Sunday Reading – 05/08/2022

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.

How will California handle a huge budget surplus? – What to do with the extra cash is now a point of contention among the Capitol’s dominant Democrats.

Should they satisfy the demands of progressive activists who want to transform California into a European-style welfare state?

Should they be conservative by increasing reserves, reducing debt and/or making one-time commitments, such as public works projects, to minimize permanent commitments?

Or should they give at least some of the money back to taxpayers, albeit not necessarily the rich ones who provided the bounty.

Those questions loom anew as the Capitol begins a six-week dash to June 15, when a new budget must be completed.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom finalizes his May 15 budget revision, it’s obvious that it will project a surplus bigger than the $29 billion he initially cited in January.

How much bigger? Last week, Democratic legislators estimated that the general fund surplus could hit a staggering $68 billion — and that doesn’t count the extra money, perhaps as much as $37 billion, that, by law, must be spent on public education.

Newsom and legislative leaders agree that at least some of the extra cash should be in the form of no-strings grants to California families, but there’s no agreement on how much or who would — and would not — qualify for the election year payouts. Read More > at CalMatters

California prepares for energy shortfalls in hot, dry summer – California likely will have an energy shortfall equivalent to what it takes to power about 1.3 million homes when use is at its peak during the hot and dry summer months, state officials said Friday.

Threats from drought, extreme heat and wildfires, plus supply chain and regulatory issues hampering the solar industry will create challenges for energy reliability this summer and in the coming years, the officials said. They represented the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission, and the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s energy grid.

State models assume the state will have 1,700 fewer megawatts of power than it needs during the times of highest demand — typically early evening as the sun sets — in the hottest months when air conditioners are in full use.

One megawatt powers about 750 to 1,000 homes in California, according to the energy commission. Under the most extreme circumstances, the shortfall could be far worse: 5,000 megawatts, or enough to power 3.75 million homes.

The state — and residents — have multiple tools to avoid blackouts. Power can be purchased from other states and residents can lower their use during peak demand, but power shortages still are possible during extreme situations, officials said. Reynolds urged people to consider lowering their energy use by doing things like cooling their homes early in the day then turning off their air conditioners when the sun goes down. Read More > in the Associated Press

California lost population for the second year in a row after a century of growth. What’s happening? – California’s population shrank slightly for the second year in a row last year, with the state losing 117,552 residents — and several Bay Area counties were crucial in helping to drive the decrease.

Napa, San Mateo, Marin and San Francisco counties were all among the top 10 counties with the largest percentage decreases in their populations, according to a new report from the state. Each of those counties lost nearly 1% of their population, though 34 of the state’s 58 counties lost net population.

The state Department of Finance released new annual population estimates Monday that show California’s overall population decreased by 0.3% in 2021, only the second year since data collection began in 1900 that the state saw an overall decline.

That said, the rate of the decline slowed from 2020, when state officials estimated the population decreased by 0.46%, a net loss of 182,083 people.

The Finance Department said the population dip reflects a host of factors: a slowdown in the birth rate while deaths increase as Baby Boomers age, a surge in deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased out-migration to other states and a drop in foreign immigration due to federal delays processing migrants. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Exodus: Bay Area, California population dropped in 2021 as people exited – The population in the Bay Area and California shrank during 2021 for the second consecutive year in a slump that was driven in large part by big declines in San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, according to a new state report.

In an unsettling twist, San Jose no longer has 1 million residents, the state Department of Finance report determined.

As of 2021, San Jose — still the Bay Area’s largest city —  had an estimated population of 976,500. The U.S. Census official report released in 2020 had placed San Jose’s population at 1.01 million people.

The Bay Area population declined by slightly more than 50,400 people in 2021, a decrease of 0.7%, which was more than twice the rate of the overall California population decrease of 0.3%, or nearly 117,600 people, this news organization’s analysis of the new state Finance Department report shows.

The Bay Area population nosedive accounted for 42.9% of the population decline statewide, even though the nine-county region represents just 19.4% of California’s total population.

San Jose lost nearly 14,700 residents in 2021, which was a 1.5% decrease from 2020 — and a rate of decline that was five times greater than the pace statewide.

San Francisco lost 6,700 residents, a drop of 0.8%, while Oakland lost 5,600 residents, a decline of 1.3%, the state population estimate shows.

