receipts in April totaled $510 billion, about 12 percent more than the same period last year, while outlays increased by 8.4 percent to $296 billion, the Treasury Department said Thursday in its monthly budget statement. The monthly surplus was $214 billion, the highest in records dating to 1968.

The federal government typically posts a budget surplus in April, when taxpayers face a mid-month deadline to file their returns. A stronger economic expansion and income growth probably added to federal revenue in April, the non-partisan CBO said in a report on May 7.

Government coffers swelled by a record $314 billion via individual tax payments in April. An extra day of collections in the month added about $19 billion to government receipts, Treasury said. Read More > in Bloomberg

Facebook’s ‘so white and male’ leadership highlights bigger diversity issue – The company told employees earlier this week about major changes in leadership, according to a report Tuesday by Recode. Among the biggest moves: Chris Cox, Facebook’s product guru and a close confidante of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will take control of the company’s entire lineup of apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. David Marcus, who used to run Messenger, will lead a new division focused on blockchain technology.

These are massive moves for a company that boasted relatively little change in its upper ranks. But between data breaches and accusations that Russian trolls exploited Facebook to meddle in the US presidential campaign, change is probably good, right? The only problem: An org chart published by Recode called attention to an upper management that’s very white and very male.

Facebook leadership, of course, includes COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile executives and Zuckerberg’s right hand. But in that org chart, only one out of the 15 executives is a woman. That’s Naomi Gleit, vice president of Social Good, which works with nonprofit organizations and developed the social network’s “donate” button. She also runs product management for the entire company.

…The org chart published by Recode illustrates that for all the lip service Silicon Valley pays diversity, it’s just that. Facebook’s latest diversity report in August 2017 tells us senior leadership is 72 percent male and 71 percent white. It’s far from the only company struggling to broaden its leadership ranks. The numbers of women and minorities in tech positions are low to begin with and tend to drop even further up the corporate ladder. Read More > at c|net

San Francisco’s many free syringes are littering its streets – San Francisco hands out millions of syringes a year to drug users but has little control over how they are discarded and that’s contributing to thousands of complaints.

The city distributes an estimated 400,000 syringes each month through various programs aimed at reducing HIV and other health risks for drug users. About 246,000 syringes are discarded through the city’s 13 syringe access and disposal sites. But thousands of the others end up on streets, in parks and other public areas, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

Syringes discarded in public places have become a nationwide problem amid growing heroin use. But in compact San Francisco (about 50 square miles, or 12,950 square hectares), where there is a growing homeless population, the problem is a lot more visible. Read More > at Yahoo!

The unintended consequences of climate litigation – Several municipalities are suing the major oil companies for causing climate change and for the large asserted costs of preventing and mitigating its purported damage in terms of flooding and other adverse impacts. Sadly, in politics as in life there are no free lunches, and while politicians may perceive litigation against the fossil energy producers as a freebie, the taxpayers in their jurisdictions may come to regret the officials’ grandstanding.

The central reason for this stems from the large gap between the damage assertions in the lawsuits and the related disclosures made in the respective municipalities’ bond offerings. As just one example, consider that disparity for the City of San Francisco:

The lawsuit states, “global warming-induced sea level rise is already causing flooding of low-lying areas of San Francisco, increased shoreline erosion, and saltwater impacts to San Francisco’s water treatment system. The rapidly rising sea level along the Pacific coast and in San Francisco Bay, moreover, poses an imminent threat of catastrophic storm surge flooding because any storm would be superimposed on a higher sea level.”

…The bond disclosure, however, states, “The City is unable to predict whether sea-level rise or other impacts of climate change or flooding from a major storm will occur, when they may occur, and if any such events occur, whether they will have a material adverse effect on the business operations or financial condition of the City and the local economy.”

…But the real problem is more concrete: If the cities win their lawsuits against Big Oil, the question that will arise is straightforward: Why were the climate risks not disclosed more fully?

Even if they do not win in the litigation, the question of the discrepancy between the causes of action and the disclosures remains. Is it really so obvious that bondholders will not play the very same litigation game? And suppose that the courts in the end decide that the disclosures were inadequate: That might open a floodgate of potential litigation damages that the local taxpayers would not find appealing. Read More > in The Hill

Addicted to Edicts: The Latest Solar Insanity – California officials have been obsessed this year about the ongoing housing crisis, as home prices soar out of reach of most of the state’s residents and as rent prices consume an ever-greater portion of people’s incomes. Absurdly high housing costs — driven by local growth controls and burdensome state regulatory requirements — are the main reason that California has the nation’s highest cost-of-living-adjusted poverty rate, at around 20 percent.

