Sunday Reading – 05/21/23

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.

Winners and losers in Newsom’s CA budget deficit plan – The spending plan Newsom unveiled Friday anticipates a $31.5 billion deficit, up from $22.5 billion projected in his January proposal. He calls for spending $306 billion, which is just 1% less than the record $308 billion budgeted for this year, and he seeks to protect the state’s continued investments in some programs, such as in housing and health care, while stopping short of adding any costly new initiatives.

  • Newsom: “We have a $31.5 billion challenge, which is well within the margin of expectation and well within our capacity to address…. Right now, we’re able to submit a budget that we think is prudent and it’s balanced.”

For more details about Newsom’s spending plan, get the full analysis from the CalMatters’ team. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the budget’s biggest winners and losers:


Dyslexia screening backers: As someone who struggles with dyslexia himself, Newsom added $1 million for teacher training and a requirement for dyslexia screening, despite pushback from the California Teachers Association. Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat who authored the bill to screen for dyslexia and also has dyslexia, celebrated the news.

  • Portantino, to EdSource: “This is a great day for kids in California. The governor had it right. He and I both understand the urgency of this issue.”

Foster youth advocates: Newsom restored $20 million to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which advocates for foster youth and supports about 16% of Californai’s foster population.

Flood protection supporters: An additional $290 million to the flood control budget brings the total that Newsom proposes to invest in flood protection to $492 million.

Public health agencies: Newsom restored $50 million for public health workforce training programs that were cut in his January proposal.


Climate programs: In January, Newsom slashed $6 billion from the $54 billion five-year climate package. His May proposal put another $1.1 billion for climate resilience programs in jeopardy if a “climate bond” isn’t approved.

Child care providers: On top of delaying funds for 20,000 of next year’s new child care slots, which Newsom proposed in January, his May revise provides only an 8% cost-of-living raise, compared to providers’ requests for a 25% increase in reimbursement rates.

Public transit systems: Despite pleas from local agencies, Newsom unveiled no aid as they face a dire “fiscal cliff.”

School arts programs: Newsom slashed proposed grants for arts, music and instructional materials from $2.3 billion in his January proposal to $1.8 billion.

Prison towns residents: Newsom cut the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget by more than $100 million and he’s moving forward with closing correctional facilities in Blythe and California City by 2025.

Struggling hospitals: Hospitals did not get the $1.5 billion in immediate relief they had been seeking. But Newsom did allocate $150 million to establish a loan program for distressed hospitals.

Keep in mind the governor’s proposal isn’t the end. Rather, it kicks off nearly a month-long negotiation with the Legislature, which has until June 15 to pass the budget in order to get paid. Read More > at CalMatters

Contra Costa County reports 4% increase in homelessness in 2023, says last year’s count unreliable – Contra Costa County’s homeless population ticked up just 4% over the past three years to around 2,300 people, according to new data showing homelessness did not surge during the pandemic despite widespread job losses.

But the latest numbers from the county’s annual “point-in-time” count in January appear to contradict the results of its 2022 count, which found the number of unhoused residents soared 35% to more than 3,000 people. Now, officials say last year’s count is unreliable because of “significant inconsistencies” in the data.

The county health department blamed a third-party contractor for the errors but declined to immediately provide more details about any problems with the dataset. The department maintained it can “verify the accuracy of all other point-in-time counts,” which it said were conducted by the county.

Officials acknowledge that homeless counts — taken annually or every two years to understand how many people are living outdoors and in shelters in counties across the country — provide merely an estimate rather than a precise census. Advocates, meanwhile, often question the accuracy of the counts, which are generally conducted over a few days by teams of volunteers. Most counts were canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic.

The contractor hired for Contra Costa County’s count last year, San Jose-based Applied Survey Research, said it stands by its results.

Of the 2,372 homeless people identified in Contra Costa County’s latest count, 1,653, or 70%, were found outdoors or in vehicles. That was a 5% increase from 2020. The other 719 were in shelters. The county has about 900 shelter beds in total.