Rounding out the 10 largest cities in the Bay Area in 2021: Hayward had 160,591 residents, a decline of 1,153, or 0.7%; Sunnyvale had 156,234 residents, an increase of 908 people, up 0.6%; Santa Clara had 130,127 residents, up 1,005 people, a 0.8% increase; Berkeley had 124,563 residents, up 3,294, or 2.7%; and Concord had 123,634 residents, a decline of 1,121 people, or 0.9%. Read More > in The Mercury News

Want to beat Bay Area traffic? Get ready to pay. Express tolls are surging – Bay Area freeway commuters are learning quickly what the “surge” means in surge toll pricing.

After a pandemic slumber that kept commutes quiet and demand and toll costs for express lanes low, freeways are clogged once more.

Now prices are rising and tempers are flaring over the growing network of express lanes crisscrossing the region in the Bay Area as motorists contend with a slew of new toll lanes on Interstates 880 and 680, and Highway 101. Drivers are finding that the luxury of cruising past backups in the free lanes is often costing more than double what it did in 2020.

On northbound I-880, toll costs are up over 100% topping out at an average of $8.30 for the evening commute. Contra Costa drivers are facing a nearly six-fold increase in costs since a 12-mile extension of toll lanes on southbound I-680 between Martinez and Dublin was rolled out in August.

Meanwhile, drivers stuck in traffic on the other lanes of the freeway are growing furious, with increasing reports of solo drivers posing as carpoolers to get a free pass in the fast lane.

The express lanes are part of a 130-mile network on course to expand to more than 500 miles in the coming decades. They promise solo drivers a more reliable commute for a price that fluctuates depending on the flow of traffic. Drivers who — using the honor system — set their FasTrak transponder to two or more passengers can jet along most express lanes for free. On I-680 you only need one passenger.

But figuring the costs of toll lanes can be dizzying for commuters. Unlike toll bridges, express lanes use variable prices that spike during peak congestion hours. Read More > in The Mercury News

Contra Costa D.A. Diana Becton had ‘familial ties’ with defendant her office cut plea deal with, victim’s attorney says – An attorney for a victim who was sexually abused as a minor said this week that the Contra Costa County district attorney should have recused herself from the criminal case against the defendant because her family has ties with him, and her office agreed to a plea bargain that reduced his charges and penalties.

Vince Finaldi, a lawyer representing the unnamed victim, who is now an adult, said he was “alarmed” that District Attorney Diana Becton “did not formally recuse herself from this case given her close familial ties to the interested parties,” according to a May 4 letter he sent to State Attorney General Rob Bonta asking for an investigation into possible conflict of interest.

Finaldi said last month he was asking Bonta to probe the situation and on Wednesday his law firm provided The Chronicle with a copy of the letter he sent to the attorney general. Becton, responding to the allegations, said Thursday she will “initiate an independent internal investigation about how this case was handled and I will take the appropriate administrative action once that investigation is complete.”

She also said that her office prosecuted the case without her involvement.

The defendant in the case, Jesse Armstrong, is the godson of Becton’s husband of two years, Alvin Bernstine, Finaldi wrote in his letter to Bonta.

In March, Armstrong was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison after pleading guilty in Contra Costa County to lewd acts against a minor, unlawful intercourse with a minor and meeting with a minor for a lewd purpose, according to Finaldi’s letter. He had been charged with seven felonies and faced up to seven years in prison, Finaldi said in his letter. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Dream hacking: Is this the dystopian future of advertising? – Now that our homes are littered with “listening” smart devices and we are inseparable from our phones, it can seem like sleep is the only part of our lives that is off-limits to marketers trying to influence us. But this blissful bedtime bastion may not hold out much longer. Last year, a team of 38 experts in the fields of sleep and dreaming signed onto an opinion piece warning that dream advertising is on the way.

It makes sense that marketers would seek to access our dreams. Warranted or not, dreams have special meaning for millions of people. Dreaming is when our brains can form strong associations.

The American Marketing Association New York’s 2021 Future of Marketing survey of 400 marketers from various U.S. firms found that three-quarters aim to deploy dream advertising technologies by 2025.