In a normal place, lawmakers would respond by pre-empting local growth restrictions, reforming a state law (the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA) that makes it too easy for no-growth types to mire housing projects in years of litigation, and paring back some of the regulations that add as much as 40 percent of the cost of every new housing unit built. They might even think about reducing the tax and bond burdens that drive up housing payments.

But this is California, so perish such thoughts. Instead, the Legislature recently killed a high-profile bill that would have granted developers “by right” approval to build higher-density housing around transit stations, which would have boosted housing supply in urban areas. And — grabbing headlines this week — the non-elected California Energy Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to force virtually all new housing to include solar panels beginning in 2020.

The latter will add between $9,500 and $30,000 to the cost of every housing unit, depending on whose estimates you believe. When one is trying to reduce the cost of something, imposing a mandate that increases its cost is counterproductive. The commission argues that it will add only around $40 a month in payments but will save $80 a month in utilities (based on a $9,500 installation cost). My calculations suggest it will add $50 to $150 a month for a 30-year loan, and $75 to $225 with a 15-year note. Lenders don’t factor utility costs, but they do factor mortgage amounts. This will cut more people out of the housing market, despite the fancy government math. Read More > in The American Spectator

The romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak has spread to more than half the continental US – If you’re living in the US, it’s a good time to get on the kale train.

A month ago, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported it was investigating 17 cases of E. coli food poisoning in seven states linked partly to romaine lettuce from a farm near Yuma, Arizona. Since then, there have been an additional 132 cases and one death that have been reported in 22 more states, making this worst E. coli outbreak since 2006, when 205 people became sick and five died from contaminated baby spinach.

Of the 29 states with confirmed romaine-related cases, California has the most, with 30 reported ill, followed by Pennsylvania with 20. The outbreak has even reached a Alaska, where according to the Washington Post, a prison inmate fell ill. At this time, the CDC recommends that consumers should take steps to ensure that their romaine lettuce is not from Yuma, though the watchdog group Consumer Reports recommends avoiding this particular green entirely. Read More > at Quartz

Unions Could Lose 726,000 Members if Mark Janus Wins His Supreme Court Case – If public sector workers were given the choice to stop paying union dues, many would do so, according to a new report from a union-backed think tank.

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimates that 726,000 workers would choose to stop paying dues if they had that choice, which public sector workers in many states currently do not. That could change after the U.S. Supreme Court announces a ruling—likely to come next month—in the much watched Janus v. AFSCME case. The plaintiff in that case, Mark Janus, has asked the court to release him from paying mandatory “fair share fees” to a union that represents him even though he has not joined it.

With the current composition of the high court, unions are bracing for a decision that would potentially cut off lucrative revenue streams. A ruling in Janus’ favor could require unions to do what all other non-government entities already have to do: convince people to voluntarily support their activities.

The loss of union members and their dues could be particularly challenging in blue states, according to the IEPI report. Public sector union membership would decrease by an estimated 189,000 members in California, 136,000 members in New York, and 49,000 members in Illinois. Read More > at Reason

Rebuilding Over And Over: Why California Can’t Stop Developing In High-Risk Areas – California had its worst year on record for wildfires in 2017, with fires that burned in fire-prone Southern California and those that hit areas of Northern California often thought safe from such danger.

Now cities in heavy-hit areas are in the process of getting life back in order for residents and learning from the experience. In California, where many of the state’s communities face risk of wildfires, flooding from sea level rise or earthquakes, rebuilding is never in question. Homes will be rebuilt because the demand for housing is just too great and the supply too small.

…In Northern California, rebuilding will be critical to keeping residents in an already supply-constrained housing environment. The Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis continues to shape urban planning, but trying to build in a risk-free zone is nearly impossible, according to Bay Area Council Senior Vice President of Public Policy Matt Regan.

Different government agency plans that take into account risks such as wildfire, air quality, sea level and seismic risks leave little to no areas to build without some kind of risk, he said.

“We can’t decrease risks in every instance,” Regan said. “We need to continue to build and do it wisely and smartly and minimize risks whenever possible.”

With the Bay Area at basically no residential vacancies, rebuilding in Santa Rosa will need to be expedited as much as possible, Regan said. Read More > at Bisnow

How California’s candidates for governor want to fix the state’s housing problems – California’s gubernatorial hopefuls have a similar answer to the state’s housing crisis: Build a lot more homes.

Five of the six major candidates argue that the only way for California to become a more affordable place to live is for developers to build at rates not seen in at least three decades. And the sixth wants the state to subsidize an unprecedented number of new homes for low-income residents.

While all the candidates agree on increasing California’s housing supply, they have varying ideas for how to do it. Here’s a rundown of their plans to address housing and homelessness as well as some of the challenges they might face.