The count also identified 103 homeless households with children. Half were unsheltered.

A survey of about 400 homeless people taken with the count found 49% of respondents had a severe mental health condition, and 51% had a substance abuse disorder. More than two-thirds were considered chronically homeless, meaning they’ve been homeless for at least a year while struggling with mental illness, substance abuse or a physical disability. Read More > in The Mercury News

New York, San Francisco Office Buildings Are Absolute Ghost Towns – It’s no secret that commercial real estate is in bad shape across the globe…

Things are so bad, in fact, that 26 Empire State Buildings could fit into New York City’s empty office space, as occupancy in the city is hovering around 50% of prepandemic levels, according to the chair of Harvard Economics Department, Edward Glaeser and MIT’s Carlo Ratti.

The cause? Thanks to the pandemic, working from home has become the norm in many industries – a phenomenon which has also heavily impacted mass transit systems in America’s largest cities.

In downtowns from Chicago to Los Angeles, the physical layout of the 20th-century city is clashing with the new economy. Since the 1920s, single-use zoning has divided our cities into separate neighborhoods for home, work and play. Work-from-home and Netflix have made these distinctions irrelevant, but our partitioned urban fabric has yet to catch up.

To create a city vibrant enough to compete with the convenience of the internet, we need to end the era of single-use zoning and create mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods that bring libraries, offices, movie theaters, grocery stores, schools, parks, restaurants and bars closer together. We must reconfigure the city into an experience worth leaving the house for. Streets once filled by commuting crowds can be reinvigorated by those who really want to be there. NYT

In Los Angeles, the vacant office space is equivalent to 30.7 US Bank Towers.

Glaeser and Ratti note that in 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler argued that information technology would render urban office environments more or less obsolete, as workers would instead use residential “electronic cottages.”

This sudden shift was a body blow to New York. Many offices remain empty, and the city lost more than 300,000 inhabitants from 2020 to 2021. No other American city experienced such a large numerical decline. Over the same period, Houston lost only 12,000 people, although the global commercial real estate services company JLL reports that Houston’s office vacancy rates are now even higher than New York’s. -NYT

In San Francisco, the downtown area is experiencing its worst office vacancy crisis on record – with 31% of space available for lease or sublease, the SF Chronicle reports.

In the heart of the city, an astounding 18.4 million square feet of real estate is available — enough space to house 92,000 employees and the equivalent of 13 Salesforce Towers.

The Chronicle mapped and charted every major downtown office building’s vacancy, using data provided by real estate brokerage Lee & Associates.

According to the report, some of the emptiest buildings are those vacated amid layoffs by tech giants Salesforce and Meta – the former of which embraced remote work, and has listed office for lease at 50 Fremont, where 90% of the space is vacant. Read More > at Zero Hedge

Sorry vegans, a major health organization says meat, eggs and milk are vital sources of ‘much-needed nutrients’ – A new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has determined that meat, eggs and milk are vital sources of much-needed nutrients, such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates, that aren’t easily found in plant-based foods.

The comprehensive study, which is based on data from more than 500 scientific papers and 240 policy documents, also stated that these nutrients are critical during key life stages, such as pregnancy and lactation, childhood, adolescence and older age.

“Nutrient needs of humans vary substantially over their life course. While there are a variety of dietary patterns that can meet those needs, foods that are rich in nutrients are a critical part of a healthy diet,” FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo and Chief Economist Máximo Torero Cullen wrote in a foreword to the report. “Terrestrial animal source foods provide energy and many essential nutrients, such as protein, fatty acids and several vitamins and minerals that are less common in other food types.” Read More > at Fortune

The Harm Caused by Masks – Evidence continues to mount that mask mandates were perhaps the worst public-health intervention in modern American history. While concluding that wearing masks “probably makes little or no difference” in preventing the spread of viruses, a recent Cochrane review also emphasized that “more attention should be paid to describing and quantifying the harms” that may come from wearing masks. A new study from Germany does just that, and it suggests that the excess carbon dioxide breathed in by mask-wearers may have substantial ill-effects on their health—and, in the case of pregnant women, their unborn children’s.