In the lab, scientists have already pioneered methods of altering the content of our dreams, albeit in a very basic way. In 2020, Adam Haar Horowitz, a PhD student in the Fluid Interfaces group at MIT, used a novel device called Dormio to “incubate” subjects’ dreams with basic ideas. The system detects when a wearer enters hypnagogia, the transitional state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, then plays them specific auditory stimuli with the aim of altering their dreams. In Haar’s published study on Dormio, he and his co-authors successfully used the system to make subjects dream about trees.

Now, Dormio and “trees” are a long way from realizing fully-formed dream advertising, perhaps the ultimate form of “product placement.” Still, the ubiquity of microphones in the bedroom raises a disturbing, albeit unlikely, possibility:

Most of us have smart devices on our wrists or at our bedsides as we sleep. These easily could be used to subtly initiate dream advertising. Imagine waking up to your phone emitting the enticing sounds of a carbonated beverage filling a cup, and a faint voice whispering, “Coca Cola…” The reason this is unlikely is because such messaging would constitute a blatant violation of consent and privacy, and thus would be quickly quashed in courts when discovered. Read More > at Big Think

High diesel prices pinch everyone’s pocketbooks, not just truckers delivering goods – It is no secret that the price of gasoline is creating unprecedented pain at the gas pump for California vehicle owners. However, whether you own a vehicle or not, every California household’s budget is impacted by the prices at the pump due to the historic rise in cost of another fuel: diesel.

Look around your house or your office. Everything in it, from the food in your fridge to the chair you are sitting in, to the phone or tablet on which you may be reading this article, was brought by a trucker. More than 80% of all goods consumed by Californians are delivered exclusively by trucks. If you got it, a truck brought it. And despite much progress on alternative fuels, diesel still fuels 97% of the big rigs on the road today.

According to data released by the Energy Information Administration on March 28, the average price of diesel in California was $6.29 per gallon, which is $2.04 higher than just a year ago. That is a 64% increase in cost in just a single year. The impact of these costs is two-fold: Increased prices for consumers and economic pain for truckers.

To cover the increased cost of diesel, truckers must increase the rates charged to haul freight. These increased rates are then passed on to consumers via higher costs at the retail level. So, you are paying for high prices of fuel both at the pump and at the grocery checkout line.

Truckers are also partially absorbing these costs. Independent truckers and small trucking companies are particularly hurt by this crisis. These companies operate in markets which do not always compensate for the increased cost of fuel, much less a 64% year-over-year increase in diesel prices. The impact to small fleets is especially concerning because more than 95% of the trucking companies in the country operate 20 or fewer trucks. These companies are the backbone of the industry and are struggling to keep up with out-of-control costs.

The shock of bare shelves, out-of-stock notices and long delivery times are still fresh in people’s minds. Supply-chain disruptions are unfortunately real and here to stay if events such as these unforeseen increases in diesel prices continue to keep us from getting on track. Read More > in The Fresno Bee

Subway lost more than 1,000 US locations last year, filings reveal – Subway is still the nation’s biggest fast-food chain — but its lead keeps getting smaller.

The struggling sandwich giant — which has lately tussled with franchisees over controversial ad campaigns and allegations of corrupt regional managers — shuttered 1,043 more outlets across the US than it opened in 2021, according to public filings this week.

The dip — which shrank Subway’s total footprint by nearly five percent to 21,147 locations — wasn’t as steep the net loss of 1,609 US restaurants Subway suffered in 2020. But it was worse than the 999 it lost in 2019 before the coronavirus hit, according to federal disclosures filed by the company.

In February, Subway said sales across the US steadily improved throughout 2021, although industry experts said the gains were mainly because of price inflation and that the chain continued to lag the competition. Read More > in the New York Post

Experts reveal exactly how much sleep you need to live a better life in your later years – Seven hours is the ideal amount of sleep people middle aged and older need, according to experts.

They found that too little or too much sleep can lead to poorer cognitive performance and mental health.

This affects things like processing speed, visual attention, memory and problem-solving skills.

Sleeping patterns and habits of almost 500,000 people aged between 38 and 73-years-old were studied.