Travis Allen, Republican, state assemblyman

What’s his housing plan? Allen has a goal for developers to build at least 1 million new homes in his first four years as governor…

John Chiang, Democrat, California state treasurer

What’s his housing plan? Of all the candidates, Chiang is calling for the most government spending on housing. He has a goal of the state helping to finance 1.6 million homes for low- and moderate-income Californians from 2019 to 2030…

John Cox, Republican, businessman

What’s his housing plan? Cox, who owns a real estate investment and property management company, has a goal for developers to build 3 million new homes over the next decade…

Delaine Eastin, Democrat, former state superintendent of public instruction

What’s her housing plan? Like Allen, Eastin has a goal of developers building 1 million new homes in her first four years in office. Unlike Allen, she plans to prioritize construction around transit hubs…

Gavin Newsom, Democrat, California lieutenant governor

What’s his housing plan? Newsom wants developers to build 3.5 million homes from when he takes office through 2025, which would be an unprecedented building boom compared with modern California history…

Antonio Villaraigosa, Democrat, former Los Angeles mayor

What’s his housing plan? Like Newsom, Villaraigosa calls for building 3.5 million new homes through 2025…

Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Thanks to Natural Gas – There are plenty of statistics out there to measure the scope of U.S. natural gas production. The United States is the No. 1 natural gas producer in the world, producing 78.9 billion cubic feet per day in 2017. Exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) nearly quadrupled in 2017, making the U.S. a net natural gas exporter for the first time in nearly 60 years and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the nation.

The numbers are impressive, but the economic and climate benefits they make possible are even more remarkable.

U.S. carbon emissions are at 25-year lows while global CO2 emissions have risen more than 50 percent since 1990. Reliable and affordable, natural gas has become the leading fuel for U.S. electricity generation, sending carbon emissions in that sector – and beyond — plummeting.

Energy is cleaner, cheaper and lowers Americans’ energy costs. Today only 6.6 percent of a household’s monthly spending is on energy.

America’s manufacturing jobs continue to rise, primarily due to affordable U.S. energy. The household savings mentioned above also apply on an industrial scale. Manufacturers – including producers of steel, chemicals, refined fuels, plastics, fertilizers and numerous other products — are saving on power and materials costs, translating into a competitive advantage for U.S. businesses.

Natural gas enables wind and solar energy with its ability to ramp up and down quickly. Natural gas is an essential partner that enables integration of intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar – providing reliable power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Read More > at Energy Tomorrow

Think Solar Is Upending California’s Power Grid Now? Just Wait – California just mandated that nearly all new homes have solar, starting in less than two years. Now, it’s going to have to figure out what to do with all of that extra energy.

Already, the state is flooded with so much solar power during the day that it has to turn off some of its sun-fueled plants at times and often needs to ship excess green energy to neighboring states. The phenomenon has produced what state grid operators have been calling the duck curve — that’s when net power demand craters during daylight hours and then ramps up after sunset and natural-gas generators fire up to meet customer demand.

It’s an unintended consequence of the Golden State’s effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions and get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and has vexed the state’s grid operators. California’s top utility regulator warned last week of a looming energy crisis if the region doesn’t start planning for a future with more people either generating their own power or getting it from suppliers besides the big utilities. Read More > at Bloomberg

California grid operator sees tight power supplies for summer – California’s electric grid operator has forecast power supplies will be tight this summer due to below average hydropower production and reduced generation, according to an assessment released on Wednesday.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), the grid operator, said the system’s capacity to serve consumers will be tight in high-load periods in the summer months, especially during the evenings of hot days when solar power dissipates.

But it forecast only “an extremely low probability it will be forced to initiate rotating power outages” this summer.

The ISO, which forecast peak demand during the summer would be about the same as last year, said hydropower production is expected to be down 1,300 megawatts (MW) by late summer compared with 2017’s above-normal hydropower output. Read More > from Reuters

The Army Will Help Uber Get Flying Taxis Off the Ground – The Army is joining forces with Uber to build out technology that could help get the next generation of military helicopters and a proposed fleet of flying taxis off the ground.

The rideshare company and Army Research Lab announced Tuesday they would collaborate on research exploring rotor technology that would make aircraft quieter and more efficient. The partnership would support both the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program and Uber Elevate, the company’s proposed “urban air transportation” network.

The two groups agreed to each invest $500,000 in the initial effort. The deal also leaves the door open for future research partnerships. Read More > at Route Fifty

Heady With Optimism, Manufacturers Plan To Spend Money To Expand – U.S. businesses, especially manufacturers, who are experiencing a surge of optimism, are poised to continue increasing their capital spending throughout the rest of this year.

Manufacturers expect their capital spending to spike an average 10.1% this year, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s latest semi-annual forecast, which is based on a survey of purchasing and supply executives.

