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United Postmasters and Managers of America Applauds The Postal Reform Act of 2018

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

Senate Postal Bill (S. 2629) Introduced By Bob Levi of UPMA – 3/23/18 Yesterday, March 22, Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced S. 2629, the Postal Reform Act of 2018. The legislation is the Senate version of HR 756, the House postal reform bill. H.R. 756 […]

The Sneaky Ways Republicans Would Raise Taxes On the Middle Class

The Sneaky Ways Republicans Would Raise Taxes On the Middle Class

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

When House Republicans unveiled their new tax bill on Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan declared that the plan would deliver “real relief” for the middle class and Americans “striving to get there.” He noted that a “typical family of four,” making $59,000, would save $1,182 on their taxes, enough to buy “about a year’s worth of gas for your car.”

As many experts have pointed out, however, the GOP’s plan would ultimately raise taxes on tens of millions of middle-income households—including, it just so happens, the very family of four Ryan described while trying to tout his legislation’s benefits.

That insight comes to us from New York University Law Professor David Kamin, who in a recent Medium post ran the numbers on how a married couple with two children earning $59,000 a year would fair under the GOP’s bill, compared to current law. In the first year of the plan, the family would indeed owe less in taxes.1 But in future years, that cut would shrink as temporary breaks expired and slower inflation adjustments took their toll. Eventually, the family would owe more to the IRS than under the current tax code, facing a $457 hike by 2027.

“It’s important to note that even with their cherry-picked example, this family too would experience a tax increase,” Kamin told me.

Here’s why our hypothetical family of four ends up losing out over time. The Republican bill would double the standard deduction that most Americans choose in lieu of itemizing. But it would also eliminate the personal exemptions that taxpayers take for themselves and each of their dependents. In their place, the legislation increases the Child Tax Credit by $600 dollars, and creates a new $300 “family flexibility tax credit” that each adult in the house can take.

The problem? First, the family flexibility credit disappears after 5 years. Maybe Congress would renew it. But—given the dysfunction in Washington—maybe it wouldn’t. Meanwhile, the Child Tax Credit isn’t indexed to grow inflation, whereas personal exemptions are.

Finally, the Republican bill would change the measure that the government uses to adjust the tax code for inflation each year, swapping in the slower-growing “chained” consumer price index. This also has the effect of increasing families’ taxes over time.

You can see how this sort of sneak tax increase would be politically advantageous for Republicans, who are scrambling to find money wherever they can to pay for large tax cuts aimed at corporations and wealthy business owners. Voters will probably notice if their taxes rise one year after a major law passes. Fewer people will realize it if, eight years from now, they’re paying higher taxes than they otherwise might have because Paul Ryan decided to switch an inflation index.

It’s also a deeply dishonest way to make public policy, especially when plugging your bill as a boon for the very working families you’re planning to victimize. The fact that Republicans couldn’t find a sympathetic model household that wouldn’t be subject to a tax hike under their plan tells you just how callous this legislation really is.

1It’s a slightly smaller cut than Ryan & Co. promised. Republicans compared the hypothetical family’s 2018 tax liability to its 2017 liability, rather than what they would pay next year if tax laws stay the same.

Printing Industries of America Statement on Crucial Postal Reform Efforts

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

3/22/2018 Pittsburgh, PA—Following today’s introduction of the Postal Reform Act of 2018, Printing Industries of America President and CEO Michael Makin. “Printing Industries of America (PIA) applauds today’s bipartisan introduction of the Postal Reform Act of 2018 in the Senate. The original sponsors of this bill, Senators Carper (DE), Heitkamp (ND), McCaskill (MO), and Moran […]

Printing Industries of America Statement on Crucial Postal Reform Efforts appeared on PostalReporter.com.

Correcting Employment Taxes: What to Do If You Withhold the Wrong Amount

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

It’s easy to make mistakes, especially when you have a million and one things on your plate. One error you could make is deducting the wrong amount from employee wages. Correcting employment taxes is necessary if you withhold too much or too little from your employees’ paychecks. This article provides an overview of employment taxes […]

The post Correcting Employment Taxes: What to Do If You Withhold the Wrong Amount appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

Four Suspects Arrested in Connection to Sacramento Postal Carrier Robbery

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

SACRAMENTO — Authorities have arrested four suspects in connection to the robbery of a Sacramento postal carrier. The U.S. Postal Service mail carrier was robbed at gunpoint on March 9 on Calle Royal Way near the corner of Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento. Authorities announced federal charges against all four suspects 29-year-old Anthony Deleal, 29-year-old Brandon Lee […]

The True Lesson of the Tax Bill: This Country Is for Rich People

The True Lesson of the Tax Bill: This Country Is for Rich People

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

If ever there was a piece of legislation designed to guarantee that r stayed greater than g, it’s the Republican tax bill.

Remember  “r>g”? It was the notation Thomas Piketty made briefly famous in his book Capital in the 21st Century, the French economist’s shorthand for the dangers that accumulated wealth could pose to society. When the rate of return (“r”) on capital assets like stocks, bonds, real estate, or factory equipment jumps higher than the rate of economic growth (“g”), he argued, we should expect inequality to swell.

Piketty’s theories aren’t exactly gospel these days. But I’ve been thinking about them a lot as I watched the GOP’s tax bill gallop towards passage (and not only because Piketty himself has been raging about it). After all, the plan is designed specifically to reward wealth—to make sure that corporate shareholders and private business owners can pocket more of our national income each year, before passing it onto their children, with only the flimsiest economic rationale to justify this. It’s a real-time demonstration of how growing inequality paves the way for moneyed interests to exert ever more control over politics and the economy, leading to the kind of world dominated by capital and inherited wealth that Piketty has warned about.

Wealth inequality has already been on a steady rise in the U.S. for years—according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, America’s top 1 percent of households own more of the country’s net worth than they have at any time since the study first started in 1989. As outrageous fortunes have grown, we’ve seen billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and the Mercer family—not to mention many smaller, but still rich donors—pour ever more money into politics. The question has been whether their efforts would ever actually bear fruit for their businesses.

This is a nontrivial issue for the future of inequality and the economy. If corporations and business owners can keep the profits flowing by investing in politics, it means they can outrun the natural economic forces that might, over time, reduce the returns on their wealth. As we’re seeing this week, their investments in the GOP are paying off.

It’s true that the rich do well in general under the Republican plan—in 2025, a quarter of its benefits go to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, 85 percent of whom will get a cut that year, according to the Tax Policy Center. But the bill is especially devoted to bulking up business profits. Republicans are reducing the corporate tax rate tremendously, dropping it from 35 percent to 21 percent, which will let CEOs shower their shareholders with more buybacks and dividends.

They are also offering a large break for so-called pass-through businesses, such as the Trump Organization or your local NFL franchise, which aren’t subject to the corporate income tax. Not counting the bill’s one-time levy on profits that companies like Apple and Google have stashed overseas, the business tax changes Republicans are enacting make up around two-thirds of their legislation’s $1.46 trillion price tag. Toss in the bill’s changes to the estate tax, which will double the amount of money today’s wealthy can pass on to their kids tax free, and you get a big, gold-wrapped Christmas gift for capital. “R” is going bonkers next year.

And what do the rest of us get in return? Republicans have promised a burst of economic growth and higher wages for workers, as companies plow their profits into investments, such as new assembly lines or office buildings. But almost nobody outside the White House or Congress is really expecting a boom. While many mainstream economists think the corporate tax cuts will boost the economy slightly—we’re talking less than one tenth of a percentage point per year, by some estimates—pretty much none believe they will generate enough growth for the bill to pay for itself, as GOP lawmakers have insisted it will, or lead to the kind of stupendous pay raises for the middle class that the administration has advertised. As for the pass-through breaks that will benefit our president? We’ve seen this movie play out already in Kansas, where state legislators finally repealed a similar tax scheme this year, after it led to spiraling deficits and rampant tax dodging while failing to produce any detectable economic growth.

As bad as the bill’s economics are, its politics seem to be worse. Somehow, Republicans have written a bill that gives away $1.5 trillion that less than one-quarter of Americans approve of. Some of that may be a messaging failure; about 32 percent of Americans said they expected to pay more in taxes under the bill, whereas only about 5 percent should next year. But it’s also possible voters just hate the bill because, as survey after survey has shown, corporate tax cuts have always been unpopular. There’s a good reason for this: Only about half of families own any stocks at all, and just one-third own more than $10,000’s worth. Most families don’t have much of a portfolio to speak of, and after years of watching big businesses lap up profits while wages stagnated, they don’t believe their fortunes are connected with corporate America’s. And for the most part, they’re right.

All of which leaves us with the overriding question: Why? Why would Republicans pass a bill so wretchedly unpopular to benefit such a small slice of Americans? Some lawmakers, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Chris Collins, have bluntly admitted that their donors simply demand it. Others, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, may be true believers in conservative economic dogma. And others could be self-interested: The Senate originally planned a smaller pass-through cut, until Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson threatened to kill the whole effort unless it was expanded, an expansion that may benefit his family’s own business interests.

But the overarching reason is the same: The Republican party answers to the interests of wealth. Lawmakers listen to their donors. They listen to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or Hoover Institution, which are funded by the wealthy to create an intellectual justification for deeply regressive policy making. And sometimes, they just listen to their own accountants. The result is a tax code that favors the interests of entrenched money. After three decades of rising wealth inequality, business owners and investors are finding new ways to extend their run. The question now is how the rest of us can stop them.

Republicans Aren’t Even Pretending to Care About Mainstream Economics Anymore

Republicans Aren’t Even Pretending to Care About Mainstream Economics Anymore

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

For many years, Republicans argued that the only fair way to predict the cost of tax cuts was to look at their impact on the economy. If slashing rates sped up growth, that would make the cuts cheaper. Conservatives like Paul Ryan insisted that Congress’s official budget forecasters should take that impact into account by analyzing bills using a process called “dynamic scoring.” And when Republicans took full control over Capitol Hill in 2015, they finally got their chance to make dynamic scoring an official part of the legislative process.

That year, the House approved a rule requiring both the Congressional Budget Office and its cousin, the Joint Committee on Taxation, to build macroeconomic effects into its cost estimates for major bills “to the greatest extent practicable.” Democrats were incensed. They argued that economic forecasting was an inexact art that relied on big, debatable assumptions, and that relying on it to score legislation was little more than a gimmick meant to hide the true price of the tax cuts Republicans were jonesing for. New York’s Jonathan Chait summed up the sentiment with a piece titled, “Why The Republican Congress’s First Act Was to Declare War on Math.”

But now that Republicans are actually trying to pass the massive tax bill they’ve so long desired, they seem to have decided that dynamic scoring wasn’t worth all the fuss after all. The budget resolution that set the stage for tax reform allowed dynamic scoring in both chambers of Congress, but only required it “for informational purposes” in the Senate. The House, led by the aforementioned Paul Ryan, eventually voted on its bill before a dynamic score was ready. Now, it looks as if the Senate will do the same. In a cost estimate released this weekend, the Congressional Budget Office essentially said that there hadn’t been enough time to work up a full macroeconomic analysis of all the bill’s provisions. It simply wasn’t “practicable.” But GOP leaders are hoping to vote this week anyway.

It’s ironic, but not especially surprising, that Republicans have decided to give up on dynamic scoring just as they’re making the very legislative push it was supposed to pave the way for. Comprehensive economic forecasts take time to do properly, and the GOP’s entire legislative strategy is aimed at pushing a bill to passage before the end of the year. But most importantly, any forecast Congress’s budgeteers produce will probably make the bill look bad.

Republicans got excited about the prospect of dynamic scoring in part because the JCT forecasted that an old tax reform bill designed by Rep. David Camp would lead to an additional $50 billion to $700 billion in government revenue, all thanks to economic growth. But Republicans are now attempting to pass legislation that looks very different from Camp’s bill. And while the conservative Tax Foundation, which has a long history of producing pollyannaish tax forecasts, is once again saying that tax cuts will lead to booming growth, most mainstream economic forecasters are far less bullish.The Penn-Wharton Budget Model, for instance, predicts that, before accounting for its economic impact, the House plan would add $2.11 trillion to the deficit over ten years. With optimistic assumptions about growth, it would add $1.96 trillion.

Most experts think that any official score by the JCT would probably yield similar results, since its analysts stick to conventional modeling assumptions. “Based on a review of prior JCT dynamic estimates, there is good reason to expect that the estimate of current legislation will show less-than-flattering growth effects,” Martin Sullivan wrote today at Tax Analysts.

A bad dynamic score wouldn’t just put the lie to the idea that the GOP’s corporate tax cuts will pay for themselves, though. It would also undermine the party’s entire argument for the cuts, which they claim will yield bountiful GDP growth and higher wages. It’s easy to wave off forecasts by center-left think tanks that suggest growth is unlikely to occur. It would be hard to wave off a forecast by Congress’s in-house budget analysts.

Not that they wouldn’t try. As we saw during the health care debate, Republicans were perfectly comfortable trashing the CBO’s predictions about what would happen if they replaced Obamacare. We heard echoes of that Monday, when Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch said he simply didn’t believe the office’s assessment of his party’s tax plan. Ultimately, the GOP’s decision to give up on dynamic scoring is emblematic of its long-running rejection of all mainstream economic thinking.

Forbes ranks FIU second best employer in Florida

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

For the second year in a row, FIU has made “America’s Best Employers” list by Forbes magazine. FIU is the second best ranked Florida employer after Publix, and is the highest ranking university in Florida on this year’s list. “Reaching this milestone two years in a row validates what FIU’s faculty and staff have known […]

The post Forbes ranks FIU second best employer in Florida appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

Here Comes the Trade War

Here Comes the Trade War

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump haphazardly shuffled the U.S. into the trade battle he’s been yearning for, telling reporters today that he would impose a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum.

The news capped off a baffling morning during which the White House appeared to waffle on whether to formally announce the new duties, the details of which are still officially vague. The administration is still conducting a legal review of the plan and has not said definitively whether it will single out specific nations like China, or tax steel and aluminum imports across the board. But an unnamed industry executive who was briefed on the plan told the New York Times that the “tariffs are expected to apply to all countries.”

These are the kinds of specifics a normal White House would have of course ironed out ahead of time. But this is the Trump Administration, where the one constant is chaos, and officials are deeply divided over trade, a fact that was reflected in this morning’s bumbling rollout. The administration’s protectionist wing—including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Trade Representative Richard Lighthizer, and adviser Peter Navarro—has been building the case for tariffs for months. And in February, the Commerce Department released a 262-page report arguing that the president should impose a 24 percent tariff on all foreign steel and a 7.7 percent tariff on aluminum for national security purposes. But the protectionists have met resistance from officials including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who are concerned that a trade fight will drag down the economy.

In the middle of all this sits the Trump himself, who is convinced the United States is being snookered by its trade partners and would love nothing more than to slap Mexico and China with fat border taxes, but is also easily influenced by whoever he speaks to last. According to the Washington Post, the administration’s pro-tariff faction tried to keep the plans for today’s announcement secret from other staffers until the last minute, so that the free traders wouldn’t try to talk Trump out of it. That led to a bout of confusion once word got out, and it briefly seemed unclear whether the president would roll out his plan at all. Until, that is, he finally blurted the numbers out. That’s the sort of chaos and caprice shaping our country’s trade policy.

Regardless of how exactly things shake out, this is probably bad news for anybody who doesn’t work at a steel mill. The argument against tariffs is that they will raise prices for businesses like construction companies and auto makers that use steel as a raw material. That will hurt those companies’ profits and possibly put a crimp on job growth. The argument in favor of tariffs boils down to the fact that U.S. steel manufacturers have been battered over the past two decades by cheap imports from China’s subsidized state-owned factories, which have been producing far more metal than their domestic market can use, creating a global glut that’s weighed on prices in the process.

But it’s not clear China’s overcapacity is still an urgent issue. Shipments from the country to the U.S. have fallen significantly since 2016, when President Obama increased tariffs on certain types of Chinese steel to more than 500 percent, and major U.S. steelmakers reported healthy profits last year.

Obama’s move was also much more narrowly targeted than Trump’s; it was mostly aimed at China, and specifically designed to punish dumping, a practice where companies price their product well below cost to clear out their inventory. The European Union took similar steps in 2016 to stanch of the flow of Chinese imports. Trump, in contrast, may be about to pick a fight with the whole world. And his pretense that these tariffs are necessary to protect U.S. national security may not hold up at the World Trade Organization, meaning that it’s likely some of our major trade partners are likely to retaliate. Europe and Mexico have already vowed to take countermeasures. There’s a strong chance China will too.

These are not idle threats. President Bush was forced to drop steel tariffs he implemented in 2002, in part because the European Union made it clear it would start putting counter-tariffs on products made in swing states in order to exact political as well as economic retribution. Unlike washing machines and solar panels, which Trump has previously imposed tariffs on, steel is a major piece of global commerce, meaning that today Trump may have fired the first wobbly shot in an honest-to-god trade war.


by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

March 26, 2018 – The EEOC entered a final decision finding that the U.S. Postal Service discriminated against the Class of approximately 130,000 USPS employees when it subjected them to the National Reassessment Process (NRP) between May 5, 2006 and July 1, 2011. The USPS employees who were reviewed under the NRP had suffered workplace […]

Marco Rubio Made the Republican Tax Bill Slightly Better for the Working Poor. It’s Still a Regressive Boondoggle.

Marco Rubio Made the Republican Tax Bill Slightly Better for the Working Poor. It’s Still a Regressive Boondoggle.

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

For the last several days, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been fuming about the Republican tax bill, arguing that it did not do enough to help working-class families. On Thursday, he threatened to vote against the legislation unless colleagues finally met some of his demands.

Rubio is not exactly known for his titanium backbone, and pretty soon it seemed as if all of political Twitter had started a countdown until he caved. Friday afternoon, he appeared to do just that, announcing he would vote yes after finally winning a few concessions.

But while it’s easy to mock the man for accepting one-fourth of a stale loaf, his efforts have made the GOP’s bill marginally better for lower-income mothers and fathers.

Along with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Rubio spent several weeks lobbying for changes to the child tax credit that would make it more valuable to families with modest means. Today, the credit lets families subtract $1,000 from their IRS bill for each of their children. It’s also “refundable,” which a Washington term of art meaning that parents can claim the credit as a cash payment from the government, even if they don’t owe any federal income tax. As a result, the credit doubles as both a straightforward tax break, and a social welfare program buried in the tax code.

The problem is that, as it’s structured now, the child tax credit isn’t worth much to the poorest of the working poor. In order to claim any of it, a parent needs to make at least $3,000. Then, for each dollar a family earns over that threshold, they can get 15 cents back from the government as a refund. To get get the full $1,000 credit for one kid, you need more than $9,000 in earnings.

Expanding the child tax credit, and making it more of it refundable, has long been a central plank of the small but vocal reform-conservative movement that Rubio and Lee represent in the Senate, which wants to push the Republican party in a more family-friendly direction. Unfortunately for them, traditional supply-side conservatives, like the writers of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, have been cold on the idea, in part because they’d prefer to spend money on corporate tax cuts, and in part because they don’t like social welfare programs for the poor (even when they’re embedded in the tax code). When Rubio and Lee introduced an amendment late last month vastly expanding the refundable portion of the child tax credit, their colleagues shot it down.

But by threatening to torpedo the whole bill this week, Rubio finally managed to secure changes that will be worth several hundred dollars to many lower-income families. It’s not a lot in the scheme of a $1.5 trillion bill, but it’s something.

Here’s how the math works out. The Senate bill would have bumped the entire value of the child tax credit to $2,000 and dropped the income threshold to $2,500. But it increased the refundable portion by a mere $100, to $1,100.

By protesting, Rubio convinced his colleagues to do a little better. The refundable portion is now worth $1,400. To pay for the change, Republicans undid a tweak that would have let 17-year-old children qualify for the credit, up from age 16.

For a single mother supporting a child on a $12,000 income, that change means an extra $300 per year—or a little more than you could make in typical a week at a minimum wage job. For a single mother with two kids earning $24,000, it would mean an extra $600.

This is less than Rubio and Lee sought in their original amendment. That would have let parents claim the refund starting with the first dollar they earned, giving more aid to the absolute poorest parents. It would have also indexed the child tax credit to inflation, which the tax bill does not. The fact that they had to eliminate the credit for 17-year-olds in order to expand the refundable portion of the credit also speaks to just how unwilling Republicans were to redirect any money from business tax cuts to this cause, as well as to the minimal influence family-friendly conservatism seems to have as political philosophy.