The research shows that those who slept longer or shorter than seven hours were more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, and worse overall wellbeing. Read More > in the New York Post

U.S. Gas Production Slows At The Worst Possible Time – Growth in natural gas production in the biggest producing regions in the United States is on the decline due to the lack of sufficient pipeline network, as prices soar at home alongside a major uptick in LNG exports destined for gas-thirsty Europe. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, U.S. natural gas prices have increased approximately 50%, Reuters reports, and producers in Appalachia and West Texas are now struggling with a shortage of pipelines to move product to market 

Appalachia accounted for 37% of total U.S. gas production, while West Texas accounted for another 19%, Reuters said, citing a warning by Bank of America analysts that Appalachia was nearing the limits of its takeaway capacity, heralding a potential halt to production growth.

The timing of this pipeline shortage comes as Europe is seeking alternatives to Russian gas, with U.S. LNG the preferred replacement. Currently, the U.S. has the capacity to export 9.8 billion cu ft daily, according to Reuters, while Europe’s largest economies import Russian gas at a rate of 18.3 billion cu ft daily. Pandemic demand recovery for natural gas, inflation and energy shortages at home will affect American consumers. Read More > at Oil Price

Falling Inventories Could Stifle U.S. Plans To Help Europe Replace Russian Oil – The U.S. energy industry has taken its role of savior of Europe seriously. After boosting LNG exports to a record because of Europe’s thirst for energy, oil exports from the U.S. are now on the rise, as well, but the trend may not be sustainable. Reuters’ John Kemp wrote in a recent column that the United States became a net exporter of crude oil and fuels last month, with the difference between imports and exports at 3 million barrels daily. He also noted, however, that a lot of this oil was coming from inventories that had now fallen to the lowest since 2008.

Since July 2020, Kemp noted, U.S. oil inventories had declined by 421 million barrels. Strategic oil reserves are also low, and fuel inventories are below the average for this time of the year, especially in distillates, which are 30 million barrels below the average.

From an immediate perspective, the fact that the U.S. is stepping in to fill the gap left by sanctioned Russian oil is good news for both U.S exporters and European importers. In the longer term, however, the plan may hit an inventory wall. 

If U.S. exporters are dipping into their reserves to send enough oil to Europe, this means that U.S. oil production is not rising fast enough–a fact the Biden administration has been lamenting for some time. 

Higher exports that do come from inventories may become another issue the administration finds problematic, particularly in the wake of a ban on oil exports that was proposed by Congressional representatives to keep the reins on retail fuel prices before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, prices at the pump are even higher than they were in December when the legislators proposed the ban. Read More > at Oil Price

Murder charges filed in Sacramento shooting – Three men have each been charged with three counts of murder in the April 3 Sacramento shooting that killed six and wounded 12, Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced Tuesday. All three men — brothers Smiley and Dandrae Martin, both booked in Sacramento County jail, and Mtula Payton, who prosecutors allege was out on bail for felony possession of a firearm at the time of the shooting and remains at large — are eligible for the death penalty, though prosecutors haven’t yet decided whether to pursue that option. However, capital punishment is for all intents and purposes outlawed in California — Newsom placed a moratorium on the practice on his first day in office, and the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.

At the Tuesday press conference in downtown Sacramento, prosecutors seemed frustrated with state laws they suggested have constrained their ability to charge suspects:

Ford Reports Devastating Losses Thanks to Electric Vehicle Gamble – Major U.S. automaker Ford blamed its sizable investment in electric vehicle (EV) company Rivian for its dramatic revenue decline in the first quarter of 2022.

Ford reported revenue of $34.5 billion between January and March, a 5% decline relative to the same period in 2021, and a net loss of $3.1 billion, according to the company’s earnings report released Wednesday. The Detroit automaker said its large investment in Rivian accounted for $5.4 billion in losses during the first quarter.

“A net loss of $3.1 billion was primarily attributable to a mark-to-market loss of $5.4 billion on the company’s investment in Rivian,” Ford said in the earnings report.

Ford maintains a roughly 12% stake in Rivian, CNBC reported in November.

Rivian has posted massive profit losses of its own and its share price has plummeted nearly 70% over the last six months. The value of Ford’s roughly 102 million Rivian shares has fallen from about $17.5 billion to $3.2 billion since November.

Automakers have increasingly turned their attention toward manufacturing electric vehicles as governments push aggressive green energy plans. President Joe Biden has promised to craft policies to ensure 50% of new vehicle sales in the U.S. are emissions-free by 2030 and every addition to the federal government’s 600,000-vehicle fleet is electric by 2035.

However, Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe recently suggested that the supply chain for EV batteries is still far behind where it needs to be to achieve many of the goals pushed by Western governments, the WSJ reported.

“Put very simply, all the world’s cell production combined represents well under 10% of what we will need in 10 years,” Scaringe said last week. “Meaning, 90% to 95% of the supply chain does not exist.” Read More > at The Star News Network

Job openings hit a record high March as businesses still struggle to find workers – The US labor market remained historically imbalanced through March as employers struggled to match a limited number of available workers with outsize job openings.

The number of job openings totaled a record 11.5 million at the end of March, according to Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday. That’s up from the 11.3 million seen at the end of February. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expected openings to decline to 11 million through the month.

Over the past year, the monthly JOLTS report has become the go-to release for tracking the labor shortage and its intensity. Job openings surged to record highs throughout 2021 and have since stabilized at levels nearly twice as high as the pre-pandemic norm. Yet the number of Americans looking for work recovered at a much slower clip, leaving the labor market with a massive gap between supply and demand that’s persisted into 2022. Read More > at Insider

The FDA Finally Admits We Should Treat COVID-19 Like The Flu – Top officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wrote Monday that, going forward, Americans will have to accept COVID-19 as another respiratory virus like influenza.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock and the agency’s top vaccine official, Dr. Peter Marks, wrote that COVID-19 will be in circulation for the foreseeable future and must be accepted as another common virus in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Like with influenza, this new reality will likely require annual COVID-19 shots to be tailored around the most threatening strains of the virus, the officials wrote.

“Widespread vaccine- and infection-induced immunity, combined with the availability of effective therapeutics, could blunt the effects of future outbreaks. Nonetheless, it is time to accept that the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is the new normal,” the officials wrote. “It will likely circulate globally for the foreseeable future, taking its place alongside other common respiratory viruses such as influenza. And it likely will require similar annual consideration for vaccine composition updates in consultation with the [FDA].” Read More > at The Daily Caller

Why getting COVID is still nothing like getting the flu — even if it’s just as ‘normal’ – Health officials are saying it, friends are saying it: COVID-19 seems on track to become as common and familiar to us as influenza. But experts stress that there are still limitations to this comparison — COVID is still, and may always be, no ordinary flu.

…But there are still key differences between the two infectious diseases that limit just how much we can learn from the yearly flu.

While the disease manifestation might be similar in the two, the underlying viruses are still very different, Dr. Jorge Salinas, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Stanford, said — and the virus that causes COVID-19 is still not very well understood.

…Experts also noted COVID is far more infectious than the flu, which means that it puts more people at risk of severe disease and death by way of infecting far more people.

…COVID also brings the potential for long-term effects, including neurological complications, heart disease and diabetes, something that the flu does not have on a large scale, experts said.

…Finally, COVID is still too new and unpredictable to compare to the seasonal flu, which comes and goes over the winter, experts said. While COVID has shown signs of being worse during the winter, like the flu, that is largely a product of behaviors like spending more time indoors. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

FDA sharply limits use of Johnson & Johnson shot due to rare blood clots – Federal regulators announced new restrictions Thursday on the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, saying the risk of a rare and life-threatening blood clot syndrome outweighed the benefits of the vaccine for people who are 18 or older and can get another shot, unless they would otherwise remain unvaccinated.

The FDA said only people who are unable to receive other vaccines because they are not accessible or clinically appropriate should receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been associated with a rare, but potentially deadly blood clotting and bleeding syndrome called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS. The condition usually occurs within one to two weeks of vaccination, and a commonly used treatment to treat clotting, heparin, can cause additional harm. Read More > in The Washington Post

Will CA follow Redondo Beach model for homeless? – What’s the best way to help people experiencing homelessness access the care and services they need to get back on their feet? One approach is Newsom’s proposal to create a court framework to compel people with serious mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders into treatment; two San Diego city council members submitted a funding request this week to expand a city program that could place more homeless people into conservatorships.