That is a lot higher than the last time the ISM did a survey, which was at the end of 2017. At that time, purchasing and supply executives expected a bump in capital expenditures of only 2.7%.

The survey showed other kinds of optimism among manufacturers. Sixty-two percent of respondents predict their revenues, on average, will be 11.6% greater in 2018 compared to 2017, while only 5% expect a decline (averaging 11.9%) and 33% of the respondents foresee no change in revenue. Read More > at Bisnow

US job openings equal jobless for first time in two decades – If you’re looking for a job right now, this may be about as good as it gets: There are roughly as many open jobs in the United States as there are unemployed people.

In March, employers advertised 6.55 million open jobs, the most on records dating to December 2000, the Labor Department said Tuesday . At the same time, there were 6.59 million unemployed people.

That’s a historical anomaly. Typically, there are far more unemployed people than advertised job openings – often twice as many. And back in July 2009, just after the Great Recession, there were 6.7 unemployed people, on average, for each open job. With that ratio now at essentially 1 to 1, the job market appears to be tilting in favor of workers and job-seekers rather than employers.

Still, the sharp jump in openings – they rose nearly 8 percent in March – does raise questions. If employers are so desperate, for instance, why aren’t they raising pay sharply enough to attract and keep employees? Though pay has risen modestly in recent months, the gains remain below historical averages.

Some economists say they still think the spike in open jobs means that employers will have to raise pay faster in coming months. Read More > in The Vindicator

LAO Says California Has Raked in $34 Million in Marijuana Taxes So Far – Figures released Tuesday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office show California raked in about $34 million in cannabis tax revenue between January and March. That number is far below the $175 million officials had hoped to make by the end of next month.

The governor’s office will release its own figures later this week. But officials now have serious doubts they can meet the $175 million target for the first six months of the year.

Some lawmakers are now warning that the dismal numbers could jeopardize a legislative effort to lower the state’s marijuana taxes. That could compound problems by allowing the illicit market to continue flourishing, taking much needed revenue with it. Read More > at California County News

No easy fix for Alzheimer’s disease – Hopes of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease being on the horizon took a blow when drug giant Pfizer announced in January that, after two decades and millions of dollars spent, it was pulling the plug on Alzheimer’s research.

Pfizer’s research had focused on trying to clear away brain deposits of a protein called amyloid beta. Some researchers think those deposits might have been the wrong target. Others think trials failed because treatments started too late, and because people who were selected for treatment might not all have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

…Is there any clear evidence of something that can forestall Alzheimer’s disease?

A modest bit of good news is that the same factors that protect against heart disease – healthy food, keeping your weight down, exercise, lowering high blood pressure, avoiding diabetes and not smoking – protect against blood-vessel disease in the brain, which it is thought contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. This is supported by statistics from Europe that indicate dementia rates are falling with heart disease and stroke incidence.

One of the strongest protective factors, though, is education. A 2014 study published in Lancet Neurology found the more education a person received early in life, the later they developed dementia, or not at all. That fits with the ‘cognitive reserve’ theory – the more educated you are, the denser your neural networks, so you have more brain capacity to start with. Read More > at Cosmos

The open secret about California taxes – California’s tax system, which relies heavily on the wealthy for state income, is prone to boom-and-bust cycles. While it delivers big returns from the rich whenever Wall Street goes on a bull run, it forces state and local governments to cut services, raise taxes or borrow money in a downturn. During the Great Recession, the capital-gains taxes that sustained the state in good times plummeted. School districts handed out 30,000 pink slips to teachers, and the state was so cash-strapped it gave out IOUs when it couldn’t pay some of its bills.

California is now enjoying one of the longest economic expansions in state history, but the good times can’t last forever. With an “inevitable recession lurking in our future,” Gov. Jerry Brown has warned, state and local governments are more vulnerable than ever to teacher and police layoffs, park and library closures and cuts in health and welfare services for the poor.

Past bipartisan efforts to reduce volatility without raising taxes on the poor and working class have had limited success. The overall tax structure hasn’t been updated, leaving parts of the economy taxed at some of the nation’s highest rates while other sectors, such as services—which many other states do tax—aren’t taxed in California. Politicians like to talk about the problem, explaining how Proposition 13, the famous 1978 measure that limited property taxes, has created unequal tax burdens. Yet few have been willing to initiate change.

…Individual wages and business income as a measure of the overall economy aren’t terribly volatile. But California’s income taxes are over five times more volatile than personal income because they also include investment gains, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The state taxes capital gains, partnership income and dividends, interest and rent—areas where the highest-income taxpayers derive most of their money.