Meanwhile, one could argue that Rubio is simply spraying perfume on a dung heap of a bill, giving the regressive boondoggle aimed at enriching corporate shareholders and wealthy business owners a faint whiff of working-class friendliness. But, hey, if he was always going to cave and vote for the bill, at least he managed to eek out a few improvements. Way to stand strong.

Docks Off

Docks Off

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

In March, Seattle shut down its bike-share system. The decision capped a perplexing, embarrassing saga for a major city that consistently ranks near the top for bicycle commuters per capita. Seattle’s Pronto launched in March amid bike-share systems’ ascent from urban novelty to legitimate transportation technology, one that last year served up 28 million U.S. rides in more than 50 cities. But Pronto, with its small coverage area and fleet of just 500 bikes, never outgrew its training wheels. The system underperformed even for its size, recording less than one ride per bike per day. Scapegoats included the city’s rainy weather, its hills, and its mandatory-helmet law—who carries a helmet around? Now the docks have been removed; the bikes are being sold.

Then, in July, Seattle took a gamble on an innovation that has transformed China’s largest cities: dock-less bike share. Seattle permitted three private companies to deploy nearly 9,000 bikes on its streets, sidewalks, parks, and … everywhere else you could conceivably imagine a bike. The city suddenly has the second-largest fleet of shared bicycles in the United States, after New York. Riders make tens of thousands of trips daily. And it didn’t cost the city a dime.

These bikes—bright, light, and a little dinky—have swarmed U.S. cities from the Puget Sound to Biscayne Bay. They threaten to fill every inch of urban public space with hundreds of thousands of plastic bikes. But they also promise to permanently alter the way people move around the American city. And it might take a bit of that guaranteed civic clutter to get the job done.

Just look at China. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the country’s unprecedented pace of urbanization produced something revolutionary. For the past twelve months, Chinese cities have been in the midst of a spectacular and sometimes messy experiment: Millions of privately funded bicycles that can be ridden for a song and left anywhere at all. Most bike-share systems have docks where the bikes are stored. The docks tell you where you’ll find a bike and keep the bikes locked up when you’re done. In China, by contrast, the bikes are simply everywhere, secured by locks and GPS chips.

“Dock-less is as important to transportation as cellular was to telephony,” said Horace Dediu, an analyst at Asymco who studies the mode. It is the one place in the field, he said, where “change is happening at a blinding speed.”

More than 30 companies have delivered approximately 15 million bicycles to the streets of China’s cities. There are 1.5 million shared bikes in Shanghai alone, or about 1 bike for every 16 residents. If New York City—whose Citi Bike program is the largest bike share in the United States—were to match that ratio, it would need to multiply the number of blue for-hire bicycles by 50. In Xiamen, a city nearly the size of Los Angeles where the first major dock-less operator, Mobike, launched in December 2016, the ratio is even higher: 1 bike for every 11 people. That would be like if L.A. suddenly put 360,000 bicycles on the street.

These bikes are changing the way China commutes. Mobike claimed in May that its bikes had doubled the percentage of Chinese biking to work in selected cities, taking the share of bicycle commuters to more than 11 percent. The other major operator, Ofo, has drawn investments from e-commerce giant Alibaba and Didi, China’s version of Uber, as the company’s 2 billion 2017 bike-share trips started to eat into the short-distance ride-hailing market. Each company is valued at more than a billion dollars; each claims to be the biggest.

A backlash has already begun. In November, the country’s third-largest operator, Bluegogo, declared bankruptcy, prompting speculation that a bike-share bubble was bursting. Cities began to threaten companies for sowing disorder, or to simply impound bikes. Viral photos of bicycle graveyards, sites where hundreds of bicycles have piled up, seemed to announce a marriage of cheap cash and short-term thinking.

Of course, it is easier to take a photo of 1,000 discarded bicycles than 60 million rides a day. I asked David Levinson, a professor of transportation at the University of Sydney, whether dock-less bike share was a VC-funded bubble or the future of short-distance transportation.

“Yes,” he wrote back. “It’s like the internet in 1999.”

The industry shows no signs of slowing its expansion. Ofo reportedly secured another billion dollars in funding this month, joining Mobike and a handful of smaller startups on a push into cities in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. Until this summer, Dallas was America’s largest city with no bike-share system; the arrival of several thousand bicycles operated by a handful of private companies has given it, overnight, one of the country’s largest fleets of shared bikes.

The most exciting thing for U.S. transportation planners? How cheap these bikes are to ride. Most services work out to around a dollar a ride. “Our job is to provide transportation options, and it costs a lot less to roll out,” Gabe Klein, who oversaw bike-share systems as transportation chief in Washington and Chicago, and now serves as an adviser to the dock-less company Spin.* “We saw this huge growth in D.C., I think we more than doubled bike mode share. Now we’re going to see that on steroids.”

In the U.S., bike-share systems tend to be a composed of a hodgepodge of different funders, vendors, and operators. No city has made a greater investment in old-fashioned bike share than Washington. But even there, planners have cautiously welcomed the competition. A handful of private dock-less companies have been permitted to deploy small fleets as a pilot program. In an ideal world, said District planner Sam Zimbabwe, “we’d have multiple operators reaching different market segments because of their pricing models.” On Friday, New York issued a call for its own dock-less expansion.

Why challenge the home team? In part because planners think mode share—the percentage of commuters who use bicycles—could be much, much higher. They don’t see multiple bike-share systems competing for the same pot of people. Rather, different systems can serve different markets. In spite of prices that can be a fraction of Capital Bikeshare, dock-less company LimeBike says all it needs to make its business model work is one ride per bike per day—a mark that most functioning bike-share systems fly by. (Capital Bikeshare clocked 5.6 rides per bike per day in October.)

A city blanketed in bicycles would address one persistent critique of bike-share systems: that the docks tend to be concentrated in central or otherwise well-off parts of town. “We don’t need to redline in a way that the dock systems redline cities,” said Chris Taylor, Ofo’s vice president of U.S. operations, referring to the midcentury practice of denying loans to black neighborhoods.

But in D.C., Taylor—who comes to Ofo from Uber—has been frustrated by the city’s regulatory approach for the pilot program, which has capped each company’s fleet at 400.* One reason Chinese systems are so popular is that there are bikes wherever you need them. But this has also been a source of friction. “The Chinese model depends on one huge subsidy, an invisible subsidy, and that’s the parking subsidy,” Dediu said. “The city is essentially granting free parking to all these bikes. If you add it all up as urban land, the amount of subsidy is in the trillions of dollars.”

In American cities, only private automobiles are entitled to that kind of real estate. (San Francisco, to take a city that is neither large nor particularly famous for driving, has 280,000 on-street parking spaces.) The bikes have already raised hackles. “Dallas can’t handle bike share. It’s turning our city into a bicycle junk yard,” one of the city’s morning-show hosts griped in October. (The city says there have not actually been many complaints.) To counter that problem, Mobike uses a scoring system in which riders rate previous riders’ parking jobs—leave a bike in a lake and your next ride will cost more. Nevertheless, Chinese cities are moving toward creating parking zones for the things.

The dock-less phenomenon has drawn comparisons to the arrival of Uber and Lyft, whose radical impact on urban transportation is difficult to separate from a consumer-friendly price war enabled by a massive venture capital subsidy. Like the ride-hail startups, they are also gathering valuable data about user behavior. But the similarities end there. Mobike and Ofo manufacture, own, and manage massive fleets, which (theoretically, at least) requires attention to maintenance, geography, and customer service.

Critics aren’t sure that the model can work, unadulterated, in U.S.
cities. In addition to the burbling outrage about misplaced bicycles, there are geographic challenges. American cities sprawl. While most automobile trips are short, driving and parking remain cheap and easy; there are few transit commuters to whom the “last-mile” problem means anything.

And then there’s that awkward question: Do dock-less bikes render the systems that U.S. cities have built out—working with nonprofits, sponsors, and grants—obsolete? Most experts say yes. Most American transit officials aren’t so sure.

In Minneapolis, Nice Ride Minnesota—a nonprofit bike-share system with 200 stations—put out a request for proposals to bring dock-less bike share to the city. “We did not see this coming at all,” Bill Dossett, the executive director, says of the dock-less bike explosion. After the past year, the potential cost savings—particularly on the electronic components of docks, from touch screens to key pads to lock motors—was too promising to ignore.

And so Nice Ride will hedge. The docks and bikes are coming back out in the spring, but the organization isn’t spending money on new stations. Instead it’s choosing between LimeBike and Motivate, the operator of the country’s largest docked bike-share systems, to undertake an expansion of several thousand free-floating bikes.

“Working to protect an old business model is a dead-end street,” Dossett explained. “But we want to keep out system going until we’re really sure that what’s going to replace it is going to stick around.” Even if the free-floating bikes could rival established systems for reliability, Dossett said, he foresaw a coming use for those docks: securing and charging electric bicycles, which many bicycle professionals believe are—after dock-less bikes—the next big thing.

*Update, Dec. 18, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect Klein’s affiliation with Spin. 

*Correction, Dec. 19, 2017: This article initially misstated the District of Columbia’s fleet limit was 300; it is 400.

Congress Probably Won’t Pass a Bill to Stabilize Obamacare—And That’s OK

Congress Probably Won’t Pass a Bill to Stabilize Obamacare—And That’s OK

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Congress may be about to miss its last real chance to pass a bill to stabilize Obamacare’s insurance markets. On Monday, Republicans unveiled a batch of fixes that, in theory, were designed to undo some of Donald Trump’s attempts to sabotage the law. But after running into opposition from Democrats over abortion language, it looks unlikely that the legislation will be included in the $1.3 trillion spending package Congress must pass by Friday to avoid a government shutdown. Since anything left off of that giant barge of a bill will likely be abandoned until after this year’s midterm elections—if not for good—the prospects for an Obamacare deal are officially looking bleak.

It turns out, however, that’s probably for the best. The GOP’s plan would likely have done little to steady the law, and ultimately might have left fewer Americans insured . “My view is that this bill would be a small net negative for the insurance markets,” Matthew Fielder, a health policy fellow at the Brookings Institution told me.

The reason why takes a little bit of explaining, but it boils down to this: One of Donald Trump Trump’s dramatic moves to undermine the Affordable Care Act backfired in some ways, and ultimately made health plans less expensive for many low-income Americans. If Congress undid his work, it would drive the cost of insurance back up for those families, and some would likely drop their coverage.

You might recall that after Republicans gave up on repealing Obamacare last year, Trump tried to bring the law crashing down by cutting off an important set of government subsidies for insurers. These subsidies were known as cost-sharing reduction payments, or CSRs for short. For a while, many health care experts thought that this move would either lead health plans to abandon the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, or dramatically increase their premiums—which is why industry wonks started referring to it as the president’s “nuclear option.” But most states found a clever way to keep their insurance markets functioning in spite of Trump’s ploy. Instead of letting insurers hike premiums on all of their health policies, regulators told them to just increase the prices on silver plans, which make up Obamacare’s middle tier of coverage, and were the only plans affected by the CSRs.

This led to a weird-but-fortunate side effect: Many Americans suddenly became eligible for free, low-end health insurance, or very cheap high-end insurance. The tax credits Obamacare gives some families to buy coverage are based on the cost of silver plans. So, as the price of silver policies rose, so did the value of the tax credits. In some cases, they rose high enough to cover the entire cost of an inexpensive bronze plan, or most of a generous gold plan.

Long story short, Trump’s attempt to destroy Obamacare instead left some Americans paying $0 premiums. Lest you think this was some sort of carefully aimed bank shot on the president’s part meant to bring down insurance prices, know that Trump spent plenty of time explicitly threatening to wreck Obamacare by killing the CSRs, unless Democrats would negotiate a repeal-and-replace deal with him.

The stabilization bill that Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins unveiled this week would restore the cost-sharing reduction payments. That move would probably save the government some money and make coverage a little cheaper for some upper-middle-class families who don’t receive help paying their premiums from the government, and whose states failed to keep the cost of their plans from rising. But it would likely drive up the cost of silver and gold plans for lower and middle-income households who’ve benefited from Trump’s failed scheme. The Congressional Budget Office predicted this week that, as a result, between 500,000 and 1 million fewer Americans would carry insurance.

Alexander and Collins’ bill does include another, more helpful idea. It would set aside money for states to create reinsurance programs—which would essentially reimburse health plans that get saddled with too many high cost patients. That might undo some of the damage Republicans did by repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate, which was meant to keep the insurance market balanced between healthy and sick customers by forcing Americans to buy coverage or pay a tax penalty. Partly as a result, the CBO thinks Alexander-Collins would lower premiums by 20 percent compared to where they’d otherwise be in 2021.

But the people who benefit from those lower premiums would be Americans who make more than 400 percent of the poverty line, too much to qualify for Obamacare’s premium subsidies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, maybe 500,000 more Americans would buy coverage thanks to the reinsurance program lowering the cost. That’s possibly equal to, and maybe half-a-million less than, the coverage losses associated with bringing back the CSRs. In a best-case scenario, Alexander-Collins looks like a wash when it comes to helping people get insurance.

Which means Democrats really don’t have much reason to support it. As their price for supposedly propping up Obamacare, Republicans want to include language that would prevent ACA plans from covering abortion. They also want to make it easier for governors to opt out of Obamacare’s regulations without the support of their state legislatures. If Republicans were actually ready to fix the exchanges by, say, restoring the individual mandate, those changes might conceivably be palatable. But as is, it’s an offer Democrats should be more than happy to refuse.

Even By Our Awful Standards, Americans Have Basically Stopped Saving Money

Even By Our Awful Standards, Americans Have Basically Stopped Saving Money

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

If you—like me— are a natural pessimist about the economy, now is sort of an eerie time. Overall, things seem good. Growth is solid. Unemployment is low. Companies are investing and home prices are strong. The stock market is going parabolic.

Even the more obscure stats worrywarts usually pull out to prove that things are less great than they seem are staring to look healthier. For instance, the number of Americans of prime working age who aren’t even looking for work has , since the Great Recession, suggested that the labor market was weaker than the official unemployment rate let on. But that number is finally crawling back to normal.

Of course, there are plenty of big, generational problems plaguing the economy, like yawning income inequality, deep poverty, and industry consolidation. But just thinking about the short term, there aren’t a lot of cyclical problems to fret about.

Except, perhaps, these two: First, even though the economy seems to be healthy, wage growth is still weak—at the moment, pay is rising not much faster than inflation. Second, Americans appear have all but stopped stopped saving money.

These two issues may be related.

Americans have never been the world’s best savers (our thin welfare state doesn’t exactly make it easy). But even by our own low recent standards, we’re collectively putting away an exceptionally small slice of our paychecks. In December, the personal savings rate dropped to 2.4 percent, its lowest level since 2005. Before that, the only other time it dropped below 3 percent was in Oct. 2001. This doesn’t appear to be a blip either. The savings rate has been burrowing lower for most of the past couple years.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the low savings rate may be a sign that Americans are simply feeling good about their financial lives. As a rule, families tend to spend more when stock prices and home values are rising, since they feel richer. Economists call this tendency the “wealth effect.” Middle class incomes have also posted some reasonably strong gains in the last few years, as more people have gone back to work. So it’s not surprising that, after many relatively frugal years in the wake of the recession, households would want to break out their credit cards and spend.

The problem is that some people are probably spending money they don’t really have. For all the good economic news, the one nagging weak point really has been wage growth. Families are making more than a few years ago. But not a ton more. It’s possible that we’ve reached the point in the business cycle where households are now excitedly spending paper gains after taking a look at their eTrade account or checking Zillow, even though they don’t have a lot of extra cash flow. Or, as the Journal’s Grep Ip tweeted, Americans may think “their assets are doing the saving for them.”

That can be a perilous assumption. But does it mean we’re setting ourselves up for serious trouble in a few years? Not necessarily. Recessions tend to have a mix of causes, like a sudden collapse in asset prices mixed with lots of debt. Right now, Americans are reasonably unburdened by loans, and credit growth has been pretty mild. While our savings rate might be back to oughties levels, we’re not collectively over-leveraging to buy McMansions and Ford Explorers.

That’s the optimistic case. A pessimist, however, might say that Americans have settled back into a pattern of spending today without worrying too much about tomorrow—and that tends to spell trouble at some point or another. If stocks or home prices drop, a lot of nervous households might look at their depleted bank accounts and decide to shut their wallets. If borrowing does eventually get out of control, you could see a rise in defaults the next time the economy gets rocky. Point being, if you’re on the watch for a sign of future trouble, America’s paper thin savings rate might be it.

Can the post office save itself with banking?

Can the post office save itself with banking?


Everything you need to know about postal banking.

Consult This Employee Termination Checklist to Keep Things Running Smoothly

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

Employees leave companies every day to pursue growth opportunities, accommodate personal lives, or experience change. As an employer, you hope employees won’t leave your business, but you know this is wishful thinking. When an employee resigns, you need to know what to do. The average annual overall turnover rate is 19%, according to SHRM. If […]

The post Consult This Employee Termination Checklist to Keep Things Running Smoothly appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

Are Your Savings Right for Retirement?

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

What are you doing to save for retirement? It’s probably not enough. There are a variety of reasons you probably aren’t saving enough, but are they good enough to excuse causing yourself more hassle and...

Read More

The post Are Your Savings Right for Retirement? appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

Mister Rogers Forever Stamp Dedicated

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

PITTSBURGH — 3/23/18 – It really is “a beautiful day in the neighborhood” now that the U.S. Postal Service has immortalized Mister Rogers on a Forever stamp. Please share the news using the hashtag #MisterRogersStamp. Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan dedicated the stamp honoring Fred Rogers today at the studio named in his honor where it all began 50 years […]

Statement from Postmaster General on the Postal Service Reform Act of 2018

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

“There is an urgent need for the Congress to enact postal reform legislation this year. We are hopeful that with the introduction in the Senate of the bipartisan Postal Service Reform Act of 2018 by Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE), Claire McCaskill (D-MI), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and with the bipartisan support for […]

Statement from Postmaster General on the Postal Service Reform Act of 2018 appeared on PostalReporter.com.

When Does Direct Deposit Go Through? | Patriot Software

When Does Direct Deposit Go Through? | Patriot Software

Payroll Tips, Training, and News

If you pay some employees via direct deposit, they might ask you when they will receive their wages. When does direct deposit go through?

FIU names 2016 Student Employee of the Year

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

Jobs on campus are useful tools for students looking to earn money and gain real-world experience while they study without having to travel far from school. But for Bianca Gutierrez, winner of the 2016 Student Employee of the Year award, working in the Office of Alumni Relations & Annual Giving for the past year has […]

The post FIU names 2016 Student Employee of the Year appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

Should You Offer a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan?

by Mike Kappel @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

You know employees like employer-sponsored benefits. As an employer, offering benefits is advantageous for your business, too. A nonqualified deferred compensation plan is one type of benefit that both you and your employees can enjoy. Find out what a nonqualified deferred compensation plan is, why you might consider offering it, and how to set it […]

The post Should You Offer a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan? appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

California Bill Would Allow Unrestricted Housing by Transit, Solve State Housing Crisis

California Bill Would Allow Unrestricted Housing by Transit, Solve State Housing Crisis

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, has introduced a bill that would all but abolish the city’s famously strict land use controls—and virtually every other residential zoning restriction in California’s urban neighborhoods. It’s just about the most radical attack on California’s affordability crisis you could imagine.

Wiener’s bill, SB-827, flies in the face of every assumption Americans have held about neighborhood politics and design for a century. It also makes intuitive sense. The bill would ensure that all new housing construction within a half-mile of a train station or a quarter-mile of a frequent bus route would not be subject to local regulations concerning size, height, number of apartments, restrictive design standards, or the provision of parking spaces. Because San Francisco is a relatively transit-rich area, this would up-zone virtually the entire city. But it would also apply to corridors in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and low-rise, transit-oriented suburbs across the state. It would produce larger residential buildings around transit hubs, but just as importantly it would enable developers to build those buildings faster.

Almost everyone agrees California needs more housing. The state is home to 6 of the country’s 10 most expensive metro areas, in part because of decades of under-building. New building permits are hard to come by thanks to balkanized power structures within and between cities, in addition to various structural incentives not to approve new housing units. Ironically, because transit access is an amenity people pay for and then hoard, even some areas around commuter rail or subway stops are required to hold only houses with big front yards.

Of course, transit hubs are exactly where more housing can be built with the least effect on traffic, so that’s the practice Wiener’s bill tries to promote. It would establish a minimum height (45 to 85 feet, depending on street with and distance) for new buildings sitting on the valuable land that abuts transit corridors. It would end parking minimums and pave the way for skyscrapers around every subway stop in California, and along many big avenues as well.

