Sunday Reading – 09/18/2022


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.

Americans Spent More on Taxes Last Year Than on Food, Health Care, Education, and Clothing Combined – New consumer spending data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides some sobering perspective on how much Americans are paying in taxes. The data covers consumer spending across a wide variety of categories in 2021. Overall, taxes accounted for about 25 percent of average consumer spending.

The BLS measures spending per “consumer unit,” which it describes as “either (1) all members of a particular household who are related by blood, marriage, adoption or other legal arrangements; (2) persons living alone or sharing a household with others or living as a roomer in a private home or lodging house or in a permanent living quarters in a hotel or motel, but who is financially independent; or (3) two or more person living together who use their income to make joint expenditure decisions.”

On average, each “consumer unit” paid more than $16,000 in taxes last year. This outpaces average spending on food, clothing, education, and health care combined.

The mean for total spending per unit on health care, food, education, and clothing was $16,721.42. This included an average of $8,289.28 on food, $5,451.61 on health care, $1,226.14 on education, and $1,754.39 on apparel.

The mean for total spending per unit on taxes was $16,729.73. This included $8,561.46 in federal income tax, $2,564.14 in state and local income taxes, $2,475.18 in property taxes, $5,565.45 in Social Security deductions, and $105.21 in other taxes, offset by an average stimulus payment of $2,541.71. Read More > at Reason

Is Biden facing a winter of discontent? US braces for crisis as rail workers plot strike costing $2 BILLION a day, 15,000 nurses walkout in Minnesota and West Coast ports could shutdown amid contracts dispute – America is bracing for chaos as tens of thousands of railway, port, and hospital workers look set to strike over the winter – plunging the country into further disruption.

As many as 60,000 railway workers, 15,000 nurses, and 22,000 West Coast port workers are plotting mass walkouts as they seek better working conditions.

Several US freight railroads said they were preparing for widespread strike and service interruptions Friday, a deadline set by two holdout labor groups in protracted talks with railroad carriers about better benefits.

The burgeoning strike would cause mass interruptions to the nation’s expansive rail system, which are used to ferry goods shipped and flown in overseas across the country, and would costs carriers roughly $2 billion a day.

The holdout from workers that transport these products – who on average earn at least $64,300 a year – already disrupted the nation’s passenger rail Monday, rattling commutes and cross-country travel for thousands of Americans in preparation for the walkouts.

Compounding the crisis are burgeoning protests from tens of thousands of workers at America’s hospitals, as more than 15,000 nurses in Minnesota staged statewide walkouts over low pay and staffing shortages. Registered nurses in the state currently make an average of $84,030 each year.

Also on the edge are the country’s more than 22,000 West Coast port workers, who man the highly trafficked twin hubs of Los Angeles and Long Beach. They are also seeking better working conditions, amid staffing issues and overwork that has become commonplace during the pandemic – despite LA workers earning six-figure salaries. Read More > at the Daily Mail

The fall of Los Angeles – For much of the 20th century, Los Angeles symbolised the future. Over the course of the century, the population grew 40-fold to nearly four million people.

But now, for the first time in its history, the population of Los Angeles is in decline, falling by 204,000 between July 2020 and July 2021. LA was once a magnet for investors. But recently many of the area’s corporate linchpins – including aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum and Hilton Hotels – have left, taking with them high-paying jobs and philanthropic resources.

Worse still, conditions in LA today are bordering on the medieval. Anyone visiting some of the most famous districts of urban Los Angeles – notably downtown, Hollywood and Venice Beach – sees clear signs of destitution, including sprawling homeless encampments, vast numbers of people living in vehicles and rampant crime. Last year, a UN official compared conditions on LA’s Skid Row, a poor downtown neighbourhood, to those of Syrian refugee camps. Smash-and-grab thefts at local 7-Elevens and the persistent theft of goods from railyards suggest this is a city that has lost control to the modern version of lawless highwaymen.

So-called progressives have long dreamed of transforming the famously sprawled Los Angeles into a dense, transit-oriented, sun-kissed version of New York. But despite massive corporate and government investment, attempts to do this have failed. Rather than a vibrant hipster paradise, LA’s urban core is dominated by the homeless, the poor, government workers and a few creative types – making for an odd juxtaposition of homeless camps and low-rent hotels alongside high-end restaurants and artists’ lofts. Meanwhile, newly built luxury apartments have suffered vacancy rates as high as 14 per cent – remarkable in a city so short of housing. Read More > at Spiked

Here’s California Flooring It to the ‘Clean’ Energy Future … With Its Transmission Slipping Badly – California’s precariously out-of-date hybrid power grid can’t handle the state’s growing amounts of solar and wind energy coming online, with system managers already forcing repeated cutbacks in renewables and a continued reliance on conventional energy to keep the grid stable, according to state data.