The result? Millionaires and billionaires contribute a disproportionate share of tax revenue—so much so that the top 1 percent of taxpayers now generate half of personal income tax receipts.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, half of the state’s personal income tax revenue comes from those making $500,000 or more. Conversely, households making $50,000 or less make up nearly 60 percent of tax filings but make up just 2 percent of revenue. Read More > at CALmatters

Coldest April in 20 years across the United States, feds say – Temperatures in the contiguous United States were 2.2 degrees below 20th Century averages last month, making it the coldest April in 20 years, according to the government analysis released Tuesday.

Overall it was the ninth-chilliest April on record in Pennsylvania in records dating to 1895, said the National Center for Environmental Information.

In Philadelphia, 21 of the 30 days were cooler than normal, and coincidentally the official temperature at Philadelphia International Airport also finished 2.2 degrees below the 30-year average in a month that featured a significant snowfall.

Nationally, it was the 13 coldest April, with Iowa and Wisconsin registering their frostiest on record. Read More > in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Big Three Items are Eating State Revenues – California’s General Fund tax revenues have grown nearly 50 percent since a tax increase in 2012. But funding for most services has grown at a fraction of that pace. Eg, funding for courts has grown only 12 percent. That’s because tax revenues are increasingly being diverted to (i) pensions, (ii) subsidies for retired employees (“OPEB”), and (iii) enterprises reimbursed by Medi-Cal, the state’s single payer health insurer for 13.5 million residents.

Absent reform, the “Big Three” will consume ever-larger shares of the budget, which will lead to ever-more-frequent calls for tax increases. The pressure has already started. AB 2731 has been introduced in the State Assembly to impose a 17 percent tax on the “carried interest” earned by California investment managers. Pressure will increase even more during the next bear market, which will likely produce ~$60 billion in state deficits. Tax increases are always marketed as beneficial to public services but in California the real reason for now is to cover-up spending on the Big Three.

This is not about big vs. small government but about tax dollars not improving public services. California’s revenues this year are >$40 billion greater than in 2012 yet schools are laying off teachers, emergency room visits are up, and UC, CSU, courts, parks and social services are still under-funded. That’s because the money is being devoured by the Big Three. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

A Criminal Gang Used a Drone Swarm To Obstruct an FBI Hostage Raid – Last winter, on the outskirts of a large U.S. city, an FBI hostage rescue team set up an elevated observation post to assess an unfolding situation. Soon they heard the buzz of small drones — and then the tiny aircraft were all around them, swooping past in a series of “high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them,” the head of the agency’s operational technology law unit told attendees of the AUVSI Xponential conference here. Result: “We were then blind,” said Joe Mazel, meaning the group lost situational awareness of the target. “It definitely presented some challenges.”

The incident remains “law enforcement-sensitive,” Mazel said Wednesday, declining to say just where or when it took place. But it shows how criminal groups are using small drones for increasingly elaborate crimes.

Mazel said the suspects had backpacked the drones to the area in anticipation of the FBI’s arrival. Not only did they buzz the hostage rescue team, they also kept a continuous eye on the agents, feeding video to the group’s other members via YouTube. “They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” he said.

Mazel said counter surveillance of law enforcement agents is the fastest-growing way that organized criminals are using drones. Read More > at Defense One

Mayoral candidates face hurdle of housing homeless who resist moving inside – …“Doesn’t matter to me what the next guy who gets elected mayor does. I’m an American, and I’ve got a right to be here,” he said. “If I could get a private landlord and rent of, say, $400, I might move inside. But until then? I don’t care who’s mayor.”

And that, in a nutshell, represents the Himalayan challenge facing the four major mayoral candidates on the June ballot as they try to outsell one another with their plans to clear the streets of tents and the penniless people on them.

How do you house people who are staunchly reluctant to move inside?

Unless they can come up with some way to put the more than 2,000 chronically homeless people like McKinney — longtime street people with a range of dysfunctions, from addiction to mental illness — under roofs they actually want over them, San Francisco’s crippling street problem will persist. And that doesn’t count the other 5,000-plus revolving door of homeless people found on the streets on any given night.

…All of them roll out plans at campaign stops and on their websites, and the ideas boil down to two central, common goals: Clear tents off the streets, and create enough housing and health services to pull inside all of the chronic street dwellers, as well as much of the rest of the homeless population.

That’s pretty much what every mayor since Dianne Feinstein in the 1980s has wanted to do. Although several made progress — notably Gavin Newsom, with his Care Not Cash and Homeward Bound programs, and Ed Lee, who created the city’s first unified homelessness department — nothing has worked. The problem, much to the public’s dismay, appears to be worse than ever. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Social Security Beneficiaries Top 62,000,000 for First Time – In the first quarter of 2018, the number of Social Security beneficiaries topped 62,000,000 for the first time, according to data released by the Social Security Administration.