In a Medium post announcing SB-827, Wiener pointed to a McKinsey study that shows the tremendous potential of transit-oriented development in California. The state currently has 1.16 million housing units that can be considered transit-oriented. The law could open the door to as many as 3 million more.

At first glance, the bill is too radical to pass; California homeowners would revolt, or at least use their remaining local power to shut down a whole lot of bus routes. At least one advocate for equitable development in South L.A. has compared the bill to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Like most attempts to build more housing, it will likely be crushed between homeowners seeking to preserve property values and renters fearful of the resultant tear-downs and evictions.

Still, it represents a reassuring trend in California politics: the rising tide in the statehouse to overwhelm local restrictions on housing construction. In September of 2016, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that eased the approval of accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, across the state. The result has been a bona fide housing boomlet in the backyards of cities like Los Angeles, whose byzantine permitting process had stymied would-be builders.

Wiener’s transit-oriented development bill, if it passed, would have the most radical impact of any California law since Prop 13, the 1978 resolution that permanently lowered the state’s property taxes (and dealt a blow to state finances that continues to this day). But even if it doesn’t, it puts some smaller good ideas on the table. If anyone were in a position to get some part of this passed, it would be California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is in the final year of his well-received second stint in charge of the country’s most populous state.

Life Insurance Losing Appeal in Changing Generational Priorities

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

The reduction in the number of people purchasing life insurance policies has reduced in the recent past, and this has become a major concern for the industry. In fact, most low-income earners do not seem...

Read More

The post Life Insurance Losing Appeal in Changing Generational Priorities appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

We Need More Black-Owned Grocery Stores

We Need More Black-Owned Grocery Stores

by Tom Perkins @ Slate Articles

The full-service supermarket that Circle Food Store owner Dwayne Bourdeaux runs in New Orleans’ 7th Ward is clean and stocked with locally sourced produce that arrives with days to spare. The butcher cuts meat daily in the store and offers not only standard cuts but also items that are locally popular—raccoon, pig lips, pig ears, rabbit, and so on.

Concerned about the rates of diabetes and hypertension among black Americans—the majority of his customers—Bourdeaux not only sells healthy food but also incentivizes it by offering $5 worth of free, fresh produce to those who spend $5 on it.

“You should serve the community, because it’s not all about making money,” says Boudreaux, a black American in his early 40s who lives seven minutes from the store he worked at nearly his whole life before taking it over from his father. “I’d sell more liquor, alcohol, cigarettes, and fried foods if I wanted to make more money.”

But, he continues, “to be a part of the community, you don’t take the money out of the community and not reinvest it back into it. It’s like a family—you have to nurture it, you have to provide for it, you have to look out for people. To be a part of the community, you have got to care.”

His is a rare success in black and brown communities nationwide but not for lack of effort. In fact, Boudreaux is one of the nation’s few remaining black people operating full-service supermarkets. No organizations track the number, but sources familiar with the situation and some of the remaining grocers suggest that fewer than 10 black-owned supermarkets remain across the entire country. And the number continues to shrink: In the past two years alone, Sterling Farms in New Orleans, Apples and Oranges in Baltimore, and several branches of Calhoun’s in Alabama have all gone out of business.

This is problematic because strong anchor businesses like grocery stores can serve as the center of neighborhood economies, recirculating local revenues through wages and nearby businesses. They can also be neighborhood hubs where people go to buy good food as well as employment centers and sources of community pride. But where there are no grocery stores, or where they’re not enmeshed in the fabric of the community, problems arise: Grocery-store ownership directly ties to larger struggles and themes like economic stability, self-determination, power, control, and racial and class stratification, says Malik Yakini.

Yakini is the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, an organization that builds self-reliance, food security, and justice in Detroit’s black community. When a neighborhood loses a local grocery store, he says, the black American community essentially becomes what he describes as a domestic colony.

“[Black neighborhoods] are seen as a place for the more dominant economy to sell things,” Yakini says. “We’re more interested in building community, self-determination, and self-reliance. We’re interested in being more than consumers of goods that others bring to sell, and often goods that are inferior to what’s sold in the white community.

“We’re not a place to dump cheap goods,” Yakini continues. “African-American communities need to be producers of goods and stand eyeball to eyeball and shoulder to shoulder to other economic groups. Those that haven’t are subject to all sorts of abuse.”

* * *

In Detroit—a city that’s 85 percent black American—there are no black-owned grocery stores. Instead, Chaldeans—Middle Eastern Christians—living in the suburbs own the majority of the grocery-store options. A recent Fair Food Network study found Detroit’s residents spend an estimated $200 million annually on groceries in the suburbs.

Large chains like Walmart capitalize on this phenomenon. The company was one of three to partner with former First Lady Michelle Obama on a controversial plan to build 1,500 grocery stores in food deserts; fewer than half of those stores were ever built or renovated, and many of them were shuttered within the first five years.

In addition to building (and then closing) stores in underserved communities, Walmart has also been known to bus city residents out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs to do their shopping under one roof—an attractive option for a population that’s not totally mobile in a sprawling city like Detroit.

Also working in the large chains’ favor is the fact that many stores in black neighborhoods like Chicago’s South Side or Detroit’s east side are dirty, the quality of their food is often lower, and there’s a well-documented pattern of distributors supplying expired or nearly expired food. Additionally, local shoppers often say that management can be disrespectful, and staff often don’t live nearby.

At a now-closed Jewel-Osco location on Chicago’s South Side, Dara Cooper, co-director of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, says she used to find rotting vegetables, old fruit, and green meat, whereas Jewel’s stores in more affluent white neighborhoods stock better produce and meats.

A neighborhood’s class and race correlate with the quality of food found in its grocery stores, Cooper says, adding that she witnessed the same phenomenon in Philadelphia’s Fresh Grocer chain. (Jewel-Osco and Fresh Grocer didn’t reply to requests for comment.)

* * *

In Chicago, food activist Sheelah Muhammad’s father ran a Nation of Islam grocery store that opened in the mid–20th century and partnered with black producers to set up businesses to supply its food. But, she says, that fell apart in the century’s final decades as society integrated and people gravitated toward large, white-owned chains in a way that earlier generations didn’t.

“When you’re coming out of slavery, Jim Crow, and having to do for yourself, having to work within your own community after being segregated—there are some positives to that. Not that I want to go back to it,” Muhammad says. “But having to do for yourself and working within your community—we should go back to that.”

And a common argument that blacks hear from the right and libertarian whites is, “Black people should just go and open grocery stores” or some variation of the “bootstraps” cliché. But that ignores the difficulty black people often have in obtaining capital or experience. Malik Yakini claims that black people in Detroit are often shut out of management positions at stores run by those from outside their community, so they don’t have the experience necessary to successfully run a supermarket or obtain capital.

And they’re already at a serious disadvantage when it comes to lending, says Dara Cooper.

“Everybody’s not starting from same playing field, and there’s a history of and contemporary acts of anti-blackness that lead to inequalities around access to capital and massive disinvestments in neighborhoods,” she says. “You can’t take lightly that banks actively drew red lines around black neighborhoods and said ‘I am not lending to you’ while white people got lent to. Active discrimination continues to happen in 2017, and you just can’t say, ‘Pull yourself up by [the] bootstraps.’ Not only is that unfair, it’s offensive.”

Ultimately, it’s all connected: the wealth extraction, the national chains, the rotten food, the redlining, and the lack of ownership. And when all the pieces are assembled, a clear picture of an economic system that’s stacked against black Americans begins to emerge. It’s the forces of racial and class stratification at work, Cooper says, which aren’t unique to the grocery industry.

“It’s based on inferior positionality of black people,” she says. “If we buy into the idea that every owner is white and that’s not a problem, and that black people have no other position but to be empty consumer[s], then that’s perpetuating white supremacy, and that’s a grave injustice.”

* * *

Despite the obstacles and competition they face, there are examples of locally owned grocery stores thriving in Detroit and elsewhere. The Honey Bee Market, centrally located in the predominantly Mexican stretch of Southwest Detroit, is co-owned by a Mexican woman. It’s a clean mom and pop shop that provides healthy foods, fresh produce, and employs neighborhood residents in its management.

The Grocery Outlet in Compton, California, where Kia Patterson, a black woman, is an independent operator, is another good example. Though the store is part of a chain, Patterson grew up in Compton, lives nearby in Long Beach, and talks about the need for grocery stores to support the community.

“It’s not only about providing good-quality food. What I’ve always been about is giving back. Like I have a school drive at the end of August. It’s about playing that role, helping with fundraising with schools, and being there not just to say, ‘Hey, come get your groceries from me,’ but also helping out the community,” Patterson says.

But perhaps the best solutions exist outside the traditional grocery-store model. Bodegas and smaller stores, which increasingly provide more produce and meats, require far less capital to start than traditional supermarkets. In Chicago, where wide swaths of real estate are considered food deserts, Cooper, Muhammad, and two other partners launched a mobile grocery store called Fresh Moves. The mobile model provided them flexibility while allowing them to form partnerships that helped reach more people, Muhammad said.

“It was a good alternative because we could hit multiple communities in one day or one week, and people didn’t have to travel to it,” she says. “It’s a really great way to do community outreach and engagement, and we partnered with schools, senior citizen centers, health clinics, and other community stakeholders … so it can be a different kind of way to get people eating healthy.”

As traditional food systems fail black Americans (not to mention low-income communities and other communities of all colors), effective alternative forms of ownership, like the Southwest Georgia Project food hub, look increasingly appealing, Cooper says. The Georgia nonprofit owns 1,600 acres of land on which black and other socially disadvantaged farmers grow food to meet regional demand.

“Private ownership will not free us, [will] not get us equity, so we have to think about how class inequality is reproduced and challenge that,” Cooper says.

Examples of alternatives are sprouting up around the country. In Minneapolis, the long-standing Seward Community Co-Op last year opened a new supermarket in the minority-majority Bryant neighborhood and went to great lengths to let the neighborhood’s residents shape the new market.

In Detroit, Yakini and the Food Security Network are planning a grocery cooperative for the city’s North End neighborhood, while in northeast Greensboro, North Carolina, the Renaissance Community Cooperative now services what was long considered a food desert. In 2016, Renaissance’s 1,300 owners chipped in at least $100 each to build an 11,000-square-foot, $3 million full-service grocery store.

Ed Whitfield, the co–managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, helped organize Renaissance, which is led by a largely black American board of directors, and Whitfield describes as a well-managed, attractive, friendly supermarket that sells high-quality products and serves as a community hub. Should the store find itself holding a surplus, Whitfield says it would hypothetically spend the funds on band uniforms or some other community need—and that, he says, is a mold-breaking strategy.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society that says it’s legitimate just to maximize profit at any cost, and that generates a whole set of problems,” Whitfield says. “This is a place that meets a community need and has good jobs, and when there’s a profit, the board can decide how to put it back into the community.” At Renaissance, Whitfield continues, “we can meet a need and elevate the quality of life in a community without just trying to make a profit.”

Video: Bronx residents complain about ‘slow, dirty’ post office in Williamsbridge

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

The email we received from Tony Williams in the Bronx complained that his local post office lost two of his packages in a month. Even worse, when he went to the Williamsbridge Station on Gun Hill Road to look for his packages, he said it took him an hour of standing Video: Bronx residents complain […]

Top 10 internship providers for students

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

In today’s increasingly competitive job market, college graduates who have experience in their fields are far more likely to receive job offers – as well as higher starting salaries. To encourage more companies and organizations to work with FIU on internship programs, each year the university compiles a list of the top 10 companies for student […]

The post Top 10 internship providers for students appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

Year-End Reply Forms are due by December 4th! Click to download electronic version so you can be entered into our drawing!

by the-payroll-department @ The Payroll Department

Year-End Reply Forms are due by December 4th! (Click here to download the electronic version so you can be entered into our drawing)!

The post Year-End Reply Forms are due by December 4th! Click to download electronic version so you can be entered into our drawing! appeared first on The Payroll Department.

President Signs Into Law FY 2018 Budget Bill — No Postal or Benefit Hits

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

President Signs Into Law FY 2018 Budget Bill — No Postal or Benefit Hits Posted by Bob Levi on 03/26/18 On Friday, March 23, as Congress was leaving the Capitol for its two-week Easter/Passover Recess, President Trump signed into law H.R. 1626, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. This legislation funds the government through the […]

President Signs Into Law FY 2018 Budget Bill — No Postal or Benefit Hits appeared on PostalReporter.com.

It Looks Like Trump Failed to Sabotage Obamacare This Year

It Looks Like Trump Failed to Sabotage Obamacare This Year

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

The Trump administration spent the better part of this year attempting to undermine Obamacare. It slashed the outreach budget for open-enrollment. It drove up premiums by cutting off important subsidies for insurers. It cut the signup period in half (albeit, at the request of insurers). It endorsed a tax bill that got rid of the individual mandate. But it seems the Affordable Care Act’s markets managed to survive anyway.

With the federal open-enrollment wrapped up, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma announced on Twitter today that 8.8 million Americans had enrolled in marketplace coverage for 2018 on the federal exchanges, down modestly from 9.2 million last year. And because Trump’s people are pure chutzpah, she also lauded the administration’s “cost-effective” approach to driving signups.

These numbers may actually go up a bit, too. Open-enrollment is still rolling in states, including Florida and parts of Texas, where it was disrupted by hurricanes.

This is all a reminder that the ACA, for all its flaws, also created a weirdly resilient insurance market. Yes, premiums jumped a bunch this year as health carriers worried that Trump might try to implode or explode the exchanges. But most marketplace customers were protected from price increases by the law’s subsidies, which cap the premiums at a fraction of their income. When Trump finally tried to go nuclear by ending some of the law’s direct payments to insurers, state regulators found clever ways to let health plans raise their premiums when necessary without hurting customers much, if at all. Thanks to weird interactions with Obamacare’s subsidy structure, Trump’s sabotage attempt may have actually made coverage more affordable for some.

Of course, Obamacare is still under attack. Though the Republican tax bill doesn’t repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate until 2019, it’s not clear how strenuously the Trump administration will be enforcing the requirement that Americans buy coverage. If the administration makes it clear there won’t be any real penalty next tax season for going uninsured, some people who’ve already enrolled might drop their plans. I’m also a bit curious what will happen to the number of people buying coverage off of the exchanges; most of those customers earn too much to be eligible for subsidies, so they’ve been exposed to price hikes. I would be surprised to see their enrollment figures drop.*

But those questions are still up in the air. For now, contrary to what our president might think, Obamacare lives.

*Correction, Dec. 21, 6:28 PM: This post originally stated that the Republican tax bill repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate in 2018. It is repeals it as of 2019.

Will the Courts Accept a Jury Duty Excuse Letter If You’re in a Pinch?

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

Sometimes, you or your employees’ personal responsibilities conflict with your business. For many small businesses, if you miss work or lose an employee for an extended period of time, there can be harmful effects on productivity in the workplace. But if you or an employee are called in for jury duty, you might not have […]

The post Will the Courts Accept a Jury Duty Excuse Letter If You’re in a Pinch? appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

IG: USPS at risk of unauthorized network access -- FCW

IG: USPS at risk of unauthorized network access -- FCW


The U.S. Postal Service does not know how many internet-facing hosts it has, lacks adequate firewall protections and is therefore vulnerable to unwanted network intrusions.

Marriage: Wait until Retirement or Not?

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Should I wait until retirement to get married? Being in a non-standard relationship gets confusing- especially when your retirement is coming up. Many soon-to-be-retirees find themselves in this situation- they have been in a relationship...

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The post Marriage: Wait until Retirement or Not? appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

The New York Times’ Double Diss of Los Angeles

The New York Times’ Double Diss of Los Angeles

by Chau Tu @ Slate Articles

Little gets Angelenos more riled up than a New York Times piece about their city. On Tuesday, the Grey Lady attempted to wax majestic about the problems at the Los Angeles Times, which has suffered some turbulent changes as of late. After the newspaper’s publisher and CEO was placed on unpaid leave following an investigation into sexual harassment, an award-winning business editor was mysteriously escorted out of the building before she could even close her laptop, and the Huffington Post reported that the paper may be building a new national desk outside the union that newsroom employees just formed—all of this before owner Tronc replaced the paper’s top editor this week to quell the unrest—the New York Times suggested that the paper’s troubles are “symptomatic” of problems with Los Angeles’s very civic fabric, a blinkered double-diss of newspaper and city containing a litany of self-owns.

Bristling when the New York Times misdiagnoses your town is a cherished municipal tradition just about everywhere outside the Tri-State Area, but this article is an unusually contradictory and unconvincing attempt to connect Los Angeles’ vast geography and what it describes as a lack of civic institutions to the travails of its newspaper. In the telling of Adam Nagourney and Tim Arango, two L.A.-based New York Times reporters, the Los Angeles Times’ struggles are of a piece with, and perhaps even intertwined with, the city’s purported lack of “strong institutions that bind it together.” (Full disclosure: I used to work there.) They continue: “For all its successes, Los Angeles has not developed the political, cultural and philanthropic institutions that have proved critical in other American cities.” That may sound right to editors on the opposite coast. But the thesis makes even less sense than the Chargers’ reasons for leaving San Diego for L.A.

The Times article partially hangs its argument on a “lack of philanthropy,” citing a Charity Navigator list that ranks L.A. at 14 among “major metropolitan markets”—and neglecting to mention that the same list puts New York at No. 19. According to those same statistics, L.A.
still gives above the national average. Nagourney and Arango mention L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall as an example of a philanthropic undertaking that barely got off the ground, but the Los Angeles Times reported just last year that the city’s “strong fund-raising has helped quintuple” the endowment of the L.A. Philharmonic, which calls the venue home and is “stronger than ever.” That hardly sounds like a community that doesn’t come together to support major institutions.

The New York Times rests the remainder of its case on Los Angeles County’s undisputable vastness: It’s made of up countless neighborhoods and discrete cities spread across valleys and hills all the way to the Pacific coast. To the Times of New York, which argues that L.A.’s sprawling geography helps foster a lack of civic cohesion, the personalities of these enclaves automatically preclude any greater shared identity: “People here are more likely to identify themselves with the city or neighborhood where they live—be it Glendale, Compton, Beverly Hills or Whittier—rather than Los Angeles,” they write. Sure, these are all census-designated cities within Los Angeles County; why wouldn’t residents also identify with the places they live? How wildly unreasonable would it be for Williamsburg or the Upper West Side or Riverdale to have their own characters! In one of the few quotes that actually addresses their point, former Antonio Villaraigosa claims that Los Angeles’s sprawl hampered his ambitions during his two terms. It’s possible, but it’s also a helpful argument if you’re currently running to be governor and need to defend your record, which he is and does.

In another contradiction, the New York Times asserts that L.A. lacks a unifying political or civic leader because it’s “become increasingly and economically diverse”—but later highlights Mayor Eric Garcetti’s fast rise to national and global stardom as a point of local pride. While the piece faults L.A. for failing to tackle large issues like “homelessness, education, and battered streets”—challenges hardly unique to Los Angeles—it admits that the city’s economy is “humming,” that there are new museums and newly arrived sports franchises (look—civic institutions!), and that it will host the 2028 Olympic Games. It might have also noted that on that last point, L.A. pulled off what most metropolises do not—its Olympics will be laudably thrifty, likely dodging the fiscal nightmare that greets so many host cities.

What L.A. lacks, the New York Times fixates on, are elites—perhaps the kind that used to own the Los Angeles Times and that might again insulate it from its current woes. In an argument that might have worked better during the Gilded Age, the New York Times suggests that being a “relatively young city, filled with recent arrivals who do not have the history of the kind of old-line families who have defined civic foundations in established cities like Boston and Philadelphia” is a bug, not a feature, of Los Angeles. But as the Los Angeles Times’ assistant managing editor points out, relationships with elites were often “much better known for corruption and using their power for self-enrichment than creating a better city,” and so L.A. has rightfully been wary of them. While it’s odd enough to suggest an international city like Los Angeles lacks the requisite n’oblesse oblige to solve its civic problems, the article itself points out that even though philanthropist Eli Broad is set to retire, others are beginning to step into his shoes. If there is a concrete challenge that has deepened because of Los Angeles’ dearth of institutions and the rich people who fund them, I couldn’t find it in this article.