Mask-wearers breathe in greater amounts of air that should have been expelled from their bodies and released out into the open. “[A] significant rise in carbon dioxide occurring while wearing a mask is scientifically proven in many studies,” write the German authors. “Fresh air has around 0.04% CO2,” they observe, while chronic exposure at CO2 levels of 0.3 percent is “toxic.” How much CO2 do mask-wearers breathe in? The authors write that “masks bear a possible chronic exposure to low level carbon dioxide of 1.41–3.2% CO2 of the inhaled air in reliable human experiments.”

In other words, while eight times the normal level of carbon dioxide is toxic, research suggests that mask-wearers (specifically those who wear masks for more than 5 minutes at a time) are breathing in 35 to 80 times normal levels.

The German study, a scoping review of existing research, aimed “to investigate the toxicological effects of face masks in terms of CO2 rebreathing on developing life, specifically for pregnant women, children, and adolescents.” The latter two groups, of course, have been among those most frequently subjected to mask mandates in schools, despite Covid’s low levels of risk for them and the evidence that masks don’t work. Read More > at City Journal

School Closures in 2020/21: What really happened? – It’s no secret that political polarization within our country has affected policy response to the pandemic. The first year of the pandemic was smack in the middle of an election, where every single issue facing the nation was portrayed as a this vs. that, us vs. them, the left vs the right. Public health messaging was appropriated by politicians for the purpose of making political promises. Politicians on both sides made bold claims about their policies effects on the pandemic, and the bureaucracies within our Federal and State governments were often left to either pickup the pieces, or left carrying the flag of the “official messaging” of executive administrations by closely aligning their policies with political goals. The appropriate role of public health: a-political, advisory, driven by research and data, was almost completely dismantled. Who suffered the most from this petty political polarization? The children.

So here we are in 2023, and the prevailing public & expert opinion is that virtual school was a failed experiment, that open, in-person school is unequivocally the most effective mode of learning (shocker). Socioeconomically disadvantaged and minority children were affected disproportionately by virtual learning. The data are clear on that issue, despite the attempt at some to misrepresent the issue and inject dubious claims of nefarious racial motivations within the debate.

The most tragic part of school closures was that the science and research on the risks of open schools has corroborated on these few simple facts: that schools were not responsible for community spread, that schools could operate in-person safely even during periods of high community spread, and that burdensome mitigations actually had little to no significant effect upon transmission within schools. 

Now that we have higher certainty about schools minimal effects on spread, the reality of the criticality of in-person learning to provide the best outcomes, and the disastrous consequences that closing them caused, we should be asking ourselves: why? While most of Europe kept their schools open (even during times of severe restrictions on adult social life), the US continued with school closures throughout about half the country. 

Why did we allow schools to close? Answering this question is critical to preventing collateral damage to our children, and to learn how we balance competing harms when enacting policy. We must face the evidence, learn from our mistakes, and do better for our children’s sake.

If it wasn’t already abundantly clear that politics explains school closures more than any other factor, this paper from Brown University explores the evidence and sums up their research findings on the factors influencing school closures:

“Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening”

Read More > at Brownstone Institute

Average age of US vehicles reaches record high as price of new vehicles soars – Blame it mainly on the pandemic, which in 2020 triggered a global shortage of automotive computer chips, the vital component that runs everything from radios to gas pedals to transmissions. The shortage drastically slowed global assembly lines, making new vehicles scarce on dealer lots just when consumers were increasingly eager to buy.

Prices reached record highs. And though they’ve eased somewhat, the cost of a vehicle still feels punishingly expensive to many Americans, especially when coupled with now much-higher loan rates.