In fact, people receiving Social Security benefits in the United States now outnumber the population of Italy.

Social Security ended the fourth quarter of 2017 with 61,903,360 beneficiaries. By the end of the first quarter of this year, that had risen to 62,233,678—an increase of 330,318 in three months. Read More > at CNS News

April Sets Gun Sales Record – April 2018 saw the most gun-related checks run through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s background check system.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran 2,233,213 checks in April, according to an FBI document. That’s nearly 90,000 more checks than the previous April record set in 2016. It also represents the second month in a row to set a record with March seeing 2,767,699 checks.

The drop off in background checks between March and April matches the industry’s typical sales cycle where more guns are sold in winter months than in summer months. December tends to be the best month for gun sales in any given year. December 2015 holds the record for most checks in a month with 3,314,594. Read More > at The Washington Free Beacon

In Baghdad, Iraqis embrace return to normalcy, with eye on its fragility – …Despite the episodes of violence, Iraqis are almost giddy with the unaccustomed degree of normalcy that has been emerging in their lives since ISIS was forced out of its last major stronghold in Mosul, in early 2017. The threat of suicide bombs, killings, kidnappings, and insecurity has palpably receded, and casualty figures have dropped sharply.

Glitzy malls are opening with high-end shops that inspire confidence; incubators for business start-ups signify new opportunities for young Iraqi entrepreneurs; families are flocking to an ever-increasing number of amusement parks; even the world soccer federation has resumed international games in Iraq – just not yet in Baghdad’s new stadium.

Heralding the change, and suggesting that Iraq is finally emerging from a long litany of war, sanctions, US occupation, insurgency, and ethnic cleansing that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, is the physical transformation on the ground.

Not only have 800 roads – more than 80 percent of the capital’s closed avenues – reopened in Baghdad, but Iraqi forces have also removed 281 traffic-choking checkpoints. Also gone are 73,000 segments of 15-foot-high concrete blast walls, more than half of the total in the city, which turned Baghdad into an urban maze and shielded and separated Iraqis from one another. Read More > in The Christian Science Monitor

Mexico Deploys A Formidable Deportation Force Near Its Own Southern Border – On the Suchiate River dividing Mexico and Guatemala, it sure looks easy to cross north without papers.

A young, mustachioed man is pulling a makeshift raft across the quiet river via two ropes connecting the countries. The crossing costs 4 quetzales, 10 pesos or 50 U.S. cents. The raft captain says that nearby migration officials rarely intervene.

But the impression that Mexico is lax on migrants disappears as you head just a little north.

“They put up lots of checkpoints,” says Gustavo Rivera, a bus driver shuttling between Mexico’s southeastern border and the nearest city, Tapachula. “Immigration [agents], federal police, soldiers, local police. I don’t get many migrants on the bus anymore because of the checkpoints.”

…Rather than amassing troops on its border with Guatemala, Mexico stations migration agents, local and federal police, soldiers and marines to create a kind of containment zone in Chiapas state. With roving checkpoints and raids, Mexican migration agents have formed a formidable deportation force. Since the Southern Border Plan launched, Mexico has deported more than half a million Central Americans, including almost 82,000 last year, according to data from Mexico’s Interior Department. Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans annually than U.S. authorities have, in some years more than twice as many. Read More > at NPR

More U.S. Workers Test Positive for Certain Illicit Drugs – Fewer U.S. workers tested positive for prescription painkillers last year, but cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana use surged, according to new data from Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest drug-testing laboratories in the U.S.

The share of American workers and job applicants testing positive for illicit drugs in 2017 was 4.2%, holding steady on the prior year, the data show. Quest analyzed more than 10 million urine tests conducted on behalf of employers.

“It’s striking as we look at all this data and see continuing increases in the use of illicit drugs. That’s a concern for everyone,” said Barry Sample, Quest’s senior director for science and technology.

The federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 ushered in an era of job-related drug-testing, prompting a rapid decrease in positive tests. Since the mid-2000s, the positivity rate has hovered close to 4%, although it hit a 30-year-low of 3.5% in 2012, Quest said.

Positive tests for opiates, such as morphine and oxycodone, dropped sharply by 17% in 2017 from the year before, likely reflecting continuing crackdowns on illegal or excessive opioid prescriptions, Mr. Sample said. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

California sees slowing population growth – It’s time for some fun with numbers, dissecting a new state report on population trends.

The big number is 39.8 million. That’s the state Department of Finance’s latest calculation of California’s population as of Jan. 1.

It’s doubtless a little low, since California has a very large number of residents who fly below the official radar – the homeless and many undocumented immigrants, particularly. So let’s call it 40 million.