Which brings us back to the Los Angeles Times, which has seen tremendous turnover in leadership in this decade alone. The paper has undoubtedly dulled in its presence in and influence over its city over the past decade, but it’s hard to find a newspaper that hasn’t. Like papers in many cities—like Washington, D.C., and, yes, New York—the Los Angeles Times was once owned by dynastic patricians before being sold to a plusher buyer, in its case the former Tribune Company, now Tronc. That local elites could not hold on to the paper is not a problem particular to the Los Angeles Times, whose agonies were magnified during the terrible reign of real estate mogul Sam Zell, who bought Tribune in 2007 and gutted the paper’s ranks through numerous rounds of layoffs and brought the parent company to bankruptcy the next year.

Those layoffs, and other struggles many other newspapers have suffered, have taken a toll on the Los Angeles Times. As newsroom numbers have dwindled, so has the paper’s ability to actually cover its beautiful, vast city and hold those scant civic leaders accountable. That is a problem, and not one the New York Times bothered to ponder here.

So, yes, the New York Times got it wrong on L.A. again—maybe it’s too vast and too diverse to achieve its foggy notion of a unified city, whatever that means—but that has little to do with what’s gone wrong at the Los Angeles Times, whose problems are intimately tied up with the rest of the media industry’s.

At least the New York Times found one way Angelenos come together: by hating articles like this one.

It Turns Out That Saving CHIP Would Save the Government $6 Billion

It Turns Out That Saving CHIP Would Save the Government $6 Billion

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to some 9 million lower-income kids, is in danger of exhausting its funding in some states as soon as this month, because Congress can’t agree on how to pay for its reauthorization.

It turns out, however, that lawmakers might be able to extend CHIP for free. In fact, doing so could even save the government some money.

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that reauthorizing CHIP for 5 years would cost the federal government a mere $800 million. That’s quite cheap in the scheme of all federal spending, of course. But today, the CBO sent Capitol Hill staffers an email stating that extending the program for 10 years would actually save $6 billion over the decade, which an aide forwarded to me this afternoon (on the condition of anonymity, which was granted).1

How is it possible that extending a program for 10 years is cheaper than extending it for 5, you ask? The CBO’s note isn’t very detailed (I’ve emailed the office asking for comment, but haven’t heard back). But according to the aide, the answer likely has to do with Obamacare. If CHIP lapses, many more children will almost certainly be enrolled in health coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges, where their plans will be subsidized by the federal government. And over the long term, it may actually be less expensive for Washington to cover those kids via CHIP than to pay for their private insurance. (Update, 8:58 PM): According to another Congressional staffer I spoke with, the 10-year extension also saves money because it more generously funds the program during the second half of the decade, which results in more families dropping expensive-to-subsidize exchange coverage in favor of CHIP.

If this all sounds familiar, that may be because the CBO recently lowered its estimate of what it would cost to extend CHIP for just five years for reasons that also had to do with Obamacare. Originally, the office believed that reauthorizing CHIP would add $8.2 billion to the deficit. But it dropped that forecast to $800 million after Republicans repealed the ACA’s individual mandate in order to fund their tax plan. The mandate’s demise is expected to drive up premiums on the exchanges, making it relatively more efficient to cover kids through CHIP.

In any event, it appears that Congress can now reduce the deficit by guaranteeing millions of children health coverage for 10 years instead of five. What more motivation do they need to pass a bill?

1 Politico Pro seems to have reported on the email earlier today, but their paywall is so impenetrable that I can’t even see the headline without a subscription. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also sent around a press release about the $6 billion figure, referencing the Politico report.

After All the Talk About a Skills Shortage in the U.S. Job Market, the Real Problem May Be an Employer Shortage

After All the Talk About a Skills Shortage in the U.S. Job Market, the Real Problem May Be an Employer Shortage

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Much has been written about America’s alleged skills shortage. Articles in which executives moan about their inability to find qualified workers for job openings are business press perennials, typically focusing on “middle skill” industries like manufacturing and construction that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. In the years immediately following the Great Recession, there seemed to be an entire cottage industry devoted to blaming America’s stubbornly high unemployment rate on the notion that workers just lacked the specific talents employers needed, rather than, say, the hangover from a housing bust and financial crisis that had crippled the economy.

One of the reasons these stories never really added up was that, outside of a select few industries, American wages were relatively flat. If good workers were really in short supply, you’d expect pay to rise quickly as companies tried to outbid each other for talent. Instead, employers spent years carping about a lack of good job applicants while letting pay stagnate.

Why would that happen? One answer may lie in the recent economics paper that I wrote about on Tuesday. In the years following the Great Recession, the U.S. labor market was incredibly concentrated, with a relatively small number of businesses posting help-wanted ads across different industries and cities. That appeared to put downward pressure on wages; the more concentrated the local market, the lower pay tended to be, the study’s authors found. This, the study’s author’s argued, was a sign that U.S. employers had an enormous amount of monopsony power—meaning they were essentially free to set low wages, because few other businesses were around or hiring.

There are a lot of reasons why labor market monopsony is a problem. (First and foremost: Workers have zero leverage to demand a raise). But one of the more subtle issues is that a lack of competition between employers can, in theory at least, actually lead to lower overall levels of employment while creating the illusion of a labor shortage. In a functioning, competitive labor market where employers are all jockeying to hire the best staff, workers should be paid based on the value they add to a business. If you add $25 every hour to your employer’s revenue by soldering engine parts, then you should earn about $25 an hour. Otherwise, another car parts manufacturer will swoop in and offer you that much to work at its factory. (The company’s cut of revenue, for reference, is supposed to come from the value added by its capital investments in things like machinery.)

That’s not how things work when competition breaks down and companies can exercise monopsony power. If that happens, businesses may find it’s more profitable to pay workers less than their worth. (Shocking, I know.) But this creates a dilemma for bosses who can’t find any more workers willing to work for low pay. Management can either advertise higher wages, and risk having to bump up its current workers’ earnings as well. Or it can keep advertising the same cruddy wage and end up not hiring anybody. In the textbook models, employers choose the latter—more profits, less staff. (Shocking, I know.) As President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers explained in its brief on monopsony back in 2016, “Economic theory shows that firms with monopsony power have an incentive to employ fewer workers at a lower wage than they would in a competitive labor market. What the monopsonistic firm loses in reduced output and revenue, it more than makes up in reduced costs by paying lower wages.”

Here’s a hypothetical example of how the theory might play out in the real world. Let’s say you manage a small construction company, and you’ve been getting away with paying your crew relatively little because there aren’t that many other contractors posting help-wanted ads in your town. You need a new carpenter. But you don’t want to tick off the rest of your men by offering this new potential employee a more generous wage. So you post the job with the same mediocre hourly rate you’ve offered for the past three years. Nobody good responds, and to you, this looks like there aren’t enough talented carpenters out there. But in reality, there’s only a shortage of people willing to work at the artificially low wage you’ve set your heart on paying. The real problem isn’t a skills shortage, it’s that you aren’t offering market wages, because the market isn’t functioning.

It’s easy to imagine how this all played out immediately post-recession, when employers got used to being able to dictate wages in an anemic job market. But while the paper on monopsony I covered Tuesday only tracks data between 2010 and 2013, it seems plausible that the labor market is still suffering from severe concentration. So remember, the next time you hear about a skills shortage, the real problem may actually be an employer shortage.

Yes, the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Approved That Ram Trucks Super Bowl Ad

Yes, the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Approved That Ram Trucks Super Bowl Ad

by April Glaser @ Slate Articles

During the second quarter of the Super Bowl, NBC aired a rather surprising ad from Ram Trucks featuring the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving one of his final addresses, “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon. The beginning of the ad points out the speech was delivered exactly 50 years ago from today—today being Super Bowl Sunday. King was assassinated two months later in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

The use of King’s voice in the ad wasn’t just jarring for its tastelessness—which many, many, many people pointed out on Twitter—but also because King’s estate is notoriously litigious when it comes to the use of his speeches without permission, and restrictive when it comes to requests. The film Selma, about the King-led civil rights march on the Alabama town directed by Ava DuVernay, didn’t even use his speeches, likely because producers feared including the speeches would earn the attention the King estate’s lawyers. (The estate had already licensed the film rights to the speeches in question to other movie studios.)

Ram Trucks didn’t have to worry about any legal blowback, because it says it got the nod from the MLK Estate. The brand “worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals,” a representative from Ram Trucks told me in an email. “Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process.” The King estate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The King estate is not to be confused with the King Center, the nonprofit established by MLK’s wife Coretta Scott King. As it wrote on Twitter:

And Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, also distanced herself from the ad, replying to a tweet:

The ad features images of Americans with their families, riding horses, teaching math, working outside, and volunteering in their communities. “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ram truck owners also believe in a life of serving others,” the description of the ad on the Ram Trucks YouTube page reads.

It’s not a connection King would have likely been OK with. “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” King said in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.

Update, 10:01 p.m. Slate received this statement from Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., which is the “exclusive licensor” of the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

When Ram approached the King Estate with the idea of featuring Dr. King’s voice in a new “Built To Serve” commercial, we were pleasantly surprised at the existence of the Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts. We learned that as a volunteer group of Ram owners, they serve others through everything from natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives. Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances. We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others. Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s “Built To Serve” Super Bowl program.

Scandinavian Women Do Not Have It All

Scandinavian Women Do Not Have It All

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

On paper, Denmark looks like a paradise for working mothers. There’s the ample paid leave. Danish families are entitled to 52 weeks of it after the birth of a child, meaning parents have a year to care for their new baby without having to worry about their job or their ability to pay rent. Once a mom decides to go back to work, there’s generously subsidized public day care—the government picks up at least three-quarters of the tab—to help them juggle a job and kids. More than 90 percent of children younger than 6 end up enrolled.

Here in America, by comparison, mothers get a paltry 12 weeks of unpaid time off to bond with their infant, and day care can cost more than college. It’s enough to give you an acute case of Scandi envy. Remember when Bernie Sanders said America could stand to be more like Denmark? Their family-friendly approach to government was a big reason why.

Yet, for all Denmark does to support working parents, it turns out that there, much like here, motherhood is still a pretty devastating career choice. In a new study, a trio of economists used a large cache of government administrative data to look at what happened to the earnings of 470,000 Danish women who gave birth for the first time between 1985 and 2003. The results were dramatic. Before they became parents, the researchers found, men’s and women’s pay grew at a similar pace. After kids, their career paths split. Fathers mostly continued on as if nothing had changed. Mothers, however, saw their earnings quickly collapse by 30 percent on average, compared to what they would have hypothetically earned without children. They became less likely to work at all, but earned lower wages and clocked fewer hours if they did. Worse, their careers never fully recovered. After 10 years, women’s pay was still one-fifth lower than before they had kids.

The problem isn’t even moving in the right direction. The paper, which is still a draft and was released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concludes that in 1980, Danish women overall earned 18 percent less than men thanks to to the impact of kids on their careers. In 2013, they earned 20 percent less. “There used to be many different reasons for gender inequality [in Denmark],“ Princeton economist Henrik Kleven, one of the study’s three authors, told me. “Many of those are disappearing over time. Children is the one that isn’t changing.”

Denmark isn’t the only plush, pro-family Scandinavian welfare state where having children still craters women’s earnings. A 2013 study of Swedish couples published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that during the 15 years after giving birth, the pay gap between men and women increased by 32 percentage points. In one of the most philosophically egalitarian nations on earth, mothers’ careers flounder, while fathers’ careers march on.

So, why can’t even Scandinavian women have it all?

Part of the answer may be a story about unintended consequences. If your goal is to help women get back to work and earn a paycheck the size of her male peers’, then providing free or dirt-cheap day care is unambiguously helpful. But generous child leave is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it allows women to stay at home and care for their infant without having to quit their job. At the same time, it keeps them out of the workforce for an extended period, which can set anyone back in their careers and possibly discourage them from returning to their old path.

That may especially be a problem for women chasing high-powered careers. Economists have found that women in countries with robust welfare states are more likely to work but less likely to end up in high-paid managerial positions. And while extensive paid leave policies may boost employment for females overall, there’s some evidence they may reduce the earnings of more educated women compared to men. (Once you’ve stepped off the corporate ladder, it can be hard to step back on.) In Denmark and Sweden, women have some of the highest labor-force participation rates in the world, but the labor markets are notoriously gender-segregated, with females much more likely to take jobs in the lower-paid, more flexible public sector.

“With some policies, we say if some is good, more is better, and it may be true,” Francine Blau, a labor economist at Cornell University and a leading expert on the gender wage gap, told me. “With parental leave, it may be true, but it’s complicated.”

Some countries have tried to deal with the downsides of family leave by encouraging mothers and fathers to split it up. But for the policy to work, governments need to essentially force men to take time off. In Denmark, spouses can divide up 32 of their 52 weeks of leave however they please. But as of 2014, men took just 27 days on average, or 8.9 percent of all time off. In Sweden, where parents get a whopping 480 days of paid parental leave, three of those months are reserved exclusively for men. The use-it-or-lose-it policy seems to have been at least somewhat effective at getting men to take more time off for child rearing: The country used to have a national joke about dads using their parental leave to go moose hunting; today’s stereotype of the Swedish dad is that of an enlightened male pushing a stroller. Still, the Swedes haven’t evened things out entirely. As of 2014, men still only took about 123 days off, compared to 356 for women.

We also don’t know even know whether policies that nudge fathers to take time off actually help women’s careers long-term. As one article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives explained last year, “[T]o date, there is no evidence of beneficial impacts of paternity leave rights on mothers’ careers.”

Taking time off immediately after giving birth isn’t the only thing that hobbles mothers’ careers in Sweden and Denmark. In both countries, a lot of women simply work part time. In Sweden, some of that may be the result of yet another public policy intended to be family-friendly: parents with young children there are entitled to part-time work schedules. (Notably, feminists in Denmark have opposed implementing a similar policy, arguing that it would be bad for equality.) But much of this also likely boils down to cultural preferences. In their recent working paper, Kleven and his co-authors point out that around 60 percent of adults in Denmark and Sweden believe that women with school-age children should work part time. They also find that how much mothers work after giving birth seems to be influenced by their own upbringings. “In traditional families where the mother works very little compared to the father, their daughter incurs a larger child penalty when she eventually becomes a mother herself,” they write.

Tradition can be hard to budge. In Denmark, labor unions and fathers’ rights groups have actually advocated for a Swedish-style use-it-or-lose-it policy that would require dads to take more leave. Many men would apparently love an excuse to spend more time walking around Copenhagen in a BabyBjörn. But along with employers, they’ve run into opposition from mothers, who don’t want to lose their own time with the kids, even if it means they bear more domestic responsibility. This brings up a point that’s sometimes easy to overlook: In the end, many women may be happy to trade some of their career for a family life, especially when government policies make it into less of an all-or-nothing deal.

So what does all of this mean for the U.S., where we are woefully behind on parental leave and child care policy? To some degree, the situation in Denmark and Sweden—wealthy, progressive countries where cultural expectations are still driving some of the gender gap—suggests that there’s only so much public policy can do. As the authors of the Swedish couples study put it, “so long as family responsibilities are unequally shared, the gender gap is not likely to close and not even to narrow significantly.”

With all of that said, there are still good reasons to yearn for a dose of Nordic-style social democracy here in the states. It might not be a miracle cure for gender inequality. But paid leave and subsidized child care do make being a parent less of nightmare—especially if you do decide to try to balance work and children. Plus, the pay gap between men and women in Denmark and Sweden who choose to work full time is still smaller than it is in the U.S., meaning that they’re arguably closer to achieving equal pay for equal work than we are. It may not be utopia, but it’s better than here.

White House Intends to Revive CSRs with Conservative Policies

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

A new proposal by White House will see a significant reduction in premium payments after several changes have been made to the current healthcare policies. However, critics of the new proposal argue that after implementation,...

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The post White House Intends to Revive CSRs with Conservative Policies appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

Cities Are Trying to Make Housing More Affordable—by Making Some Rents More Pricey

Cities Are Trying to Make Housing More Affordable—by Making Some Rents More Pricey

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

One paradox of the housing affordability crisis in the United States is that one of the most popular ways to create affordable housing is to tax new housing.

In December, the Los Angeles City Council voted to create a permanent revenue stream for its affordable housing program by slapping a fee on new homes and apartments. The “linkage fee” ranges from $8 per square foot in South Central L.A to $15 on the city’s wealthy Westside. That will put a $15,000 surcharge on a 1,000-square-foot apartment in a place like Hollywood, with that money going toward the city’s efforts to create and preserve housing for low-income renters and the homeless.*

Affordable housing is desperately needed in Los Angeles, particularly for the homeless. But a new report from the Terner Center at U.C.–Berkeley shows that development fees—which pay not only for housing, but also for inspections, administrative services, parks, schools, and cultural amenities—here and elsewhere across California can have a significant impact on housing prices. Looking at seven California cities, the authors found city fees amounted to between 6 and 18 percent of the median home price.

The fees are one of many factors driving up the cost of buying or renting a home, including income inequality; restrictive zoning; high prices for land, materials, and labor; low construction productivity; and a historic slowdown in housing production. They’re not new. Hundreds of cities and counties have imposed fees on new development, which initially helped relieve local governments from subsidizing roads, sewers, and other expenses associated with suburban sprawl. Now that local governments face an affordable housing crisis with little federal assistance, fees are being levied to support affordable housing, too.

Like inclusionary zoning requirements—which incentivize or require builders to provide affordable units in their projects—the fees theoretically raise the cost of housing on the open market while providing a handful of heavily subsidized units. The two policies can be hard to distinguish: In L.A., developers can dodge fees by providing affordable units. In other cities, developers can avoid providing units by paying into a city fund.

The idea that new development should subsidize affordable housing is popular. “It’s very politically acceptable to implement these linkage fees,” said David Garcia, the policy director at Terner and one of the co-authors. “There’s a lot of literature that shows a lot of the time these fees don’t result in a ton of units and that it’s not the best way to address the affordable housing crisis. But it’s feasible.” This is especially true in California, where the tax revolts, especially the passage of the Proposition 13 property tax freeze, left cities with few reliable fundraising methods. When development fees replace property taxes as a funding source, the burden of supporting the safety net gets passed from current residents to future ones.

While fees rightly place a higher burden (as high as $150,000 a pop) on single-family homes, whose low density imposes environmental and infrastructural costs, the fees per bedroom wind up being higher, in most cases, on multifamily development. A single apartment bedroom in Irvine, California, bears an estimated $42,000 in fees. Developers often pass those fees on to new renters.

The report also describes a web of fees that have not been coordinated between city departments, so tangled that not even local architects, engineers, and developers can always accurately estimate how much it will cost to build. “These are the people designing the projects, intimately familiar with every aspect, and they cannot do that,” said Sarah Mawhorter, a co-author. That opacity drives small developers out of urban housing production, leaving an oligopoly of well-heeled, well-connected builders.

The paper’s estimates are conservative, since they don’t count utility fees or the impact of project-specific agreements, in which local politicians ask builders to provide particular amenities (including affordable housing) in exchange for permits. Nor do they count the complex trade-offs associated with inclusionary zoning ordinances, which often let builders build higher in exchange for providing affordable units.

This approach—making all new housing more expensive to make some housing very affordable—makes sense if you think of the housing market as permanently divided between market-rate luxury building and government-subsidized housing, with the former permanently unaffordable and the latter in perennially short supply. It’s true that the price gap is wide, but the idea of a sharply segmented market is a delusion. The reality is that few renters will ever secure a rent-controlled apartment, qualify for federal housing assistance, or win a lottery for the local affordable housing those fees provide. “You either win the lottery in a big way or you get no housing assistance whatsoever,” says Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies housing policy. Most tenants simply pay more than what’s technically considered “affordable,” and when they write their checks, they may be paying for development fees, to

Correction, March 27, 2018: This post originally misstated that Los Angeles’ new linkage fee applied to new homes in Culver City. Culver City is not part of the city of L.A., so the linkage fee is not applicable there.

Here’s What Trump’s Mythical Infrastructure Plan Might Look Like

Here’s What Trump’s Mythical Infrastructure Plan Might Look Like

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

What Donald Trump will actually do with America’s deteriorating roads and bridges is anyone’s guess. Though in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, the president called for Congress to pass a bill “generating” $1.5 trillion for new infrastructure, that doesn’t tell us much. It’s not clear how much of that money is coming from Washington and how much will be, as he put it, “leveraged.” The idea is that a small amount of federal money can inspire states and cities to either spend more of their own or find private investors to take charge of projects, or both. It sounds like a bargain for the feds: A $1.5 trillion plan for the price of a few hundred billion.