Since the pandemic struck three years ago, the average new vehicle has rocketed 24% to nearly $48,000 as of April, according to Typical loan rates on new-car purchases have ballooned to 7%, a consequence of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive streak of interest rate hikes to fight inflation.

It’s all pushed the national average monthly auto loan payment to $729 — prohibitively high for many. Experts say a family earning the median U.S. household income can no longer afford the average new car payment and still cover such necessities as housing, food and utilities.

Used vehicle prices, on average, have surged even more since the pandemic hit — up 40%, to nearly $29,000. With an average loan rate having reached 11%, the typical monthly used-vehicle payment is now $563.

Faced with deciding between making a jumbo payment and keeping their existing vehicles, more owners are choosing to stick with what they have, even if it means spending more on repairs and maintenance. Read More > at FOX Business

America Is Binging on Snacks, and Food Companies Are Eating It Up – U.S. consumers are gorging on snacks, fueling boom times for cookie and candy giants while other packaged-food companies vie for bigger shares of the snack aisle. 

Nearly half of U.S. consumers are eating three or more snacks a day, up 8% in the past two years, according to Circana Group, a market-research firm. U.S. snack sales rose to $181 billion last year, up 11% from the year prior, the firm said.

That has translated into big business for companies such as Hershey and Mondelez International, which make products from Oreos cookies to Ritz crackers and SkinnyPop popcorn. 

Between fiscal 2019 and 2022, Hershey’s sales grew 30% while Mondelez’s rose 22%, outpacing other major food companies. 

“Snacking is where the consumer is going,” said Dan O’Leary, chief growth officer at Hostess, which has expanded its lineup of sweet snacks since the maker of Twinkies was bought out of liquidation a decade ago.

Amber Murayi, Hershey’s vice president of strategy, said that while snacking has long been part of U.S. consumers’ lives, the pandemic drove a significant increase. It spurred demand for foods such as popcorn and candy, which people have continued eating during family movie nights or other group activities, she said. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

More older Americans are dying of fall-related injuries – Older Americans are dying of falls at more than double the rate of 20 years ago — with women, men and all racial groups showing increases, according to a new study.

In 2020, the study found, just over 36,500 Americans age 65 and up died of a fall-related injury. That was up from roughly 10,100 deaths in 1999.

Adjusted for age, those numbers translated into a more than twofold increase in the rate of fall-related deaths among older Americans: from 29 per 100,000 in 1999, to 69 per 100,000 in 2020.

It’s well known that falls are the leading cause of injury death among older Americans, and that the problem is growing.

The new study — published recently as a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association — cannot pinpoint the reasons for the rising death rate. Santos-Lozada analyzed national data on death rates from an online platform run by the CDC — which provides limited information based on death certificates.

But there are broad trends that are likely contributors, according to Tripken, who was not involved in the study.

For one, she said, more older adults these days are surviving serious medical conditions like heart attack and stroke — a good thing. But living with the aftereffects of those conditions can also put people at increased risk of falls.

Another factor, Tripken said, is that so many older adults now are taking multiple medications — some of which, or combinations of which, can cause dizziness or other side effects that contribute to falls.

In its fall prevention advice the CDC recommends that older adults ask their doctor or pharmacist to review their medications (including over-the-counter) to see if any may increase their risk of falls.

It’s also important, Tripken said, for older adults to regularly have their eyesight and hearing checked, since impairments in either are risk factors for falls. Read More > at UPI

Your e-DNA is in some seriously weird places – here’s why that’s a big privacy concern – We leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go. Like snakes (but without the drama) we shed our dead skin and hair. We cough and spit, or flush the DNA in our body’s waste into the environment, and – on a bad day – we bleed into our surroundings too.

Now, scientists have discovered that this human DNA can be pulled out of water, earth, and literally ‘thin air’ – and is strong enough to be matched to individuals. The University of Florida researchers found human DNA almost everywhere – swirling through oceans and rivers or buried in the sand of beaches. They are calling this ‘human genetic bycatch’.