During the 1980s, thanks to high immigration and birth rates, California was expanding by 2-plus percent a year, adding 6 million residents in just 10 years. However, immigration, legal and illegal, is now a fraction of what it once was (we lose more people to other states than we gain) and births are declining while deaths are rising.

In 2017, the state report says, California added just 309,000 people. Numerically, that’s about half of the 1980s surge and our annual growth rate (.78 percent) is scarcely a third of what it was then.

The state housing agency estimates that California needs to build 180,000 units a year to meet current demand and deal with a very large backlog. California once was building that many units, but has never fully recovered from the Great Recession’s housing meltdown.

Finally, the population numbers are a new indication that for the first time ever, California’s congressional delegation may shrink after the 2020 census. Read More > at CALmatters

Cannabis Delivery Bill Clears Legislative Hurdle. Local Government Advocates Call It an Intrusion. – California voters legalized recreational marijuana a year and a half ago and, for the past several months, commercial enterprises have been allowed to flourish up and down the state. But today 75% of California residents still lack access to legal cannabis in their communities, according to some estimates. Just 1 in 7 cities have approved recreational marijuana — a power expressly granted to them under the language of Proposition 64.

Now, a bill proposed by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) could change that by allowing legal cannabis delivery services into so-called “cannabis deserts” where retail and/or medical sales have been banned. The legislation “would prohibit a local government from adopting or enforcing any ordinance that would prohibit a licensee from delivering cannabis within or outside of the jurisdictional boundaries of the local jurisdiction,” according to the text.

Cannabis advocates are hailing the bill as a much needed fix for California’s “patchwork” of marijuana laws, while local governments say it flagrantly usurps a right enshrined in California’s adult use marijuana legislation. Read More > at California County News

The Powerful Headwinds Confronting Religious Freedom -…Cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop suggest that religious freedom for traditional believers—mostly, but not exclusively, conservative Christians—is becoming more and more problematic. Cultural and political trends make the position of traditional believers increasingly precarious, and these trends inevitably manifest themselves in our law.

Culturally, American religion is becoming increasingly polarized. A significant and rapidly increasing percentage of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, a development sociologists refer to as the “Rise of the Nones.” Nones are especially prevalent among young Millennials, about 36% of whom say they have no religious identity. But religion is not simply disappearing. Around 40% of Americans continue to maintain a strong religious identity, measured in terms of things like church attendance and frequency of prayer, a percentage that has remained remarkably consistent for decades. Nones come, not from the ranks of the traditionalists, but from what used to be the moderate center of American religious life. As in many aspects of American society, when it comes to religion, the middle is dropping out.

The increasing religious polarization suggests that, unlike in the past, traditional believers cannot count on a widespread, if thin, cultural sympathy for their commitments. A large and growing percentage of Americans has no experience of traditional religion—and, to the extent it has had such experience, rejects it. Disagreements and misunderstandings are likely to be amplified by the fact that Nones overwhelmingly reject traditional teachings about sexuality, which they see as psychologically damaging and essentially unjust, an affront to the dignity of persons. It’s not coincidental that so many of our current disputes about religious liberty, like Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby, involve sexuality in some way.

Another cultural trend that should worry traditional believers is Americans’ expanding concept of equality. For many Americans, equality no longer means simply equality before the law. Rather, it means a rejection generally of distinctions among groups and individuals, including religious distinctions—a rejection of “difference per se.” Beliefs and practices that exclude outsiders from a religious community are presumptively suspect, because of the implicit judgments they suggest: some groups, apparently, think their beliefs and ways of life superior to others’. Such judgments seem impolite, ungenerous, and inconsistent with the spirit of true equality, which requires that each religion acknowledge the basic correctness of all the others. Read More > at Law and Liberty

How low can unemployment go? Economists keep getting the answer wrong. – Another monthly jobs report, another growing chorus worried that we might be employing too many people and we should hold back the economy lest it overheats. It was announced Friday that 164,000 new jobs were added in April, and the unemployment rate reached 3.9 percent.

It has been 18 years since unemployment was under 4 percent. As unemployment continues to fall, people wonder, how low could it go?

And what if it gets below the dreaded “natural rate of unemployment” that economists like to talk about?

The idea that there is a rate of unemployment, somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 percent, that’s essential in order for the economy to function smoothly — without rapidly overheating — has been broadly accepted by economists and economic commentators since the 1960s.

Yet there have always been dissenters, and more and more people are looking at this argument with a critical eye. One turning point may be a recent paper by Olivier Blanchard, the respected former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He argues that there’s enough evidence the economy can function well with much lower unemployment without inflation spiraling that the Federal Reserve should “keep an open mind” about whether the natural rate even exists. Read More > at Vox

California is overflowing with lieutenant governor hopefuls — so many candidates, so few duties – Absent an untimely death or unprecedented crisis, the most modest of California’s political prizes is lieutenant governor, a job whose official description runs just 14 words in the state Constitution.