And then there is the approach Redondo Beach took amid the pandemic: moving its homeless court program outdoors, in a central location where the unhoused tend to congregate, and incentivizing attendance by promising defendants they won’t be jailed for showing up. Participants are instead connected to housing programs, mental health and substance abuse services and legal assistance. The court has had an average attendance rate of 80% since September 2020, CalMatters’ Nigel Duara reports — and now Democratic Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi of Torrance is carrying a bill to expand such efforts statewide by offering counties grants to tailor homeless courts to their own communities. Read More > at CalMatters

Gun bug: 33 months of 1 million-plus gun sales – Sales of firearms have fallen from their recent highs but are continuing in a nearly three-year-long string of 1.25 million sales a month.

A new analysis of FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System data indicates that gun sale background checks have crossed the 1.25 million threshold for 33 straight months, sustaining the highest-ever era of gun purchases.

“It is clear that those looking for the ‘new normal’ of firearm sales following the two outsized years of 2020 and 2021 can find all the evidence needed to know that law-abiding citizens are turning out by the millions each month to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” he added.

Those two years saw the highest-ever number of FBI background checks for gun sales due to violent Black Lives Matter protests, surging crime, and the presidential election. During that period, gun sales surged, especially among women and black Americans, due to safety concerns.

And they have stayed high, though not at the 2020 and 2021 peaks, said NSSF. Helping drive sales has been the elimination of restrictions on carrying firearms in half of the states and President Joe Biden’s constant call for gun control and bans. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

Governor, legislators won’t budge in high-speed rail dispute – California Democrats are locked in one of the most consequential disputes in modern state history over the future of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project after a decade of troubled construction.

The $105 billion bullet train project — for which $10.3 billion has been spent so far — would be the largest single investment in state history, the most ambitious civil works effort in the nation and now a symbol to many experts of how not to build a railroad, all of which define the stakes in the current impasse. 

The feud has festered for 16 months, since Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the Legislature for a $4.2 billion appropriation in early 2021. The request has triggered a standoff with Assembly Democrats, who have steadfastly refused to hand over the last remaining funds from a 2008 bond measure for high-speed rail.

…But serious problems remain unresolved in the Central Valley, and new issues with utility relocations along the future tracks are again holding up construction. 

The rail authority estimated in 2008, when voters approved $9 billion for the system, it would cost $33 billion and start running by 2020. But slow land purchases, delays in environmental documents, employee turnover and litigation over the last 14 years keep putting the goal further out of reach.

“There is no confidence in the project,” said Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles Democrat. “We had an end date of 2020 and now we don’t have an end date.” 

The latest estimate, made earlier this year, set the cost at $105 billion. The new price tag is based on some estimates made in 2019, not accounting for the spurt of inflation in construction materials and labor, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the non-partisan adviser to the Legislature. The risk is that the real cost is still not known.

“This project is big and complex and complicated and difficult and needs oversight,” said Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat and  chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “It seems like there’s pressure being put on us to very quickly give them their money and just move on. ‘Legislature, get out of our way,’ which to me is really, really committing legislative malfeasance.”

The Senate has maintained its long silence on the rail project. Senate Transportation Committee chair Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach, declined an interview request and to answer written questions. In a statement, she said she is working on a “robust transportation funding package.”  Read More > at CalMatters

Over 60 million Americans have taxes so simple the IRS could do them automatically – For many Americans, doing your taxes isn’t all that complicated. It’s just data entry.

The actual work of doing your taxes mostly involves rifling through various Internal Revenue Service forms you get in the mail. There are W-2s listing your wages, 1099s showing miscellaneous income like from one-off gigs, 1098s showing mortgage interest or tuition payments, etc.

But here’s the thing about those forms: The IRS has them, too. For many people, the IRS has all the information it needs to calculate their taxes, send taxpayers a filled-out return, and have them sign it and send it right back to the IRS if everything looks in order.

This isn’t a purely hypothetical proposal. Countries like Denmark, Belgium, Estonia, Chile, and Spain already offer such ”pre-populated returns” to their citizens. And a new paper estimates that at least 41 percent of American households — some 62 million tax filing units — could have their entire tax returns handled this way with no further intervention necessary. Read More > at Vox

A New Report Explains How California Screwed Up Marijuana Legalization – Six years after California legalized recreational marijuana, the black market still accounts for roughly two-thirds of the state’s cannabis sales. Since legalization was supposed to eliminate the black market, that embarrassing situation represents a stark failure to fulfill the promise of Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that allowed recreational consumers to buy marijuana from state-licensed retailers.