The shortcomings of the transmission grid, which energy consultants in this bellwether state have warned about for years, raise the prospect that marquee products of the growing battery economy such as electric vehicles – “emission free” on the road – will be recharged mainly from traditional electricity-generating power plants: energy from fossil fuels, some of it from out of state.

Writ large, the transmission problem threatens the zero-carbon future envisioned by green advocates nationwide. “We’re headed toward duplicate systems whose only benefit is to permit the occasional use of ‘clean power,’” said Grant Ellis, an independent electrical engineering consultant in Texas.

California, along with the rest of the desert Southwest, is adding solar and wind installations at a rapid pace. The state is projected to add four gigawatts of utility-scale solar energy this year alone, enough to power 2.8 million homes. The question is whether that’s going to be enough.

So-called “curtailments” of renewable power have become much more frequent for the state’s blackout-prone power grid because the state hasn’t constructed enough transmission lines, transformers, poles, and other infrastructure to keep up. The amount of renewable energy curtailed in California tripled between 2018 and 2021, according to operator statistics. Read More > at Real Clear Energy

The biggest bet yet – If you thought the 2020 proposition campaigns were a budget-busting doozy — dominated as they were by a the $200 million in spending from Uber, Lyft and Doordash — the 2022 version is shaping up to be even doozier. 

First, take the two competing sports betting measures:

  • The campaign backing Prop. 26, which would allow in-person sports betting at tribal casinos and horse racing tracks, has now raised $107 million while the “No” campaign has scrounged together $42 million.
  • The backers of Prop. 27, which would green-light online sports betting anywhere in the state, have raked in $173 million, while its opponents have raised $150 million.

Doing some quick arithmetic, that works out to nearly half a billion dollars for two props. For perspective, that’s more than than all the money raised on both sides of every proposition on the ballot in 2018 or 2016 or 2014 or…

And there are still 56 days before Election Day.

Not that money necessarily buys you love. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board came out with a double-barreled non-endorsement, urging its readers to vote “no” on both the measures, which it called “foolish” and motivated by naked greed. Read More > at CalMatters

Why Wine Country is no longer ‘for regular people,’ according to some Bay Area residents – Priced out. Astronomical tasting fees. Rip-off. 

These were some of the sentiments shared by Bay Area residents after The Chronicle reported last week that it has been an unusually slow summer in Wine Country. Would-be Wine Country travelers took to social media — and emails and comments to The Chronicle — over their frustrations and hesitation to visit the Bay Area’s most popular wine destinations: Napa and Sonoma

Many reminisced about “the good old days” when tastings were free or $20 and suggested alternative wine regions that are more affordable, such as Livermore and Amador County. 

Wineries have reported raising tasting fees to offset higher costs of labor and production due to the pandemic, supply-chain issues and inflation. A new report released this week from winery analysis company Community Benchmark revealed additional data that visitation has dropped across 400 West Coast wineries in May, June and July compared to 2021 and 2019. 

The resurgence of international travel, plus inflation and rising gas and airfare costs are all factors that could have impacted tourism this summer. But tasting fee increases and the recent switch to a reservation-only model seem to be among the biggest deterrents in future Wine Country trips for Bay Area residents.  Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Inflation: Consumer prices rise 8.3% over last year in August, tanking stocks and clinching rate hikes – Inflation rose more than expected in August even as prices moderated from four-decade highs reached earlier this year.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) in August reflected an 8.3% increase over last year and a 0.1% increase over the prior month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday. Economists had expected prices to rise 8.1% over last year and fall 0.1% over last month, according to estimates from Bloomberg.

On a “core” basis, which strips out the volatile food and energy components of the report, prices rose 6.3% over last year and 0.6% over the prior month in August.

Expectations were for a 6.1% annual increase and 0.3% monthly increase in core CPI. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance

This should be the absolute peak of hurricane season—but it’s dead quiet out there – To state the obvious: This has been an unorthodox Atlantic hurricane season.

Everyone from the US agency devoted to studying weather, oceans, and the atmosphere—the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration—to the most highly regarded hurricane professionals predicted a season with above-normal to well above-normal activity.

For example, NOAA’s outlook for the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, predicted a 65 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 25 percent chance of a near-normal season, and a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season. The primary factor behind these predictions was an expectation that La Niña would persist in the Pacific Ocean, leading to atmospheric conditions in the tropical Atlantic more favorable to storm formation and intensification. La Niña has persisted, but the storms still have not come in bunches.

To date the Atlantic has had five named storms, which is not all that far off “normal” activity, as measured by climatological averages from 1991 to 2020. Normally, by now, the Atlantic would have recorded eight tropical storms and hurricanes that were given names by the National Hurricane Center.