But would it work? It turns out the administration has a kind of trial underway. In August, Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wrote to Congress to announce that her department would not be awarding any money to large FASTLANE projects. At its core, federal infrastructure funding is served up in a stew of acronyms like FASTLANE, an annual initiative created in 2015 to improve America’s freight corridors by helping to fund state and local projects. (In July 2016, for example, DOT granted $44 million in FASTLANE money to Georgia to renovate the railroads leading out of the Port of Savannah.) In a post-earmark Washington, grants like this bring big money to ports, highways, railroads, and subways. Competition is fierce: 212 projects sought FASTLANE funding in 2016, only 18 received it.

Chao didn’t cancel FASTLANE; she renamed it INFRA and rewrote its guidelines with Trump-era priorities. States and cities were given three months to revise their projects to suit the new DOT guidelines if they wanted a slice of the $1.5 billion pool of money that will be distributed sometime in the next few months.

Chao, like her boss, wanted more leverage. “We need to take steps to get more bang for our buck,” the DOT announced in a fact sheet at the time. For the revised program, the DOT was looking for “projects that use innovative approaches to make each federal dollar go further and encourage more parties to put skin in the game through higher leverage.” The sheet emphasized leveraging “non-federal and private sector funding.” Make our grant a smaller share of your project, the new rules suggested, and you’ll be more likely to get one. “Clearly they want more emphasis on that leveraging,” Paul Lewis, a vice president at the Eno transportation institute, said to me. “If you can’t find local dollars to make that match, perhaps you can find private dollars.”

The Obama DOT never intended FASTLANE to be a primary source of funding. On average in 2016, FASTLANE grants paid for 21 percent of the projects that won them. But if you take out a couple of expensive highway projects in Wisconsin and Virginia, federal funding rose to more than a third of the total cost. With the program perennially oversubscribed—so much so that states sometimes decline to sponsor city projects so as not to spread themselves thin—you can see why Chao thinks the DOT could drive a harder bargain for its outlays.

If there’s a test case for the challenges of leveraging federal dollars with local and private money, it may lie in the scramble this past fall to adapt FASTLANE requests for INFRA—and in the kinds of projects that win federal money this spring.

An encouraging sign for the Trump administration comes from a Rhode Island project to restore an aging bridge that lifts Interstate 95 over the Woonasquatucket River, Amtrak tracks, and local Providence streets. In November, Rhode Island applied for $60 million from INFRA for the project, a nearly identical request to the one it made last year for $59 million from FASTLANE. But the cost of the project had gone from $226.1 million to $342.9 million, despite cutting a $15 million pedestrian bridge. Why? “A big chunk of that cost increase is connected to financing and the private part of the project,” reported Patrick Anderson of the Providence Journal. In addition to the base cost, “the new plan then adds interest on a $45-million private loan and a 15-percent return to the private partner.” This is a typical issue with private investment in projects that might otherwise use low-interest municipal debt: Private investors expect a better return on investment, which boosts upfront project costs.

Officials at the Rhode Island DOT told me the revised application shouldn’t be subject to a direct comparison, because the new project has a different scope and is now designed to benefit from “private sector innovation.” It may sound fuzzy, but in practice that might mean insurance against overruns and delays, a smaller future maintenance burden for the state, a different approach to construction, or a new strategy for restoring the space underneath the viaduct. “The fact that [U.S. DOT] had some thought-provoking criteria made us pull out pencils and think creatively,” said Shoshana Lew, the chief operating office of RIDOT. The incentives had changed.

It’s hard to evaluate those trade-offs until the project is complete, and sometimes for years afterward. But generally speaking, any deal that ropes in a federal grant is going to be a better deal for taxpayers than one that doesn’t—even if private investors cash in too.

Aside from the I-95 project, though, I couldn’t find any others that overhauled their approach in refiling for INFRA, a sign that we may not see a sudden influx of public-private partnerships (“P3s”) or newly leveraged deals, even if Washington is committed to lowering its stake in infrastructure projects around the country. Chicago’s 75th Street Corridor, for example, a smorgasbord of more than five dozen smaller projects around Chicago Terminal (which handles a quarter of the country’s rail cargo), had asked for $160 million from FASTLANE for a $500 million project. They made the same dollar request from INFRA. The application is essentially the same—but with additional emphasis on the word private.

Billy Hwang, a consultant with the infrastructure giant WSP USA, helped advise 15 projects seeking INFRA grants, about half of which had been retooled from the scuttled FASTLANE contest. None of them wound up seeking private investment in their projects, he said. That’s because of the nature of U.S. infrastructure construction, he explained: Most projects use only public money, and any “leverage” will come from locals paying more through state taxes, local taxes, or user fees like tolls. (Rural projects are also unlikely to attract private investors, but they have a special carve-out under INFRA.)

There are other reasons to doubt that the road next door might soon be brought to you by a corporation. Putting together a P3 requires a lot of legwork, for one, and many projects aren’t big enough to justify the effort. Investors also tend to be most interested when there’s a reliable revenue stream available, like a bridge toll, or when the project involves new greenfield construction. The INFRA proposals are mostly repairs and modifications to the existing stock—not sexy, but exactly the kind of stuff that infrastructure spending ought to prioritize.

But just because the P3 revolution may still be a ways away doesn’t mean the DOT’s new approach won’t affect how stuff gets built. Not many projects were changed to appeal to Secretary Chao. But if the INFRA grants end up spread between projects where federal funding constitutes an increasingly small fraction of the budget, then states might get the message: If you want money from Washington, find more money at home. It looks like that’s going to be the theme of the Trump infrastructure plan too.

Saying We Should Treat Guns Like Cars Overstates How Well We Regulate Cars

Saying We Should Treat Guns Like Cars Overstates How Well We Regulate Cars

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

First, the carnage. Then, the backlash. Finally, a familiar retort from gun-freedom advocates everywhere: Ban guns? Why not ban cars—they kill more people!

It’s a nonsensical, slippery-slope response that’s easy to make fun of: Oh no, is the government going to make us get a special photo identification cards and buy insurance in order to drive? In fact, liberals often respond, why not regulate guns like cars—with mandatory training, tests, licenses, registration, and comprehensive state-by-state databases?

The comparison is not so outlandish—though not for the reasons gun-control advocates believe. The American approach to cars and guns is more similar than they realize, in that on each subject we’ve shown a reverence for individual decision-making even when it jeopardizes public welfare. And on both issues we have fallen increasingly out of step with peer nations.

It is true that on the surface, the story of regulating cars and guns makes an appealing contrast: Motor vehicle deaths per capita have fallen by more than half since the early ’70s, while gun deaths (most of which are suicides) have risen slightly. There has been a nonideological consensus that reformed the conduct of both automakers and drivers for the better. Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post explains:

The steady decline in motor vehicle deaths over the past 65 years can be attributed to a combination of improved technology and smarter regulation. The federal government mandated the presence of seat belts in the 1960s. The ’70s brought anti-lock brakes. The ’80s brought an increased focus on drunk driving and mandatory seat belt use. Airbags came along in the ’90s. More recent years have seen mandates on electronic stability systems, increased penalties for distracted driving and forthcoming requirements for rear-view cameras.

For a moment in 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns and cars appeared to be killing Americans at the same rate.* But that’s no longer true. The nonprofit National Safety Council estimates that in 2017, car deaths per capita rose to 12.3 per 100,000 people, from 11.1 in 2014. The situation is even worse for pedestrians: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,987 people were killed by cars in 2016—the highest number since 1990 and an increase of 23 percent since 2014.

Those numbers at first appear to be a blip in that long-term success story. Relatively speaking, however, American car laws are hardly a success. In 1990, the U.S. had one of the lowest per-mile rates of death in the developed world. In the ensuing 25 years we’ve been left far behind by many of our peers. Compared with the rest of the developed world, we have taken our foot off the gas.

According to OECD data from 2015—before the recent spike—the U.S. had 7 vehicle deaths per billion kilometers driven. That’s twice the rate in the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Canada. Per capita, the discrepancy factors in our automobile-dependent building patterns and looks even worse. The U.S. fatality rate per capita is about three times what it is in Spain or Japan, and twice the rate in France or Italy.

Along with guns and infant health care, cars are a big reason the United States is such a dangerous country to grow up in compared with its peers. Guns are America’s special pathology, and our commitment to their easy purchase and free use has made American teenagers 82 times more likely to die by gun than their counterparts in a comparison group of countries (most of the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) between 2001 and 2010.

But our record on cars is also pretty bad. During that time, U.S. teenagers were more than twice as likely than their international peers to die in car crashes. Crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 8 and 24. In that sense, the regulation of cars is both a positive example of the regulatory state getting the job done—and a cautionary tale of the U.S. falling behind the rest of the world.

So why are we lagging? As David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times, 74 percent of Americans speed, compared with 45 percent of drivers in the Netherlands and 22 percent in the U.K. Fifteen percent of American drivers do not wear seat belts, compared with 3 percent in the Netherlands and 4 percent in the U.K.

In short, while we’ve been relatively successful regulating vehicle manufacturers, we’ve had less success with human behavior. Efforts to rebuild streets and highways to limit speed have foundered; blame for soaring pedestrian deaths rests increasingly on pedestrians themselves rather than the distracted drivers who mow them down. Distracted driving is endemic: In Tippecanoe County, Indiana (home of Purdue University), a spike in crashes around Pokestops in the summer of 2016 appeared to cost the county between $5 million and $25 million. Speeding, which is as much a factor in car crashes as drunkenness, is thought to be a cheater’s right, like stealing Monopoly money. Some states have outlawed speed cameras; many more severely restrict their use.

Right now, gun control advocates look at the existing red tape in car ownership as a model for guns. But the instructive comparison will soon run the other way. Within decades, autonomous vehicles will make human driving look less like the messy necessity it is today and more like a dangerous, exhilarating sport. It will become possible to impose stiff penalties on bad drivers without threatening their livelihood. In certain places, at certain hours, human drivers may not be permitted. And then you’ll see staunch defenders of personal liberty arguing for the right to use a steering wheel and an accelerator despite the risk to themselves and those around them.

For now, though, we should stop looking at cars as a model. First, because as an outlier on car deaths, seat belt use, and speeding, the U.S. is hardly a good example. Second: Where it’s done right, car safety is as focused on mitigating infrastructure and design as on permitting and manufacture. In some ways, work on mitigating design (speed bumps, cameras, etc.) has functioned as a way to compensate for insufficient changes at auto plants (why does a Toyota need to go 130 mph?) and permitting (why do drivers who kill people stay on the road?).

Apply those priorities to the gun debate, and we’ll end up spending millions on metal detectors, bulletproof backpacks, and auto-locking classroom doors—taking the guns themselves for granted.

Correction, Feb. 21, 2018: This post originally misidentified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

How Memphis Toppled Its Confederate Statues

How Memphis Toppled Its Confederate Statues

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

The statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had stood in Memphis for more than a century—and inspired protest for decades—when Bruce McMullen, the city attorney who has sought for two years to find a legal way to rid the city of this monument to the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, began to feel a sense of urgency.

In the fall, as Memphis pressed the case for removal with the Tennessee Historical Commission, a state group that must approve any changes to public monuments, McMullen felt a drop-dead date inching closer. April 4, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the occasion for a citywide commemoration. Forrest, and a nearby statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis—erected in 1964, the same year as the passage of the Civil Rights Act—had to be gone by then.

That reason for haste was joined by another: the January return of the Tennessee state Legislature, a mostly white body that for the past five years has successfully outflanked this mostly black city’s drive to unseat Davis and Forrest. In the new year, McMullen worried, Nashville would tighten the language to make it all but illegal to take down the statues. Its most recent effort, the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016, modified an eponymous 2013 law to prohibit the unauthorized “removal, renaming, relocation, alteration, rededication, or otherwise disturbing or alteration” of any historic monument located on public property.

Public being the operative word.

On Dec. 20, Memphis sold for a token sum the two parks containing the two statues to a newly created nonprofit called Greenspace, headed by Van Turner, a county commissioner of Shelby County, which includes Memphis. The statues were removed that night. The city footed the bill for security; Greenspace paid for their careful removal and storage, in an undisclosed location. “You can’t drop one,” McMullen said. “There will be a war if you drop one.”

And so Memphis joined a list of cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans, that have removed confederate monuments since the deadly rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, once again drew attention to their racist symbolism.

The wrangling over the statues in Memphis, though, also illustrates the more common plight that cities seeking to dismantle Confederate tributes undergo: a race to outmaneuver conservative state governments dedicated to preserving them.

In some ways, this reflects a broader trend: Progressive cities whose ambitions, from plastic bag bans to minimum wage hikes, have been overruled by their states. In most cases, those statehouses say they are pursuing a “uniform regulatory environment.” When it comes to statues, though, there is no such pretense to disguise a conflict that is simply over power, in which gestures of white supremacy, some made as recently as the 1960s, are defended as inviolable historical artifacts. (Nate DiMeo’s “Notes on an Imagined Plaque” on the podcast 99% Invisible movingly debunks this claim.)

Charlottesville, for example, has wound up in a standoff with Confederate heritage groups who have sued to ensure the city does not remove its statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which is protected by a 1998 state law on war memorials. Birmingham, Alabama—which previously sued the state over legislative pre-emption of its minimum wage law—was forbidden by a similar state statute to take down an enormous Confederate-memorial obelisk. When Mayor William Bell instead obscured it behind a black plywood fence, the Alabama attorney general filed suit. (The situation is unresolved.) Similar pre-emption laws barring the removal of these monuments are in place in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. Several of the laws have been passed in the past five years.

Memphis first sparred with the state over the names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest parks, which were rechristened in 2013 as Memphis, Mississippi River, and Health Sciences parks, respectively. In that instance, the City Council rushed to approve the name changes just as the state was considering a bill to pre-empt them, one that made reference to the “War Between the States,” a popular Southern term for the Civil War. After the 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to move the Forrest statue. The Tennessee Historic Commission overruled it.

Even as Memphis continued to seek a waiver from the THC to take the statues down, the city put a plan into motion. In October, the council passed an innocuous-looking bill that permitted the sale of parkland to a nonprofit for less than market value, provided the space was maintained as a park. Shortly afterward, the nonprofit Greenspace was incorporated and began raising money. By December, Greenspace had collected $250,000 in private donations, Turner said. This reflected both the support of activists and of the Memphis business elite, whose anonymous donations helped cover the $88,000 needed to safely remove, transport, and store Davis and Forrest last week, as well as the efforts of its five-person board, which is made up of locals.

The opposition was furious. A flurry of nasty comments greeted the mayor’s Merry Christmas Facebook post. Doug Jones, the lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Greenspace was a “sham” and the whole scheme “bordered on anarchy.” A Tennessee leader of that group criticized the city for an illegal “behind the scenes plan.” Tennessee House Majority Leader Glen Casada and caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, both Republicans, said they would launch an investigation. The decision, they said in a statement, “completely violates both the spirit and intent of state law in protecting Tennessee history.”

McMullen, the city attorney, said it had all been open and public. “The details of my legal strategy, I didn’t broadcast that to everyone,” he noted. “But I was honest in the press that we’re going to pursue every legal channel to get this removed. Did I sit down and say, ‘Here’s a lawful way to do it that hasn’t been closed off by the Legislature?’ No, I did not say that to the press. But I was in charge of getting these statues down legally, and I was going to look at every legal method to do it.”

Privatizing two prominent parks seemed like kooky recourse, but there was some poetic justice in the act. Private actors have long been intertwined with the fate of the city’s public spaces; the statues themselves were funded or fundraised by private Confederate heritage groups. Additionally, city governments often used eminent domain or privatization to circumvent civil rights law and maintain segregation. In the 1950s, as the historian Kevin Kruse recounts in White Flight, cities sometimes privatized parks to preserve segregated spaces. At the same time, planners used eminent domain to racist ends, seizing private land to prevent integration. In his book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein tells the story of a developer in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois, who tried to build an integrated housing project. The park district condemned the plots for parkland.

In Memphis, the issue has more resonance still: In 1963, two thirds of the city’s playgrounds, community centers, and golf courses were whites-only (a number then proportional to the city’s white population, to fulfill a perverted idea of Jim Crow justice). Nine years after Brown v. Board, a black plaintiff challenged this policy—the city had said it would integrate the facilities by 1971—and the Supreme Court had to order the immediate desegregation of the city’s parks. The next year, donors raised enough money to erect the Davis statue on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

For Greenspace, which will now maintain the two parks on the city’s behalf, one thorny issue remains: Forrest and his wife are still buried at Health Sciences Park, where their bodies were transferred from nearby Elmwood Cemetery in 1905 to accompany the new statue. “It was to make a statement, and it was to make a racist statement,” Turner, the Greenspace director and county commissioner, said of the 1905 dedication. “To be historically accurate? Honoring the wishes of Mr. Forrest and his wife to be buried at Elmwood Cemetery would be historically accurate.”

Former New Mexico Postal Employee Pleads Guilty to theft of government property

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

Former U.S. Postal Service Employee from Socorro Pleads Guilty to Federal Misdemeanor Embezzlement Charge ALBUQUERQUE – Adrianne D. Marquez, 42, of Socorro, N.M., pled guilty today in federal court in Albuquerque, N.M, to a misdemeanor charge of theft of government property. Marquez was charged in a misdemeanor information filed on Jan. 23, 2018, with theft […]

Former New Mexico Postal Employee Pleads Guilty to theft of government property appeared on PostalReporter.com.

Mail theft reported in Columbia County

Mail theft reported in Columbia County


Two Columbia County postal service offices were exposed to break-ins into their delivery boxes over the weekend. 

Iceland Is Going to Make Companies Prove They Pay Men and Women Equally. Could That Work Here?

Iceland Is Going to Make Companies Prove They Pay Men and Women Equally. Could That Work Here?

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Iceland is serving as a frosty beacon of inspiration for feminists everywhere this week, thanks to a first-of-its-kind law that will require large businesses to prove that they don’t engage in pay discrimination against women.

Just like the United States and many other countries, Iceland has long had rules on the books banning employers from paying women less than men based on their gender. But the new law, which was passed last year and went into effect Monday, will put the onus on companies to show that they’re actually treating their female workers fairly. Known as the equal pay standard, it requires businesses with at least 25 full-time employees to undergo an official audit of their pay practices every three years, then submit it to the government for a certification. Companies that fail to measure up could face daily fines.

The gender pay gap is an especially fraught issue in Iceland, where women have had much better luck winning equal footing in government than in the workplace. The World Economic Forum ranks Iceland tops for women’s political empowerment—almost half of the country’s parliament was female last year, as is the country’s new prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lawmakers have come up with some cutting edge policies meant to promote gender equity, such a rule requiring that females make up at least 40 percent of corporate boards. And yet, Icelandic women still earn about 30 percent less than men on average.

While much of the difference can be explained by the fact that women work fewer hours than men and often in lower paying fields, the intractable gap has inspired widespread protests. Last year, thousands of women walked off their jobs at exactly 2:38 p.m. Activists said that time symbolized the precise minute in a 9-to-5 workday that women stop getting paid.

The new law certainly won’t erase all of Iceland’s economic disparities between the sexes, which, as in the U.S., may have as much to do with cultural expectations about who’s responsible for childcare as outright discrimination on the job. But it does set up a promising experiment that may tell us how much governments can do to bridge the divide, albeit in a quirky, culturally egalitarian nation of just 340,000 people. Other countries, including Great Britain, have experimented with making companies report how much they pay men versus women. And in a bold step last year, the Obama administration released a regulation that would have required larger business to provide detailed salary data of their workers broken down by sex to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That would have given government investigators a chance to look into potential instances of discrimination without employees filing complaints (unfortunately, the Trump administration scotched the rule before it could take effect). But by making employers prove up front that they’re paying men and women the same or risk being punished, Iceland is going much further, and—if it works as intended—potentially creating a model for other countries to imitate.

Could the U.S. ever follow suit? It’s a little hard to imagine. As an official from the Icelandic Federation of Labor has explained, the equal pay standard is designed to make sure that companies pay a “fixed salary for certain types of work”—albeit with a little bit of room to bump up pay for especially valuable employees. The idea is that people should be paid based on their job, not their ability to negotiate or the whims of a boss. But that concept maps more naturally onto a country with a highly unionized and regulated labor market like Iceland, than a place like the U.S. where many workers and employers are uncomfortable with basic collective bargaining.