Regulatory costs, high taxes, and local bans on retailers are the main factors impeding the transition to a legal market, according to a new report from Reason Foundation, the organization that publishes this website. The report, written by Geoff Lawrence, the foundation’s managing director of drug policy, focuses on the latter two issues. It recommends tax relief, which Lawrence shows would be compatible with continued growth in state marijuana revenue, and incentives aimed at encouraging local governments to allow retail sales.

…While California legislators have no control over federal tax law, they do decide how much the state will collect from marijuana producers and sellers. In addition to state income taxes, which currently average nearly 9 percent of net earnings for corporations, the state levies include a cultivation tax of $10.08 per ounce of flower and $3 per ounce of leaves (both of which are indexed to inflation), plus a 15 percent retail excise tax. The state also collects a general sales tax of 7.25 percent, which rises to an average of 8.82 percent when local levies are included. And the state allows local governments to impose additional taxes on growers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.

All told, Lawrence calculates, the effective tax rate on marijuana in California ranges from $42 to $92 per ounce, depending on the jurisdiction, compared to an estimated wholesale production cost of $35 per ounce. California’s taxes are notably higher than those collected by other states that have legalized marijuana. “Colorado and Oregon both exempt cannabis transactions from general state sales taxes,” Lawrence notes. “Colorado assesses a 15% wholesale transfer tax and a 15% retail excise tax while Oregon assesses only a 17% retail excise tax.” A 2020 Reason Foundation report calculated that total taxes amounted to $526 per pound in Colorado and $340 per pound in Oregon. In California, Lawrence found, the total burden per pound “ranges from $677 to $1,441.”

Those taxes, along with state and local regulations, give black-market dealers a clear advantage over legal sellers. Read More > at Reason

50 years on, the lessons of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study still reverberate – This year marks the 50th anniversary of The New York Times’ exposé of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, thanks to a frustrated social worker who tipped off the press. By the time it broke in 1972, experiments had been conducted on unsuspecting Black men in the area surrounding Tuskegee, Alabama, for 40 years. All 400 or so of the male subjects had contracted syphilis, and all had been told they were receiving treatment for the disease—except they were not.

The researchers in charge of the study instead deliberately withheld treatment in order to monitor the progression of the disease as it advanced unchecked. The study’s exposure led to a public outcry and heated debate over informed consent, ultimately giving rise to a number of regulations to prevent such an ethical lapse in the future. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has since become a vital case study in bioethics, but public awareness of its existence is spotty at best. A new paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine seeks to remedy that, and it argues that federal regulation is not enough to prevent similar unethical research.

“Citizens have an obligation to remember the victims of any major catastrophe, as people do with 9/11,” the paper’s author, Martin Tobin, told Ars. “The men in Tuskegee suffered major injury, including death, at the hands of the premier health arm of the US government. A failure to remember what happened to these men is to add another layer of injury to what they already endured.”

Unlike many ethically questionable research projects, the Tuskegee study was notable because it wasn’t done in secret. It had the full support of many prominent leaders in the medical profession. The idea originated in 1932 with Taliaferro Clark, then director of the Venereal Disease division of the Public Health Service (PHS), the precursor to today’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Clark read about a 1928 study with white men conducted in Oslo, Norway. He thought it would be a grand idea to conduct similar research using impoverished Black sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama, many of whom had contracted the disease. At the time, syphilis was a significant health concern, and the effects of the disease were believed to depend on the patient’s race.

Subjects were recruited with the help of a Black nurse named Eunice Rivers; her involvement was key to gaining the sharecroppers’ trust. In exchange for their participation, subjects were promised free physical examinations, free transportation to and from the clinic, hot meals on those days, and free treatment for any minor ailments. Rivers was also able to convince many families to agree to an autopsy in exchange for funeral benefits—a major concern for the project’s leaders. “If the colored population become aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darkey will leave Macon County,” one of the doctors on the project wrote to a colleague.

However, the researchers lied to the men about their condition; they told them they were being treated for “bad blood” rather than syphilis. They also lied about the “treatments”; the men were given dummy pills, even after penicillin was found to be effective against syphilis and became widely available. And they lied about the need for painful lumbar punctures to check for neurosyphilis, telling the subjects they were therapeutic rather than purely diagnostic. Read More > at ars Technica

About Kevin

Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-UPI, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Trustee RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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