“We were absolutely shocked to find more DNA from the general public in the river systems around the institute than we were from our own facility,” Dr David Duffy, an assistant professor of wildlife disease genomics at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the paper, told BBC Science Focus and other publications.

Environmental DNA, or e-DNA, is free-floating fragments of tissues or other biological material that circulates through terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. It’s often used in scientific investigations to monitor biodiversity, trace diseases or track invasive species.

But the study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution reveals that human DNA can be collected and identified just as easily as these target species.

The researchers discovered this almost by accident. When tracing the viral cancers causing a sea turtle pandemic, they expected to find some human e-DNA – particularly in their own labs – but not to find it almost everywhere they looked. The only places human e-DNA was not found was remote islands and mountaintops.

These aren’t just traces: according to Duffy, the DNA samples they found allow the same level of advanced study as DNA taken directly from individuals themselves. “What was really surprising was the quantity and quality,” he said. “There are some other studies where trace amounts of human DNA have been picked up, but never really to this level.”

We’re talking such high-quality DNA that the researchers would have been able to sequence it to identify the owner’s genetic ancestry, or detect mutations linked to genetic diseases like autism and diabetes.

Except that they didn’t sequence all of the DNA they found – only that of volunteers who had consented for this to happen. To do so would have embroiled the researchers in an ethical dilemma: while scientific investigations of this kind will often share the study’s findings publicly, in this case that would mean sharing incredibly sensitive information about specific individuals.

Anyone would be to access and harvest this information – not just about where an individual had been, but also the specifics of their health and ancestry. In the future, the researchers warn that this could even enable the tracking of individuals or specific ethnic groups through the environment. Read More > at Science Focus

Even Kindergartners Should Be Allowed To Walk To School: Study – Child protection laws and policies that determine at what age kids can do things on their own are often misaligned with actual child development—and grossly underestimate kids’ capabilities—according to a new paper in Social Policy Report.

A country that investigates or arrests parents who let their kids walk the dog at age 8, or go to the donut store at 7 and 9, or wait in the car at age 11, is at odds with biological, psychological, and cross-cultural evidence showing just how competent kids are. This misapprehension is reflected in our child neglect laws. One in three U.S. kids will be reported to child protective services at some point in their childhood, usually for alleged neglect.

The paper’s authors are Rachel Flynn, Nicholas Shaman, and Diane Redleaf; Flynn and Shaman are psychology professors, and Redleaf is a civil rights attorney who works with Let Grow, my nonprofit. They reviewed child development research and ethnographic studies to determine the age at which kids are objectively ready for some “healthy childhood independence.”

There is no exact age that covers every kid in every situation, of course. But in general, the authors found that “children’s roles and responsibilities in their social setting often undergo a qualitative shift around 5–7 years old.” In fact, in many communities, “children as young as 5 years old take responsibility for caring for younger children.”

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., Melissa Henderson was arrested for letting her 14-year-old babysit.

The authors used walking to school as the quintessential activity to illustrate each facet of child development. From a physical perspective, they report, most kids ages 6 and 7 have all the skills needed to walk or ride to school. 

Cognitively, kids know how to listen and respond appropriately by age 4. By 4 or 5, they can understand what a map represents.

By 5, children are also ready to start their formal education, which requires the ability to “wait rather than immediately act on their impulses, remember what they are told, interact reasonably well with others, and control themselves most of the time.” Those are the same social and emotional skills needed for a walk to school.

In short: “Most children benefit from some degree of independence by the time they are 5–6 years old.” Read More > at Reason

This summer could push US energy grids to their limits – A worrying new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) estimates over two-thirds of North America will see elevated risks of energy grid shortfalls and blackouts over the summer if faced with extreme temperature spikes and dire weather. While resources remain “adequate” for normal seasonal peak demand, the major non-profit international regulatory authority’s 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment warns most of the US—including the West, Midwest, Texas, Southeast, and New England regions—may not possess enough energy reserves to handle heatwaves, severe storms, and hurricanes.