And yet, it’s sparked a fierce contest this year among 11 candidates — the largest crop of hopefuls in at least 50 years. Four Democrats, four Republicans, one Libertarian and two unaffiliated candidates all want the $146,854-a-year job with largely part-time work duties.

The job still pales in comparison to other statewide offices. The attorney general is the top lawyer and a law enforcement official. California’s controller and treasurer make major decisions on state payments and investments. Elections are overseen by the secretary of state. The insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction have specific public policy roles.

The lieutenant governor doesn’t run on a ticket with the governor, and those who have served in the two jobs haven’t always gotten along. Former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, a Republican, took it upon himself to appoint an appeals court judge when Gov. Jerry Brown was out of the state during his second term in 1979. (California still designates an “acting governor” when the chief executive is away.) Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

In Cities, Wildlife Evolves Astonishingly Fast – Most naturalists turn up their noses at cities, regarding them as anti-nature—sterile wastelands of concrete and steel. But evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen, author of Darwin Comes to Town, takes the opposite view: Urban environments are in fact “powerhouses of evolution,” where animals as diverse as blackbirds and bobcats are adapting to their new surroundings, with startling results.

Speaking from his home in Leiden, Netherlands, Schilthuizen explains why mosquitoes on the Piccadilly Line in London’s Underground are genetically different from those on the Bakerloo Line; why cities accelerate evolution in ways Darwin could not have imagined; and why sex in the city is helping urban blackbirds evolve into a new species.

…I got interested in ecology and evolution in cities because cities are, in many ways, extreme environments. Cities have urban heat islands; they are polluted and noisy; they have artificial light; and there’s concrete everywhere. Because the environment is so different, some subspecies disappear, but others adapt to the new conditions.

The evolution of species also occurs faster because new mutations, which give a species the ability to survive in that extreme environment, will spread very rapidly. This is what we call HIREC, or human-induced rapid evolutionary change. We see that in cities and also in other environments where humans create a new habitat or ecological situation. In those places you see very, very fast evolutionary adaptations, which can take place in the space of decades or even years.

I think Darwin underestimated the speed it can happen, particularly with species that have numerous generations in a short space of time. Generation time is the evolutionary clock speed, so if you have multiple generations per year you can accumulate evolutionary changes much more quickly than humans can, for example, which have one generation every 20 years. Read More > in National Geographic

Sure Looks Like Facebook’s Lead Attorney Colin Stretch Lied to Congress While Under Oath – Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch may have not been completely truthful while under oath when taking questions in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 31, 2017.

Stretch was being grilled by Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) about the extent of Facebook’s ability to profile users on the social media website. Stretch told Kennedy that Facebook had done away with the ability of employees to compile or access profiles on individual users…

Stretch’s assuredness puzzled many observers at the time. Others called Stretch out for those allegedly misleading comments. Even Vanity Fair wrote approvingly of Kennedy’s intensive questioning of Stretch. Now, it appears Stretch’s critics were correct in their estimation of his allegedly evasive comments.

A little-noticed late Thursday report in the Wall Street Journal notes:

A small group of Facebook Inc. employees have permission to access users’ profiles without the users finding out.

Yet any time a Facebook employee accesses a colleague’s personal profile, the colleague is notified through what is often referred to within the company as a Sauron alert—a reference to the all-seeing eye in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, people familiar with the matter say.

Similar protections don’t exist for the two billion-plus Facebook users who don’t work for the company, the people said.

Read More > at Law & Crime

Carbon Dioxide: U.S. Emissions Down, European Emissions Up – Negotiators from 197 countries will be meeting for the next couple of weeks in Germany, where they’re preparing for a larger United Nations climate change conference in Poland this fall. So how are all those countries doing when it comes to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?

As the International Energy Agency recently reported,

Global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 1.4% in 2017, reaching a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes (Gt), a resumption of growth after three years of global emissions remaining flat. The increase in CO2 emissions, however, was not universal. While most major economies saw a rise, some others experienced declines, including the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan. The biggest decline came from the United States, mainly because of higher deployment of renewables.

The U.S.’s performance contrasts with that of the European Union, whose carbon dioxide emissions increased by 1.8 percent last year. This, even though many E.U. countries participate in a carbon market and are engaged in vast efforts aimed at replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power. Read More > at Reason

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About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Data Center Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit and Transplan
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One Response to Sunday Reading – 05/13/18

  1. Hal Bray says:

    Another banner week, Kevin. Thanks.

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