On the other hand, an especially progressive state like Massachusetts or California might still want to give it a try. Ariane Hegewisch, the program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told me that as of now there’s no federal rule that would stop a progressive state legislature from trying out a version of Iceland’s rule. If they did, it would possibly have knock-on effects across the country, since large national companies would have to comply. If a Democratic governor wanted to strike a blow for women’s equality and get a higher national profile, he or she might just want to pay attention to what’s happening in Reykjavic.

Trump Begs Japanese Automakers to Build Their Cars in America, Which They Already Do

Trump Begs Japanese Automakers to Build Their Cars in America, Which They Already Do

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump is apparently using his trip to Tokyo as yet another opportunity to whinge about the U.S. trade deficit while raising questions about his familiarity with basic facts about the American economy.

Speaking before a group of business executives on Monday, the president criticized Japan for taking advantage of the U.S. on trade, particularly when it comes to cars. This was itself nothing new. Trump has long complained about the fact that while Japan’s automakers sell millions of cars in the U.S. every year, Detroit’s big three are essentially shut out of Japan, where just 15,000 American vehicles were sold last year.

Then, because this is 2017, things got dumb. According to Bloomberg, the president of the United States started begging Japan’s car companies to consider making their vehicles on American shores—something they’ve been doing since the 1980s. “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. That’s not too much to ask,” Trump said. “Is that rude to ask?”

I mean, it’s not rude. It’s just strange—because Japanese car companies already build an enormous number of vehicles stateside. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and their brethren have dozens of manufacturing plants across the country, and according to the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association, 75 percent of Japanese brand vehicle sold stateside were assembled in North America. (Some percentage of those come from Mexico, which wouldn’t exactly satisfy Trump, but you get the idea.)

It’s not as if this is a recent development, either. Usually, the knock on Trump’s understanding of Washington-Tokyo relations is that they’re locked in the 1980s, when Japan was considered the rising threat to U.S. manufacturing supremacy. But the country’s automakers started setting up shop here back in the 1980s, after President Reagan strong-armed Japan’s government into limiting its car exports. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about the trend back in 1985:

Instead of flooding America with cars made at home, and risking new protectionist measures, the Japanese are ”going native” - opening up American plants and moving quickly toward the day when they will be, collectively, the nation’s fourth major auto maker, ranking with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Trump presumably understands that Japan’s carmakers have some manufacturing presence in the United States—he bragged on Twitter when Toyota and Mazda announced they would build a joint plant here and thanked Toyota for investing $1.3 billion in a Kentucky facility. But it’s not at all clear he understands the extent of the production that happens in the U.S. Back in 2015, he suggested to the Detroit News that he’d essentially browbeat the Japanese into manufacturing cars here, as if they weren’t already. “Until you open your markets, you’re not selling any more cars over here,” Trump said. “That’s going to force people to build in the United States.”

Perhaps someone should ask Trump where he thinks Toyota builds all those Camrys it sells in California. He might be pleasantly surprised to learn the answer.

Update, Nov. 6, 2017: With a full transcript of Trump’s remarks now available, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has accused me of unfairly cherry-picking a quote that is less bizarre in context. Here are the key paragraphs (I am bolding the same passages as Blake).

When you want to build your auto plants, you will have your approvals almost immediately. When you want to expand your plants, you will have your approvals almost immediately.  And in the room, we have a couple of the great folks from two of the biggest auto companies in the world that are building new plants and doing expansions of other plants. And you know who you are, and I want to just thank you very much. I want to thank you.
I also want to recognize the business leaders in the room whose confidence in the United States — they’ve been creating jobs — you have such confidence in the United States, and you’ve been creating jobs for our country for a long, long time. Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been really doing a job. And we love it when you build cars — if you’re a Japanese firm, we love it — try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so. (Laughter.) If you could build them. But I must say, Toyota and Mazda — where are you? Are you here, anybody?  Toyota? Mazda? I thought so. Oh, I thought that was you. That’s big stuff. Congratulations. Come on, let me shake your hand. (Applause.) They’re going to invest $1.6 billion in building a new manufacturing plant, which will create as many as 4,000 new jobs in the United States. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

So, what do we learn from the full quotes? Not much new. Trump understands that the Japanese make some of their vehicles here. Yet he tells the assembled executives to “try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” suggesting that some have not tried it. This is odd, given that almost every major Japanese carmaker that sells in the U.S.—Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, and Mitsubishi—already has at least one manufacturing plant on American soil. The exception, Mazda, is planning a joint facility with Toyota that Trump himself is very excited about. If Trump is in fact aware of all this, and is still telling a bunch of auto execs to “try” building their cars in America, it’s weird. But even based on the full quote, it’s simply unclear whether Trump understands the extent of the Japanese auto industry’s U.S. manufacturing presence, which has implications for our trade policy.

This all brings up a larger question of how we should read the president’s statements. The most charitable way to interpret Trump’s comment was assume he really meant “try building more of your cars in the U.S.” But at this point, it’s not clear what we gain by giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. The president has repeatedly shown a lack of basic familiarity with major economic and public policy issues, and I think it’s generally incumbent on journalists to point out instances where he may, yet again, be out of his depth, rather than offer him an excuse by reinterpreting his sentences to make sense.

APWU Statement Regarding The Postal Service Reform Act of 2018

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

APWU News – 03/23/2018 – On March 22, The Postal Service Reform Act of 2018 (S. 2629) was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The APWU recognizes the efforts of the four bi-partisan Senators who worked to craft and co-sponsor the proposed legislation – Tom Carper (D-DE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill […]

Postal Banking Debate to Heat up in Canada

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

OTTAWA, March 22, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Postal union and social justice leaders, along with a mayor on a mission, joined Member of Parliament Irene Mathyssen (NDP, London-Fanshawe) on Parliament Hill this morning for a press conference to put pressure on Members of Parliament to support postal banking in Canada. Mathyssen, the NDP critic for […]

Postal Banking Debate to Heat up in Canada appeared on PostalReporter.com.

Baby-Sitting the Economy

Baby-Sitting the Economy

by Paul Krugman @ Slate Articles

This month, Slate is republishing some of our favorite stories. Here's today's selection: The best economic explainers don’t just wade through vast, incomprehensible figures. This 1998 piece by Paul Krugman, which attempts to explain the birth of a recession, approaches the subject through a mundane, but domestically crucial topic. And by making powerful forces that steamroll entire economies seem understandable at any scale, Krugman urges us to hope in moments of panic and dread.—Molly Olmstead

Twenty years ago I read a story that changed my life. I think about that story often; it helps me to stay calm in the face of crisis, to remain hopeful in times of depression, and to resist the pull of fatalism and pessimism. At this gloomy moment, when Asia's woes seem to threaten the world economy as a whole, the lessons of that inspirational tale are more important than ever.

The story is told in an article titled "Monetary Theory and the Great Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op Crisis." Joan and Richard Sweeney published it in the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking in 1978. I've used their story in two of my books, Peddling Prosperity and The Accidental Theorist, but it bears retelling, this time with an Asian twist.

The Sweeneys tell the story of—you guessed it—a baby-sitting co-op, one to which they belonged in the early 1970s. Such co-ops are quite common: A group of people (in this case about 150 young couples with congressional connections) agrees to baby-sit for one another, obviating the need for cash payments to adolescents. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement: A couple that already has children around may find that watching another couple's kids for an evening is not that much of an additional burden, certainly compared with the benefit of receiving the same service some other evening. But there must be a system for making sure each couple does its fair share.

The Capitol Hill co-op adopted one fairly natural solution. It issued scrip—pieces of paper equivalent to one hour of baby-sitting time. Baby sitters would receive the appropriate number of coupons directly from the baby sittees. This made the system self-enforcing: Over time, each couple would automatically do as much baby-sitting as it received in return. As long as the people were reliable—and these young professionals certainly were—what could go wrong?

Well, it turned out that there was a small technical problem. Think about the coupon holdings of a typical couple. During periods when it had few occasions to go out, a couple would probably try to build up a reserve—then run that reserve down when the occasions arose. There would be an averaging out of these demands. One couple would be going out when another was staying at home. But since many couples would be holding reserves of coupons at any given time, the co-op needed to have a fairly large amount of scrip in circulation.

Now what happened in the Sweeneys' co-op was that, for complicated reasons involving the collection and use of dues (paid in scrip), the number of coupons in circulation became quite low. As a result, most couples were anxious to add to their reserves by baby-sitting, reluctant to run them down by going out. But one couple's decision to go out was another's chance to baby-sit; so it became difficult to earn coupons. Knowing this, couples became even more reluctant to use their reserves except on special occasions, reducing baby-sitting opportunities still further.

In short, the co-op had fallen into a recession.

Since most of the co-op's members were lawyers, it was difficult to convince them the problem was monetary. They tried to legislate recovery—passing a rule requiring each couple to go out at least twice a month. But eventually the economists prevailed. More coupons were issued, couples became more willing to go out, opportunities to baby-sit multiplied, and everyone was happy. Eventually, of course, the co-op issued too much scrip, leading to different problems ...

If you think this is a silly story, a waste of your time, shame on you. What the Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op experienced was a real recession. Its story tells you more about what economic slumps are and why they happen than you will get from reading 500 pages of William Greider and a year's worth of Wall Street Journal editorials. And if you are willing to really wrap your mind around the co-op's story, to play with it and draw out its implications, it will change the way you think about the world.

For example, suppose that the U.S. stock market was to crash, threatening to undermine consumer confidence. Would this inevitably mean a disastrous recession? Think of it this way: When consumer confidence declines, it is as if, for some reason, the typical member of the co-op had become less willing to go out, more anxious to accumulate coupons for a rainy day. This could indeed lead to a slump—but need not if the management were alert and responded by simply issuing more coupons. That is exactly what our head coupon issuer Alan Greenspan did in 1987—and what I believe he would do again. So as I said at the beginning, the story of the baby-sitting co-op helps me to remain calm in the face of crisis.

Or suppose Greenspan did not respond quickly enough and that the economy did indeed fall into a slump. Don't panic. Even if the head coupon issuer has fallen temporarily behind the curve, he can still ordinarily turn the situation around by issuing more coupons—that is, with a vigorous monetary expansion like the ones that ended the recessions of 1981-82 and 1990-91. So as I said, the story of the baby-sitting co-op helps me remain hopeful in times of depression.

Above all, the story of the co-op tells you that economic slumps are not punishments for our sins, pains that we are fated to suffer. The Capitol Hill co-op did not get into trouble because its members were bad, inefficient baby sitters; its troubles did not reveal the fundamental flaws of "Capitol Hill values" or "crony baby-sittingism." It had a technical problem—too many people chasing too little scrip—which could be, and was, solved with a little clear thinking. And so, as I said, the co-op's story helps me to resist the pull of fatalism and pessimism.

But if it's all so easy, how can a large part of the world be in the mess it's in? How, for example, can Japan be stuck in a seemingly intractable slump—one that it does not seem able to get out of simply by printing coupons? Well, if we extend the co-op's story a little bit, it is not hard to generate something that looks a lot like Japan's problems—and to see the outline of a solution.

First, we have to imagine a co-op the members of which realized there was an unnecessary inconvenience in their system. There would be occasions when a couple found itself needing to go out several times in a row, which would cause it to run out of coupons—and therefore be unable to get its babies sat—even though it was entirely willing to do lots of compensatory baby-sitting at a later date. To resolve this problem, the co-op allowed members to borrow extra coupons from the management in times of need—repaying with the coupons received from subsequent baby-sitting. To prevent members from abusing this privilege, however, the management would probably need to impose some penalty—requiring borrowers to repay more coupons than they borrowed.

Under this new system, couples would hold smaller reserves of coupons than before, knowing they could borrow more if necessary. The co-op's officers would, however, have acquired a new tool of management. If members of the co-op reported it was easy to find baby sitters and hard to find opportunities to baby-sit, the terms under which members could borrow coupons could be made more favorable, encouraging more people to go out. If baby sitters were scarce, those terms could be worsened, encouraging people to go out less.

In other words, this more sophisticated co-op would have a central bank that could stimulate a depressed economy by reducing the interest rate and cool off an overheated one by raising it.

But what about Japan—where the economy slumps despite interest rates having fallen almost to zero? Has the baby-sitting metaphor finally found a situation it cannot handle?

Well, imagine there is a seasonality in the demand and supply for baby-sitting. During the winter, when it's cold and dark, couples don't want to go out much but are quite willing to stay home and look after other people's children—thereby accumulating points they can use on balmy summer evenings. If this seasonality isn't too pronounced, the co-op could still keep the supply and demand for baby-sitting in balance by charging low interest rates in the winter months, higher rates in the summer. But suppose that the seasonality is very strong indeed. Then in the winter, even at a zero interest rate, there will be more couples seeking opportunities to baby-sit than there are couples going out, which will mean that baby-sitting opportunities will be hard to find, which means that couples seeking to build up reserves for summer fun will be even less willing to use those points in the winter, meaning even fewer opportunities to baby-sit ... and the co-op will slide into a recession even at a zero interest rate.

And this is the winter of Japan's discontent. Perhaps because of its aging population, perhaps also because of a general nervousness about the future, the Japanese public does not appear willing to spend enough to use the economy's capacity, even at a zero interest rate. Japan, say the economists, has fallen into the dread "liquidity trap." Well, what you have just read is an infantile explanation of what a liquidity trap is and how it can happen. And once you understand that this is what has gone wrong, the answer to Japan's problems is, of course, quite obvious.

So the story of the baby-sitting co-op is not a mere amusement. If people would only take it seriously—if they could only understand that when great economic issues are at stake, whimsical parables are not a waste of time but the key to enlightenment—it is a story that could save the world.

The Stock Market Tanked Because Donald Trump Is Risking a Trade War With China

The Stock Market Tanked Because Donald Trump Is Risking a Trade War With China

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump tanked the stock market Thursday. Our president announced he would slam down about $60 billion worth of tariffs on China in retaliation for trade practices the White House says amount to stealing U.S. intellectual property. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 700 points. The S&P 500 was down about 2.5 percent, the most since its last freakout in February.

Is this an overreaction? Maybe. Maybe not. Investors don’t seem to be anxious so much about these tariffs alone as they are about the possibility of an escalating trade war, which could be a downer when quarterly earnings roll around. Outlets like CNBC and Investor’s Business Daily latched on to Trump’s comment that this would be “the first of many” trade actions against China, which is already vowing retaliation. Remember how Republicans used to rant and rave about how President Obama was kneecapping the economy by creating a nebulous sense of “economic uncertainty”? Well, this is what real uncertainty looks like. An on-tilt protectionist is sitting in the Oval Office. And thanks to the vast powers over trade that have been invested in the presidency through the decades, he can unilaterally hurl tariffs at our partners in international commerce. Who knows what’s coming?

To its credit, the administration is at least deploying these tariffs in response to a real problem. Beijing is notorious for essentially forcing foreign businesses to share their intellectual property and trade secrets with Chinese corporations as the price of doing business in the People’s Republic. The country’s economic development strategy has hinged on it for years. And the U.S. isn’t the only nation worried that its companies are being pushed into giving away their competitive edge; European and Japanese officials are also concerned, and have previously vowed to work with the U.S. to tackle the issue. That said, it’s not clear these duties will get us much closer to a long-term solution. Maybe they’ll encourage China to negotiate changes in how it treats IP. Or maybe it’ll just turn into a resentment-fueled global slap fight.

In the meantime, Thursday’s market reaction is a reminder of the inherent tension in Donald Trump’s economic agenda. The man loves to brag about the stock market when it is rising, and he’s done his part to goose investors’ returns by slashing taxes and rolling back regulations. But Trump is also a sincere protectionist—he has literally shouted at his staff to “bring me tariffs.” It’s one of the few policy topics he really, truly seems to feel strongly about, even if the nuances are way beyond his ken. And while certain domestic industries might benefit from tariffs, they’re unlikely to help corporate America as a whole, especially if our own exporters start feeling the bite from retaliatory measures in China or Europe or wherever else. At some point, Trump may have to choose: Does he care more about being a trade warrior, or tweeting about the Dow?

Answers to 18 Payroll Questions You Are Dying to Ask

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

For some business owners, running payroll might be like learning a foreign language. You are a master of your business idea, not the administrative responsibilities that come with it. Because you might not be familiar with these responsibilities, you might have some payroll questions. Payroll questions and answers When you become an employer, you need […]

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VP of HR honored for excellence in Human Resources

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

Vice President of Human Resources Jaffus Hardrick believes at FIU people can become the best they can be. This guiding philosophy has propelled him to lead numerous initiatives and programs that cater to faculty and staff and sends a clear message to them: FIU appreciates you and wants you to succeed. Recently, Hardrick was honored at […]

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What You Need to Know About a Qualifying Life Event

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

Employees have a window of time each year to sign up for certain types of employer-sponsored insurance. Although this open enrollment period takes place at the end of each year for all employees, an employee can add or remove coverage at any time of the year if they have a qualifying life event. What is […]

The post What You Need to Know About a Qualifying Life Event appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

Investment: A Beginner’s Guide | Frank Endris

by Frank Endris @ Public Sector Retirement News

Article by Frank Endris If you’re under the age of 30 or have children under the age of 30, chances are investing is still a strange, confusing idea. Especially confusing is what would seem to...

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Should Federal Employees Choose Supplemental Coverage with FEGLI Option B?

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

The federal government provides group life insurance coverage that is more affordable for federal employees, and the trend is also common among many private sector businesses. However, it is important to note that the FEGLI...

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How to Minimize your Taxes in Retirement

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Everyone pays taxes, but are you paying them in the most efficient way? All people must pay taxes, but it is always important to be tax efficient. Being tax efficient means avoiding unnecessary tax payments...

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Let Ben Carson Keep His Table

Let Ben Carson Keep His Table

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Administrators at Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development have been on a yearlong quest to replace the housing secretary’s dining room furniture inside the agency’s headquarters, a Washington building designed by legendary brutalist architect Marcel Breuer. A series of news reports revealed that HUD officials (as well as the secretary’s wife, Candy Carson) had pressured staffers to get around spending limits in order to spend more than $31,000 on a mahogany table, 10 chairs, and a handful of sideboards, including a three-piece set “crafted of crotch mahogany, satin wood and quartered mahogany borders, [with] carved teardrop and dentil molding on crown, ” according to CNN.

Whether or not Carson’s executive suite was in need of a new look, HUD responded with a series of obfuscations and excuses. The department spokesperson lied to the Guardian about the purchase of the set, which was supposed to arrive this coming May. Carson said the current table had been characterized as “dangerous,” while the interior designer who sold it to HUD said the office’s existing furniture was said to be “raggedy.” Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro chimed in to say he had never had any problems with the table. Finally, on Thursday, Carson said he had requested that the order be canceled and that he was not happy about the price tag.

Is a $31,000 dining set appropriate for the leader of an 8,000-person federal department where he has preached about the moral rewards of abstemiousness? It just may be, according to Michael Rock, the creative director at design consultancy 2x4 and a professor at the Yale School of Art, who has followed the controversy closely. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Grabar: The first thing that caught everyone’s eye about this was the price tag. As someone who works with this kind of stuff, did that seem abnormal or in line with what an executive would pay to furnish a suite?

Michael Rock: An interesting phenomenon in America is that billions and billions of dollars are spent on things that no one has any reaction to, but something that’s just so tangible, everyone reacts to, because everyone has to buy a table and chairs. Whereas if that space shuttle costs $15 billion, should it be $14 or $17 billion, who knows? But when a chair is $5,000, [people say], “Well, I just bought a chair for $100.”

Is the Regency style popular among corporate clients? I associate corporate culture with high modernism, and this looks like something from a house museum. 

What is the look of an executive in America now? There’s all different variations on that. In one sense it’s kind of futuristic, like a Bond villain, you go into the office and it’s like the deck of a spaceship. And then there’s classic modernist, familiar from movies, the Mad Men style. That executive had modern furniture typified by Stoller or Knoll. But there’s also a kind of traditional style. You may very well find on Wall Street, in a completely modernist skyscraper, a wood-paneled Edwardian office that looks like it was taken directly out of a country home in Britain and reassembled piece by piece. It’s a different kind of symbol of executive power, I think, which is traditional, baronial, classic. There was the recent thing with the congressman who decorated his whole office in Downton Abbey style.

Aaron Schock!

And that was adopting the style of the landed aristocracy, and I think he was run out of office ultimately. [Editor’s note: Yes, he was.] So there’s all these different signifiers of power, and that’s where this contrast between this high modernist building and this ersatz historicism as a symbol of fanciness is interesting.

This building is designed by Marcel Breuer, one of the icons of modern architecture. But what you’re saying is there’s not necessarily a custom of having furniture match the architecture, and that there’s probably a number of low-design objects stuffed inside this iconic building.