NERC’s report is particularly troubling given this year’s El Niño forecast. El Niño historically produces wetter-than-average conditions along the Gulf Coast alongside drier climates for areas such as the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. While a naturally occurring event, both El Niño and La Niña weather patterns are expected to rapidly strengthen by the end of the decade due to the exacerbations from climate change. On top of this, industry watchdogs say the US power grid still requires critical maintenance, repairs, and modernization. “The system is close to its edge,” warned NERC’s Director of Reliability Assessment and Performance Analysis John Moura in a call with reporters.

In addition to reliability concerns during peak performance times, the NERC report notes that continued supply chain issues concerning labor, material, and equipment have affected preseason maintenance for generation and transmission facilities across North America.

Still, NERC’s assessment isn’t entirely bad news—much of northern Canada and the US East Coast face a low risk of exceeding their operating reserves. Meanwhile, no region in North America is currently staring down a “high” risk of not meeting their needs during normal peak conditions. “Increased, rapid deployment of wind, solar and batteries have made a positive impact,” said Mark Olson, NERC’s manager of Reliability Assessments. “However, generator retirements continue to increase the risks associated with extreme summer temperatures, which factors into potential supply shortages in the western two-thirds of North America if summer temperatures spike.” Read More > at Popular Science

Homelessness Isn’t an Unfixable Problem – California is home to nearly one-third of the nation’s homeless population and the problem—by almost everyone’s account—continues to worsen. The statistics tell part of the story: More than 170,000 people sleep in tents in public parks, under freeway bridges and on sidewalks in our cities and suburbs. The state has spent $20 billion to address the problem in five years.

The anecdotes are even more telling, given that the common, appalling street scenes cause businesses to shutter and discourage people from visiting downtowns or using public transit. I was chatting on my cellphone on a Sacramento street when a homeless man started screaming in my face. It doesn’t take many incidents like that to harden our attitudes.

Liberal Democrats, who typically run big-city governments, have understandably been reluctant to embrace enforcement-centric policies. That’s changing as scared and angry residents speak out. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced efforts to clear out 1,200 homeless encampments. Officials in San Francisco even unleashed the National Guard to tamp down open-air drug markets.

Meanwhile, California’s official “Housing First” policy is failing. As a fact sheet on the Housing and Community Development website explains, “anyone experiencing homelessness should be connected to a permanent home as quickly as possible, and programs should remove barriers to accessing the housing, like requirements for sobriety or absence of criminal history.”

That approach is an outgrowth of progressive ideology. Housing First views homelessness primarily as a housing problem, thus downplaying the addiction and mental-health issues that are at the root of the crisis. Placing mentally ill people and those with substance-abuse problems unsupervised in housing units doesn’t provide them with the help they need. As one homeless expert told me, it mainly results in them dying alone in a room.

Even if Housing First worked, the state can’t afford to build—and certainly not quickly—the number of units needed. We’ve seen absurd news stories about affordable housing projects costing more than $1 million per apartment. Thanks to the usual governmental issues (poor management, environmental rules, union featherbedding), cities can’t even build a public toilet for less than $1.7 million.

…I recently moderated a homelessness panel in downtown Sacramento, where attendees watched a short movie that compared San Francisco’s intractable problems with those in San Antonio. There are no easy buttons, but the documentary, “Beyond Homeless,” did offer a thoughtful blueprint.

Essentially, the Texas city built a lovely campus in an industrial area not far from downtown. It offers dormitories, a cafeteria, clean restrooms, and a panoply of social services. It’s run by a nonprofit organization. According to the filmmakers, San Antonio’s downtown unsheltered homeless population dropped by 80 percent. The program has moved 6,000 people into permanent housing. Read More > at Reason

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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