The disparity is more significant when we look at a metric for the duration and intensity of storms, known as Accumulated Cyclone Energy. By this more telling measurement, the 2022 season has a value of 29.6, which is less than half of the normal value through Saturday, 60.3. Read More > at ars Technica

How fed up are San Franciscans with the city’s problems? New S.F. Chronicle poll finds pervasive gloom – San Francisco has long seen skirmishes between factions of its overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, but fissures are widening, positions are hardening and the public sees little hope of fixing the chronic problems that have plagued the city for decades, according to one of the most comprehensive surveys of city residents ever done.

Even as San Francisco gradually recovers from the crushing blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of respondents expressed deep worry, frustration and continued pessimism about civic life in the city, The Chronicle’s SF Next poll of 1,653 residents found.

The result is a city that has already ejected from office its district attorney and three school board members. Unhappiness with law enforcement has led to rallies by Asian Americans protesting violence against their elders and a lack of police protection and prosecutions. Frustration over homelessness and its impact on street life in the Castro district led to a threat by the neighborhood’s merchants’ association to withhold business taxes.

Roughly one-third of the respondents said they were likely to leave within the next three years. A large majority, 65%, said that life in the city is worse than when they first moved here. Less than one-quarter of respondents said they expected life in San Francisco to improve in two years. More than one-third said it would worsen. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Mortgage demand from homebuyers falls 29% since last year, as interest rates surge past 6% – Mortgage demand appears to have nowhere to go but down, as interest rates go up.

Application volume dropped 1.2% last week compared with the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s seasonally adjusted index. The week’s results include an adjustment for the observance of Labor Day. Since last year, homebuyers’ demand for mortgages has fallen by nearly a third.

Mortgage rates, which had been easing slightly through July and August, pushed higher yet again, after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made it clear to investors that the central bank would stay tough on inflation, even if it caused consumers some pain.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($647,200 or less) increased to 6.01% from 5.94%, with points decreasing to 0.76 from 0.79 (including the origination fee) for loans with a 20% down payment. Read More > at CNBC

Study: Cannabis use during pregnancy may harm child’s long-term mental health – Offering a cautionary tale to pregnant individuals who think smoking a joint is no big deal, new research links prenatal cannabis exposure to social, emotional and behavioral problems in offspring that may persist into early adolescence: ages 11 to 12.

Researchers analyzed roughly a dozen measures, ranging from rule-breaking to aggression, a “sluggish cognitive tempo” and “psychotic-like experiences.”

In a research letter published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, the investigators said the affected children also may face a greater risk of “psychiatric disorders and problematic substance use” as they enter the peak period of vulnerability in later adolescence.

For the study, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis analyzed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study of 12,000 youth, the largest long-term study of brain development and children’s health in the United States. Read More > at UPI

Could Beavers Save California from Climate Change? – California beavers have long been reviled for their ability to destroy farmland. But a crushing heat wave and lingering drought have led scientists to take a second look.

“Beaver dams improve water quality and control water downstream, repair eroded channels, reconnect streams to their floodplains, and the ponds and flooded areas create habitat for many plants and animals,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). “It might be odd, but beavers are an untapped, creative climate-solving hero that helps prevent the loss of biodiversity facing California.”  

DFW is now looking to hire personnel for its new Beaver restoration unit. The head of the unit will help update state beaver policies and propose “nature-based restoration solutions” including the development of artificial beaver dams. The goal is to help beavers help us, since they’re increasingly seen as warriors against the effects of climate change.

For this project, DFW has a budget of at least $3 million over the next two years. It will eventually hire five new people to oversee the restoration program.

Beavers are a native California species. They have historically been found along the coast throughout the Central Valley, Colorado River basin, and into the Sierra Nevada and Cascades mountain ranges. Read More > at California County News

A daily multivitamin could keep your memory sharp as you age – Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral tablet may slow the gradual cognitive decline that happens naturally as we get older.

At the end of a three-year trial, people who had taken a commercially available multivitamin-mineral supplement had a cognitive age that was 1.8 years younger than those who took a placebo.

“It’s an eye opener,” says Laura Baker at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The benefits of taking multivitamin pills have been debated among doctors. They were once widely recommended as an “insurance policy” for people with poor diets, based on studies that found those who take them tend to have better health.

But these studies weren’t randomised, placebo-controlled trials – the best kind of medical evidence – and when such trials were done, they found no benefit from taking supplements for most healthy people. It seemed the earlier results arose because vitamin tablets are more popular with people who look after their health in many other ways.

The latest research is a randomised trial in nearly 2300 US people aged between 65 and 100 years old. Read More > at the New Scientist

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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