It speaks to the unlovable quality of brutalist architecture. It’s been almost universally unloved and seen as anti-human, uncomfortable, hard. There’s a parallel at HUD. That same criticism is applied to modernist housing projects. These projects are so dehumanizing and uncomfortable, so you get this way of decorating these building in this quaint or historical way to try to humanize them somehow. The classic instance is these Bauhaus buildings in Germany with lace curtains in the window.

Which Walter Gropius would have hated.

Yeah, but it was seen as a way for people to fight back against the security of the architecture, so you get all these funny decorating moments, where high modernist buildings have this almost kitschy Americana. That was always an attempt of the common man fighting against this intellectualized high modern appeal of these buildings. And the HUD building in particular, there was a sense in Breuer of trying to democratize the spaces—everyone had equal access to sunlight. [Former HUD Secretary] Jack Kemp famously said it’s 10 stories of basements.

Is it important to make the distinction that even though this is an office, Carson was furnishing a dining space, and we should expect something different from furniture for a fancy business luncheon than for office work?

It’s a sideboard, a lowboard, eight chairs [plus two armchairs. —ed.]—there’s a whole bunch of stuff there, and when you start to break it down by piece the cost goes down a lot. It’s not, like, this one gold-plated table. How many people work in HUD? It’s huge. It’s not at all surprising that an executive would have a suite with a table where he might have lunch or an informal meeting, that would be very typical of a corporate office suite. All of those pieces would be quite typical in any office suite.

I wonder if there’s a racial component to this criticism. If it had been Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, would people have had the same reaction as they did to Ben Carson at HUD, which is seen as this inner-city organization tucked away in this horrible building? And he’s a black guy going to try to buy all this fancy furniture? If that were Alan Greenspan or Steve Mnuchin or Gary Cohn, would there be the same outcry? I’m not sure.

The blue chairs might have made him particularly susceptible to that racially tinged criticism of being a parvenu.

Oh, the blue velvet on the chairs? I wouldn’t do it myself, but within the style of 19th-century Regency it wouldn’t be out of line. What did Reagan say about Cadillac welfare moms? Cadillac, to me, is a type of gauche car in a way that this strikes me as a gauche furnishing choice. The fact that it’s a black guy at HUD splurging on this fancy furniture for himself, it strikes me that those tie together somehow to portray him as undeserving.

I don’t support Trump, I don’t support Carson, I think he’s a terrible choice. But the controversy over the furniture reveals all these different things: ambivalence about how much we spend on government, ambivalence over how someone dealing with inner cities should be treated, ambivalence over rising above your station—a perfect storm of all these stories.

An implication being that because HUD deals with primarily anti-poverty programs, it’s somehow less deserving of having a proper set of furniture than Treasury would be?

That’s right. So much coverage already was like, “They’re slashing for money for housing at the same time as spending money on furniture.” I completely object to the cutting of HUD’s budget, but this furniture has nothing to do with that. It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s played as, “Here’s someone in charge of creating housing for poor people and creating a palatial setting for themselves.” If the table and chairs had cost $20,000? If they had cost $10,000? What would have been the number people would have accepted? At what point does outrage become ignited? A person’s sofa is the fourth-biggest expense they make in their lifetime—a house, a car, a diamond ring, a sofa.

Part of the outrage stems from how they’ve handled it. The initial reports have the acting director, under Candy Carson’s instruction, saying you can’t get a decent chair for $5,000. Then the subsequent attempts to cover up the expense and not submit it for congressional approval. I think if they had been more forthright about the idea that HUD is no less deserving of a set of C-suite furniture than any other department, the reception might have been different.

For sure, it was terribly handled, and I think the involvement of Candy is significant somehow. There have been several of these wife stories recently. Mnuchin’s wife was involved in chartering that airplane to see the eclipse. The avaricious wife is a plotline in all these things, the husband driven by this wife trying to get everything she can.

A Lady Macbeth subplot.

It’s the third or fourth wife story in this administration already, playing the system. Like most things the Trump administration does, it has been terribly handled in the press response, and probably illegally handled at the beginning, because there’s a $5,000 limit which they tried to circumvent by saying it wasn’t really for his office, it was for the whole building. There are two different stories. One: Should there be a $30,000 furniture makeover in the director of HUD’s office? That’s a question that could be debated. The question of whether the wife of the director should be trying to manipulate the system to get to buy it, that’s maybe a different story.

One thing he said in the letter was that this furniture was 30 to 50 years old and was characterized as unsafe. At what point does a dining room table become unsafe?

I highly doubt the reason they’re replacing it was really a safety concern. Again, a new executive coming into a corporation—most would remodel their office. But the series of overlapping and ridiculous stories to justify this is really out of control.

In Carson’s case, whether or not you think the chair of HUD should have a new set of furniture, his rhetoric has been all about efficiency, cutting corners, public housing should not be too comfy.

Yeah, that’s where the story completely falls apart, because he’s such an inept director. It’s absurd that someone so unversed in the subject would be heading an agency like that that’s so technical. And coming after Shaun Donovan, who had many years of experience, was an architect, trained at Harvard, ran New York City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, really knew something about cities.

And Julian Castro after that, who came out of San Antonio.

Now you’ve got someone who is a neophyte, with this harsh rhetoric about not making public housing too comfortable because we want people to get out of it. … The real frisson of the story is that he needed to be able to flaunt all rules to go and aggrandize himself while taking things away from the needy. You can’t escape that image. I think it wouldn’t really matter how much the table and chairs cost as long it was a number large enough to pique anyone’s attention.

Now we hear Carson wants the order canceled. So rather than trying to make a defense of properly furnishing HUD, if not properly managing its programs, he seems to have agreed this was an unnecessary expenditure.

Which completely undermines the whole thing. It’s not about efficiency, it’s not about safety, he just got caught. So it’s the worst possible outcome. He doesn’t even stick by the original argument, he just says, “OK, never mind, I won’t do it.”

They seem to have made a wrong turn at every single juncture.

You couldn’t have crafted a worse trajectory for this story. The reason I’ve been following it so closely is that there’s so many things tied up in it, and in a way, the denouement that you’re describing is fitting too. After you get your hand in the cookie jar, you say, “Oh, you caught me, never mind,” and skulk away. It’s horrible.

New presidential program offers emerging leaders executive perspective

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

During this new academic year, 30 FIU staff and faculty members will have an unprecedented opportunity to assess the challenges and opportunities facing the university in the next few decades. The group was selected to participate in the inaugural Presidential Leadership Program, a professional development program designed for employees under 50 years of age interested in solidifying […]

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Larry Kudlow Is an Insufferable Wall Street Hack. Let’s Hope Trump Picks Him to Replace Gary Cohn Anyway.

Larry Kudlow Is an Insufferable Wall Street Hack. Let’s Hope Trump Picks Him to Replace Gary Cohn Anyway.

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

On Tuesday, Donald Trump said there was a “good chance” that he would pick CNBC talking head Larry Kudlow as the next director of the White House’s National Economic Council, the powerful position recently vacated by Gary Cohn. “I’m looking at Larry Kudlow very strongly,” Trump told reporters.

In any other White House, the news that Kudlow was a frontrunner to become the president’s top economic adviser would be cause for despair. A highly paid mouther of ‘80s-vintage supply-side platitudes, the man has spent decades yapping in favor of Wall Street-friendly tax cuts and deregulation while blowing calls about the direction of the economy. He’s the human embodiment of an overpriced power tie—a loud throwback that bankers really like.

But this, of course, is not any other White House. It is the Trump administration. And given the alternatives, I’m rooting for Kudlow to get the job.

Right now, the administration appears to be in full MAGA mode, and is in the process of imposing steel and aluminum tariffs that could—depending on who they actually end up targeting— end up being the start of a nasty and damaging global tit-for-tat. One of the key architects of the tariff plan, White House trade czar Peter Navarro, is reportedly also in the running to become NEC director, a perch that would give him even more influence within the administration. Navarro is a Ph.D. economist who, unlike most of his peers, is obsessed with the trade deficit and is convinced that America is in an existential struggle with China. Worse yet, he seems to have figured out that the best way to win Trump over is to convince him that your idea is his own. “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition,” he recently told Bloomberg while talking about the tariff plans. “And his intuition is always right in these matters.” Some have mocked these comments as a sign that Navarro is a mere “sycophant” and “propagandist.” But in Trumpland, they seem more like the words of a person who knows how to push his own agenda.

Kudlow, a former Reagan official who spent time as Bear Stearns’ chief economist despite lacking a Ph.D., is Navarro’s antithesis on trade. He has a long track record opposing tariffs—he calls them “prosperity killers”—and criticized the administration’s steel and aluminum plan. But Kudlow also happens to have Trump’s respect. He’s acted as an informal adviser to the president since his campaign, and has been particularly influential on tax cuts. Unlike Gary Cohn, he seems to have found a middle ground with Trump on the trade issue.

“We don’t agree on everything. But in this case I think that’s good. I want to have a divergent opinion,” Trump told reporters. “We agree on most. He now has come around to believing in tariffs as a negotiating point. You know I’m re-negotiating trade deals, and without tariffs, we wouldn’t do nearly as well.” This is obviously a bit of a retreat for Kudlow. But it still suggests he’d be an internal voice of caution on trade, and his trusted presence could keep Trump from chasing his worst “intuitions.”

I don’t want to heap too much praise on Kudlow. As Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride once wrote, the man “is usually wrong and frequently absurd.” He mocked warnings about the housing bubble, wrote that there was “no recession” in December 2007 (the month the recession started), and declared that growth was about to rebound in September 2008—days before Lehman Brothers collapsed. He has occupied himself for the better part of a media career calling for regressive tax cuts of the sort that Trump and the Republican party just enacted. He is no great economic light.

But nor is anybody else who Trump might realistically pick as his new economic lead. Other candidates for the job reportedly include budget director Mick Mulvaney, whose big accomplishments include fooling Trump into proposing cuts to disability insurance and giving a hand to payday lenders, and conservative econo-hack Stephen Moore, who’s basically Kudlow with worse suits and less charisma. There are also reports that Trump is considering director of strategic initiatives Chris Lidell, a former GM and Microsoft executive who seems to have spent most of his time in the White House helping Jared Kushner do whatever the heck it is Jared Kushner has been doing. None of these men are likely to bring much in the way of economic insight, nor is it clear that any of them would be an effective counterweight to protectionists like Navarro, who will likely be sticking around the White House regardless. Kudlow’s being in the administration, on the other hand, might lessen the probability that the country will stumble headlong into the trade war Trump seems to want in his heart. Worst comes to worst, he probably won’t do much additional harm, which is really the best we can hope for.

Video: Houston USPS workers not getting paid on time - PostalReporter.com

Video: Houston USPS workers not getting paid on time - PostalReporter.com


Houston USPS workers not getting paid on time- Houston post office employees say they haven't been getting their paychecks. It's happening at a Houston mail

Good Lord, We Really Need to Fix Our Trade Laws

Good Lord, We Really Need to Fix Our Trade Laws

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump officially signed off on his new steel and aluminum tariffs today, not that anybody knows how they’re going to work or who they’ll apply to. Since the president blurted out his intention to impose duties on the metals last week, his administration has been scrambling to figure out the details and shore up their legal justification, all while facing a louder-than-usual protest from Republicans in Congress. So far, few real decisions have been made. It mostly seems that they’ve opted to kick a bunch of made-in-the-USA cans down the road.

To wit: In theory, the administration is about to slap a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. But those won’t apply to Canada or Mexico, two of our top sources of steel imports, while the administration is still renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The administration is going to try and make deals with our other allies as well. Some of those bargains to let countries avoid the tariffs may involve seemingly unrelated issues like their NATO commitments. “Some of the countries that we’re dealing with are great partners, great military allies and we’re going to be looking at that very strongly,” Trump said during his speech today. “The tariffs don’t go effective for at least another 15 days. And we’re going to be seeing who’s treating us fairly. Who’s not treating us fairly. Part of that is going to be military. Who’s paying the bills. Who’s not paying the bills.”

On top of that, according to the White House statement today, “there will be a mechanism” allowing American companies to ask the administration to exempt certain products from the tariffs “based on demand that is unmet by domestic production or on specific national security considerations.”

So maybe these tariffs will be far-reaching. Or maybe they’ll only end up applying to Germany, because Trump has it out for Angela Merkel. Either way, the situation is an embarrassing, ad hoc mess as well as an indictment of the outdated laws that have allowed it to unfold.

However ineptly, Trump is attempting to impose these tariffs using his powers under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, a Cold War–era piece of legislation that gives the president broad powers to protect domestic industries from foreign competition for the sake of “national security”—a phrase the law defines so broadly that it encompasses just about everything from military readiness to the basic health of the economy. Here’s the statute’s wording:

In the administration of this section, the Secretary and the President shall further recognize the close relation of the economic welfare of the Nation to our national security, and shall take into consideration the impact of foreign competition on the economic welfare of individual domestic industries; and any substantial unemployment, decrease in revenues of government, loss of skills or investment, or other serious effects resulting from the displacement of any domestic products by excessive imports shall be considered, without excluding other factors, in determining whether such weakening of our internal economy may impair the national security.

The Trump administration has looked upon this language and decided that it empowers them to limit steel imports however they see fit, using whatever bizarre criteria they come up with, simply because foreign competition is weakening our domestic industry and economy. You might disagree with the economic analysis. But it’s actually not a crazy reading of the law.

It is crazy, however, that such a statute exists in 2018, one that gives the executive branch an enormous amount of unchecked power over the economy, something that may have seemed sane when you had a reasonably thoughtful human being like John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office but is obviously ill-conceived now that we have an impulsive hairpiece who gets most of his information from Fox News.

One way to address this situation would be for our lawmakers to eliminate Section 232 altogether. But failing that, there’s a very simple tweak they could make instead. Currently, the law gives Congress the ability to remove Section 232 tariffs on oil or petroleum products by simply passing a “disapproval resolution.” Lawmakers could broaden that power so that they could shoot down tariffs on other products as well. Making such a change would probably require overcoming Trump’s veto. But given how unpopular these latest tariffs are—100 House Republicans signed a letter asking Trump to soften them after his initial announcement—that might just be feasible.

There is potentially another way out of these tariffs, if Congress is unwilling to step up. It’s possible that, despite the incredibly wide latitude granted under Section 232, Trump may have sabotaged his own legal case for the steel and aluminum tariffs by tweeting too much. The administration’s lawyers have reportedly worried that by treating the tariffs as a bargaining chip with NAFTA, the president has tipped his hand that there really isn’t any national security rationale behind them, which could make the government vulnerable to a lawsuit.

This is reminiscent of Trump’s travel-ban tweets, which undercut the government’s argument that it was not targeting Muslims. But we can’t keep relying on incompetence to temper Trump’s worst impulses. As things currently stand, our trade laws give far too much leeway to the president. No one erratic and ignorant man should have all that power. Congress ought to exercise a little responsibility.

What Does Pay Frequency Mean?

by Michele Bossart @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

When you have employees, you need to run payroll so they can receive their wages. Before paying employees, you need to decide on a pay frequency. Your industry, the number of employees you have working for you, the type of workers you have, and legal requirements determine your pay frequency. But first, what does pay […]

The post What Does Pay Frequency Mean? appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

The Cannabis Industry Is Well-Armed to Fight Jeff Sessions

The Cannabis Industry Is Well-Armed to Fight Jeff Sessions

by Alex Halperin @ Slate Articles

On Thursday, marijuana-hating Attorney General Jeff Sessions invalidated a document that has served as the legal scaffolding for the state-level pushes to legalize recreational use of marijuana. There are, as Mark Joseph Stern writes in Slate, many reasons to believe that some kind of federal crackdown on marijuana could be in the works. But there are also plenty of reasons the legal marijuana industry no longer needs to fear a prohibitionist like Sessions.

Despite the initial surprise, the industry appeared to absorb the news with an appropriate sense of proportion. “This is not a sky-is-falling moment,” Kris Krane, president of 4Front, a company that operates medical cannabis businesses in four states, told me. “It may wind up being nothing.”

In his missive, Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, an August 2013 document named for its author, then–Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole memo guided federal prosecutors not to expend resources prosecuting state-legal marijuana businesses unless a case met one of eight law enforcement priorities, such as distributing pot to minors or trafficking product across state lines. Within the industry, and in legal practice, it was widely interpreted to mean working or investing in this federally illegal industry did not put people at risk of federal prosecution.

With this protection in place, legal cannabis became one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. Sales jumped from $1.5 billion in 2013 (U.S.) to an estimated $10 billion (for North America) in 2017, according to Arcview Market Research. The industry now employs more than 150,000 Americans and has become more deeply entrenched in every quantifiable way.

With Thursday’s reversal, Sessions is alerting state-legal cannabis businesses that once again they are fair game for federal prosecutors. But the legal climate has changed so much it probably doesn’t matter. When the memo first came out, Colorado and Washington state had voted to legalize recreational marijuana the previous November, but neither market had opened. No one knew if it would be a disaster. Today, industries operate in several states and have given alarmists almost no fodder for complaint.

And legalization is popular. An October 2017 Gallup poll found an all-time high of 64 percent of Americans support full legalization. The same poll was also the first time Gallup recorded a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, favoring full legalization.

As for medical marijuana, public support now hovers at about 90 percent. Veterans, a traditionally right-leaning demographic, are now among the most vocal advocates for medical-marijuana research. In particular, they want to see it studied as a therapy for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There is also growing, and increasingly credible, interest in cannabis as an “exit drug” from opiate addiction. (FiveThirtyEight considers legalization is among the least polarizing issues in the country.)

Sessions has sat out this remarkable shift in public opinion. In 2016, he said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” By November 2017, his views had evolved slightly to acknowledge that marijuana is not as destructive as heroin. However, he remains skeptical about the plant’s medical uses and has not shown any outward interest in how much the politics of pot, and the facts on the ground, have changed since the “Just Say No” era.

Instead, during his first year as attorney general, Sessions has repeatedly tried to clear a path to crack down on the federally illegal drug.
This has been more difficult than you might think for the nation’s top law enforcement official.

The Cole memo provided “guidance” for federal prosecutors, but since December 2014, a law has been in effect that blocks the Justice Department from spending resources prosecuting state-legal medical-marijuana businesses. Now known as the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment, for two of legalization’s strongest supporters in Congress, it was renewed annually until November 2017, despite Sessions’ efforts to kill it. The next question is whether it will be renewed again with the spending bill that needs to pass by Jan. 19 to avoid a government shutdown.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, a bipartisan group of pro-legalization members of Congress suggested Sessions’ move may backfire. Sessions, they said, may have galvanized legalization supporters there to attempt to include recreational as well as medical cannabis businesses in the law. In 2015, such a provision fell slightly short in a 222–206 House vote. If it passed this time, it would cancel out Sessions’ decision to rescind the memo.

If Sessions thought killing the Cole memo would be easy, the past 24 hours have been a rough correction. Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who has a robust marijuana industry in his state to worry about, tweeted that ending the Cole memo “directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation.” Gardner threatened to hold up Justice Department nominees “until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me.”

By killing the Cole memo, Sessions may have accidentally underscored that the industry no longer needs the protections the document offered.

Gardner, who’s up for re-election in 2020 in a state Hillary Clinton comfortably won, doesn’t want to be the guy voters remember for taking away their weed. Neither, it seems, does anyone else. Sessions critics on Thursday included Republicans from Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada, California, Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky. Freedom Partners, a group linked to the Koch Brothers, who support criminal justice reform from the right, said, “When it comes to marijuana laws, we agree with President Trump that it’s ‘up to the states.’ ” (Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that Trump “believes in enforcing federal law.”)

Aside from tepid support from one congressman, Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, it appears that virtually no politician or entity in Washington shares Sessions’ fixation on marijuana. Kevin Sabet, the country’s most prominent anti-legalization activist, and the head of a group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told me he favored Sessions’ decision because it might make it harder for weed companies to raise money but said he didn’t expect it to lead to a substantial crackdown, at least in the short term. A few U.S. attorneys even made statements saying the end of the Cole memo would have little to no effect on deciding which cases to prosecute.

There may be good reasons to oppose legalization, but with medical marijuana now legal in 30 states, including big swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, it’s hard to see any political upside to opposing legalization. The exception might be within the states themselves. In part to keep Sessions away, some legal states have made a point of stepping up enforcement of state cannabis laws. (For example, recently in Colorado, 10 low-level employees at the dispensary chain Sweet Leaf have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors associated with “looping,” allowing shoppers to make repeat visits to exceed legal purchasing limits. The charges stemmed from a yearlong police investigation.)

There is a way Sessions could succeed in catalyzing some kind of crackdown. He has given greater discretion over federal marijuana cases to 93 U.S. attorneys, among whom there’s bound to be some who want to see more marijuana prosecutions, especially as more are Trump appointees.

Sessions also supports a controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture that gives law enforcement broad leeway to seize and keep assets when they believe there’s probable cause of a crime being committed. On the conference call, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, said asset forfeiture can create “perverse incentives” to prosecute crimes that shouldn’t be prosecuted. And cannabis companies that now operate expensive factories and often have to keep large amounts of cash on hand make tempting targets for law enforcement keen on using this tactic.

For prosecutors, though, it may look like a mixed bag. After the Cole memo came out in 2013, then–U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag continued prosecutions against Harborside Health Center, a prominent dispensary in Oakland, California, and two other Bay Area dispensaries. None of her prosecutions were successful. In May 2016, when the federal government abandoned the case, Harborside co-founder Steve DeAngelo, one of the industry’s most prominent executives, said “the dismissal signals the beginning of the end of federal prohibition.” Krane, of the cannabis company 4Front, suggested prosecutors may now be wary of repeating such a boondoggle.

This Monday, California’s recreational market officially came online, and Harborside opened its doors at 6 a.m. The lawyer who defended Harborside made the first legal purchase.

What Is an FEIN?

by Mike Kappel @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

When you run a business, you must meet many IRS requirements. You might need an FEIN to identify your business on documents like payroll tax forms. What does FEIN mean? What is an FEIN? FEIN is an acronym for Federal Employer Identification Number, also known as an EIN. This unique, nine-digit number is used by […]

The post What Is an FEIN? appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

Build It Better

Build It Better

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

On Monday morning, an Amtrak train in Washington state went flying off the rails onto Interstate 5, killing three and injuring dozens. President Trump saw the crash as another picture in his gallery of American decline. The accident, he wrote on Twitter, “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seen trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

His critics retorted that this was a bit rich after Republicans in Congress, with all the restraint of Daffy Duck in a treasure cave (“Consequences shmonsequences, as long as I’m rich!”), pushed a hastily drafted tax bill adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit. Coming on the heels of Sunday’s 12-hour power failure at the Atlanta airport, the Amtrak wreck could also be seen as a warning on the dangers of transferring billions from public to private hands.

But, of course, neither the president nor his critics bothered to find out what went wrong in Washington. What did happen indeed says something about American infrastructure—but not necessarily about its funding.

Shortly before dawn, an Amtrak train carrying 78 passengers derailed on a bend just south of Tacoma. But the track bed wasn’t crumbling from age and neglect, because it was part of the freshly opened, $181 million Point Defiance Bypass project that allows passenger trains to avoid a congested stretch of freight track along the Puget Sound. That improvement was funded by the nearly $800 million in stimulus money for high-speed rail that Washington received from the 2009 stimulus act.

The Amtrak Cascades corridor is not high-speed rail by any accepted international definition—its top speed is 79 mph, which is about how fast commuter trains can travel around New York City. Still, the straightened track was to save time and reduce delays from freight trains. Amtrak Train 501 was running the track’s inaugural service journey on Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct a full investigation, but it appears likely that this was a case of a train going too fast. The curve where the train derailed had a posted speed limit of 30 mph; witnesses said the train was going 70 to 80. Transitdocs.com, which pulls speed data from Amtrak’s public train tracker, last reported the speed of the train at 81 mph 1,400 yards before the crash site. Railroads call this an “overspeed” incident, and it could have been caused by driver error, a broken signal, or a defect in the train’s brand-new locomotive.

But whatever the cause, if the train was going too fast, the crash would have been averted by a functioning Positive Train Control system, the automatic braking technology that has become the global standard on busy railways. Perhaps the name rings a bell: PTC also would have averted the 2013 Metro-North train crash in New York City, when a commuter train traveling 82 mph derailed on a 30 mph curve, killing four passengers. And it would have prevented a similar incident in 2015, when an Amtrak train going twice the speed limit derailed in Philadelphia. And the 2016 crash of a commuter train in New Jersey, which smashed into Hoboken terminal, killing one person.

After a passenger train crashed on the outskirts of Los Angeles in 2008, Congress required most of the nation’s freight and passenger railways to install PTC technology by the end of 2015. But freight companies and public agencies couldn’t meet the deadline, and in 2015, Congress gave them a three-to-five-year extension. Commuter rail agencies griped for years that PTC was an unfunded federal mandate; freight carriers said it was unjustified. But the whole process—from the blanket congressional order to railroads’ inability to adopt the technology—speaks far more to a general state of dysfunction in American infrastructure management than to a lack of federal funding.

You could argue that this problem still comes back to money. But in Washington, PTC equipment had already been installed on that stretch of track. It was just not yet activated. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation will ask why the bypass was opened without the technology in place. Whether or not the blame falls on Amtrak, the company has its own problems on its plate. At an NTSB hearing last month in D.C., Amtrak was pilloried for a “failing” safety culture. The board found 24 different safety violations during a deadly 2016 crash when a Northeast Corridor train hit a backhoe outside Philadelphia.

It is easy to echo the “roads and bridges” chorus that sounds every time there’s an accident. There are political reasons not to dig deeper. Democrats, reluctant to discredit public spending, don’t want to add grist to the privatization mill. (And, of course, Republicans will offer bad-faith reforms designed to sell off public assets.) Railfans will gripe that a train crash leads the news while the 100-odd daily auto fatalities go ignored. That’s fair! But it’s also true that the passenger train accidents in this country are anomalous. If you want America to build nice things, you have to confront an uncomfortable fact: The problems with the construction and maintenance of our infrastructure, on rails and elsewhere, go way beyond the checkbook. Infrastructure reform doesn’t have to be a disingenuous excuse for spending cuts. The better we build, the more we can build.

For example: States spend most of their transportation money on new construction, not maintenance, leading to a climate in which the things we use most fall apart while politicians cut ribbons on far-flung new roads and bridges. Expensive and risky endeavors, like Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, are chosen over no-build solutions. Flagship projects suffer from embarrassing defects (like California’s Bay Bridge) and outrageous cost overruns (like New York’s Oculus). Construction-sector productivity is lower than it was 50 years ago.

Public money is funneled into useless pet projects like airport trains or private enterprises like stadiums while those that are needed, like Manhattan’s Second Avenue Subway, smash global cost records. And even a bridge being lifted on its own foundations (in Bayonne, New Jersey) requires 5,000 pages of environmental review. These are not problems driven by a national lack of funding but by mismanagement and misplaced priorities.

Just look at Atlanta. On Sunday, when the world’s busiest airport was plunged into darkness for 12 hours, Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters that the fire that took out the airport’s power system had also destroyed the airport’s backup power system, because all the cables shared space in the same tunnel. “They put all their eggs in one basket and that basket caught on fire,” a switch salesman told the Wall Street Journal.

On an immediate level, that very bad decision was one motivated by the desire to save money. But any accounting for the possibility of a disaster like Sunday’s—which will probably cost Delta alone more than $100 million—would have revealed that a better design ultimately made financial sense. Not more, bigger, newer infrastructure. Just better.

The Met Will Start Charging Out-of-Towners, and New York City Burns a Little Less Bright

The Met Will Start Charging Out-of-Towners, and New York City Burns a Little Less Bright

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Thursday it would start charging mandatory admission fees to out-of-state visitors, a policy change that will provide revenue for the Met and bring the museum’s business model in line with its global peers. It will also deprive New York of one of its most extraordinary, egalitarian traditions, a rare offering that had lingered from the city’s fading commitment to common public life.

The Met, whose 7 million annual visitors make it the second-most popular art museum on Earth after the Louvre, has long wanted to make more money from admissions. The museum says out-of-staters account for more than half of its annual attendance. (New York state residents and students from around the region will continue to pay what they wish to enter the nation’s largest art museum; admission for children under 12 remains free.) It wasn’t just about making ends meet; it was a matter of principle. “What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?” the former Met director Philippe de Montebello asked in 2002.

But the museum has had to maneuver carefully around a pair of 19th-century agreements with the city and state that presumed entrance would be mostly free. Since 1970, the Met has squared the circle by asking visitors to make a donation, even if just a few cents, for admission to its vast collections. The language of that request was the subject of a class-action lawsuit settled in 2016; ultimately the museum conceded the fees were “suggested,” rather than “recommended.” New signs advised visitors: “The amount you pay is up to you.”

Not anymore. The new policy, which will be introduced in March, already has the approval of the city, whose populist mayor, Bill de Blasio, framed the new entrance fee as a blow for the common man. “I’m a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” he said when the idea was raised last year.

In a letter published on Thursday, Met President and CEO Daniel Weiss put a more pragmatic spin on it: The Met needs money. The museum has struggled financially in recent years, running up a $40 million deficit that forced layoffs of 90 employees last year and the downscaling of a planned $600 million new wing. Critics say that under Thomas Campbell, who resigned as director in February of last year, the museum had spent recklessly, seduced by visions of new wings, new art, and new donors.

The “suggested” admission is no longer bringing in what it used to, Weiss writes in his letter. While attendance is up 40 percent since 2004, the percentage of visitors giving what the Met suggests has fallen in that time from 2-in-3 visitors to fewer than 1-in-5—a decline of 73 percent. (Perhaps relatedly, the entrance fee in that time has risen from $15 to $25.) The museum reckons the impending change will bring in between $6 million and $11 million a year, according to the New York Times—a paltry sum in a city where scores of apartments sell for that amount each year, but every little bit counts, I suppose. As Times critic Holland Cotter observes, it’s also a pittance compared to corporate gifts like the $65 million David Koch gave the museum in exchange for a pair of fountains in his name. Finally, Weiss argues, the Met has become “the only major museum in the world that relies exclusively on a pure pay-as-you-wish system” without getting the majority of its money from the government.

Damn right it has. No one would contend that a tour of the Met is not worth $25 or that most international visitors, who account for 37 percent of the museum’s attendance, could not afford it. Museum directors and their allies have often said their institutions possess what economists call a low “elasticity of demand,” meaning that price hikes generally don’t drive visitors away.

This may be true and good for globetrotters, and perhaps the Met will still bring in 7 million visitors next year. But the person the museum ought to be trying to get inside is not someone already determined to be there. It’s precisely those who might be turned off by a $25 ticket who are the Met’s perfect audience: the young woman visiting her sister who is not sure if she can afford it, the New Jersey commuter who doesn’t know if he even likes this stuff. The Met has always offered itself to those people, in part because its astounding array of treasures in such close proximity—not just art, but armor, and the choir screen of a Spanish church, and the façade of an 1825 bank building, and an entire Egyptian temple—can melt any skeptic’s resistance. But also because, being free, all you had to lose was your time.

For those who already loved the place, the optional donation made a visit that much sweeter, since there was no pressure to gorge your eyes until you felt your money was well spent. You could duck in and spend a few minutes among the Polynesian masks, or quickly show a friend the Napoleonic graffiti on the Temple of Dendur, and then slip back into the city. This fostered a sense that the interior of the museum was an extension of Manhattan’s public realm, and that Met fixtures like the five-legged Assyrian lions were part of it, a spectacular but out-of-the-way urban detail like a cornice or a façade carving.

Enduring the stern looks of the ticket-sellers when you handed over your $2 was the price you paid to share this sneaky, radical bargain with a friend from out of town. It’s too bad that the Met will no longer mean the same thing to visitors as it does to New Yorkers, because no city is quicker to make you one of its own than this one. However diminished from days when the subway was a nickel and CUNY was free and the Met didn’tsuggest” anything but the city’s tremendous public assets, New York’s occasional largesse was never something that had to be earned. And while the museum remains all but free for New Yorkers, whatever their vintage, the formality of an ID check nevertheless functions as a little marker to remind that some visitors belong and some do not.

Finally, it’s hard to find a place in New York or any city where you can catch your breath without opening your wallet. That our best and biggest free public space also happened to be stacked with the world’s richest art collection was a miracle, but it also felt like a right.

A Look at Federal, State, and Local Minimum Wages

by Mike Kappel @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

You can’t just pay your employees any amount you want. You must follow federal, state, and local laws that set minimum wages. What is minimum wage? Minimum wage is the lowest amount you can pay an employee per hour of work. You can pay more than the minimum wage, but you should never pay less […]

The post A Look at Federal, State, and Local Minimum Wages appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

FIU recognized as one of the greatest colleges to work for

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

University gets highest recognition in The Chronicle of Higher Education survey FIU is the only university in the country this year to achieve honor roll designation with recognition in all 12 categories of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual report on the academic workplace. FIU was recognized for creating an exceptional work environment in the […]

The post FIU recognized as one of the greatest colleges to work for appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

USPS non-career turnover rates nearly 40 per cent

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

According to documents submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission: The Postal Service stated its FY 2015 performance target for average annual turnover rate of non-career employees was 20 percent, and its FY 2015 performance target for average annual turnover rate of external hires was 4.5 percent. However, the average annual turnover rate of non-career employees […]

Americans Haven’t Noticed Trump’s Tax Cut in Their Paychecks. That’s Probably Because There Isn’t Much to Notice.

Americans Haven’t Noticed Trump’s Tax Cut in Their Paychecks. That’s Probably Because There Isn’t Much to Notice.

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

When Republicans passed their $1.5 trillion tax cut in December, very few Americans expected to personally benefit from the legislation. Depending on the poll, somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of adults anticipated that their own tax bill was about to go down. In reality, far more households probably stood to benefit. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, for instance, estimated that about 80 percent of Americans would get a cut.

Why were so many people confused about what the tax cut meant for them individually? There were lots of theories. Maybe it was the press coverage, which tended to highlight the potential losers from the legislation, and how it would disproportionately benefit the rich. Maybe it was a bad sales job by Republicans, who made the mistake of rolling out early drafts of the bill that would have hiked taxes on more middle-class families than the final version. Maybe the public is just instinctively skeptical about large pieces of legislation rushed through Congress without much debate.

Regardless, Republicans were convinced that once voters started seeing their take-home pay go up, they’d come around to Trump’s sole big legislative accomplishment.

It seems Republicans were half-right. This month, the law’s new withholding rules finally went into effect, and the tax cuts finally started showing up in workers’ pay-stubs. And while the bill does seem to be getting more popular, most voters still say they haven’t noticed any personal benefits.

A handful of polls have shown that the public is generally feeling more warmly about the tax cut than three months ago. According to the New York Times, support is up to 50 percent, from 37 percent in December. A Monmouth poll showed approval surging to 44 percent from 26 percent.

Still, the vast majority of adults don’t seem to have sensed the effects of the tax cut on their personal finances. In a poll by Politico and Morning Consult, just 25 percent of registered voters said they’d noticed their take-home pay increase as a result of the legislation. Another 51 percent said they hadn’t noticed a pay bump, and another 24 percent said they didn’t know or weren’t sure.

We can only guess why so few people are picking up on the fact that their taxes have gone down. But I have a theory.

You might assume that the reality distortion field of partisan politics is to blame here. But that almost certainly doesn’t explain the entire perception gap. Only 33 percent of self-identified Trump voters in the poll say that they’ve noticed their take-home pay go up as a result of the tax cut. That’s better than the 21 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who say the same, but probably still far below the number who are actually benefitting at least slightly.

A more likely explanation, I think, is that for a lot of people, the tax cut is just way too small to pick up on, especially if you break it down into bi-weekly chunks. The Tax Policy Center estimated that Americans in the middle 20 percent of the income distribution who received any tax cut at all could expect their IRS tab to drop by $1,090 on average. If all of that money arrived at once, it would be easy to notice. But divide it by 26, and it comes out to $41 per paycheck. That adds up to real money for many families over time, but it might not jump out from a bank statement—very few of us have the eagle-eyed financial awareness of the public school secretary in Pennsylvania who noticed her paycheck go up by $1.50 a week. It’s going to be especially tough for people to pick up on the small changes in their tax withholding if their pay has changed for other reasons. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which tracks pay growth for individuals over time, the median worker saw their wages rise 3 percent over the past year. Not many people are going to sit down and try to disentangle the effect of those annual raises on their paychecks from the effect of Trump’s tax cut, because why would they?

It’s possible that this won’t matter a great deal politically. More people seem to approve of the GOP’s bill than think they’ve benefitted directly from it, possibly because they think it has helped the economy. But if Americans aren’t noticing the tax cut in their take-home pay now, chances are they aren’t going to notice it later, either—meaning this may be as popular as the bill ever gets.

Retirement Inequality: Worse than income inequality, study finds

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Most small business owners find it hard to get employees on retirement savings plans due to the high costs. As a result, some employees are forced to work on their own when it comes to...

Read More

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Yes, I Will Let Amazon Deliver My Whole Foods Produce Even Though I Know It’s Bad for the Country

Yes, I Will Let Amazon Deliver My Whole Foods Produce Even Though I Know It’s Bad for the Country

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

On Thursday, Amazon announced that it would begin offering free, same-day grocery deliveries from Whole Foods to Prime members in select cities. Immediately, I felt a familiar combination of glee and guilt, the same sense of ambivalence that accompanies each neat new perk Amazon offers its regular customers.

The news was not unexpected. When Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, it was assumed that the company would eventually use its logistics smarts to start offering cheap and fast online delivery from upper-middle-class America’s organic produce-monger of choice, in order to finally make some serious inroads into the grocery business. The immediate rollout will be modest. For now, the service will only be available to Amazon Prime customers in four cities: Austin, Dallas, Virginia Beach, and Cincinnati. Two-hour delivery will be free on orders above $35, and for $7.99, you’ll be able to get your kombucha and hummus delivered within 60 minutes. The company hasn’t said outright how quickly it will bring the service to other cities, but it’s definitely planning for it. “We’re going to have a huge expansion ahead,” an Amazon vice president told reporters.

As a carless Amazon Prime member who lives in a neighborhood with generally subpar grocery options—two stores that sell horrendously wilted produce and a co-op with Whole Foods prices and one-third the selection—I will almost certainly use this service once it finally comes to New York, however many months or years from today that may be. Right now, I order from Fresh Direct, which is reasonably inexpensive and convenient. Sometimes I stop by the Trader Joe’s near my office and lug the bags home on the subway after elbowing through the crowd in the frozen food section and waiting in the cartoonishly long line that snakes through the aisles. Neither of those options can really compete with free two-hour delivery from a store I’d shop at anyway if it were nearby. When I emailed my wife a CNN story about the new Prime service, she responded with just three words. “Best. News. Ever.”

As for the guilt: I’m an economics writer. Like many of my peers, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about how America seems to be developing a monopoly problem (or, if you want to get technical, an oligopoly problem). Profits are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful companies, particularly in tech. There’s growing evidence that this industry consolidation is disempowering workers and maybe even making the U.S. less entrepreneurial. I can’t escape the feeling that by buying my groceries at Jeff Bezos’ everything store, I’ll be helping to usher in a future where our lives are even more thoroughly dominated by a few corporate behemoths.

It’s not that Amazon is going to take over the grocery business overnight. As of now, it’s a small fish. At the time of the merger, Amazon was responsible for just 0.2 percent of all U.S. grocery sales, CNBC reported, while Whole Foods captured just 1.2 percent. Both were dwarfed by industry leaders Walmart and Kroger, which control more than 14 percent and 7.2 percent of the market, respectively.

But Bezos has a way of driving down margins and siphoning off sales in most industries he enters. In part, that’s because he has the luxury of subsidizing an extremely low margin online retail operation with a highly profitable web services business. Amazon has already started cutting Whole Foods’ notoriously high prices. And it’s not hard to imagine that combining better affordability with painless, free delivery could turn the chain into a much more dominant player that could end up putting a lot of unionized (or at least higher paying) grocery chains in dire straits.

In the meantime, Amazon’s announcement on Thursday could also be bad news for one of its smaller, upstart rivals in the online delivery business: Instacart. The $3.4 billion startup pays a network of roving shoppers to pick up and deliver groceries to customers who order through an app. Up until now, Whole Foods has been an important source of business; in 2016, Instacart signed a five-year deal to become the chain’s exclusive delivery service for perishables. (Whole Foods also invested in the company, though it reportedly owns less than a 1 percent stake.) I haven’t been able to figure out how exactly that agreement squares with Amazon’s new delivery service, but either way it will eventually expire. At that point, Instacart will squarely be in competition with BezosFoods, which will have a built-in price advantage with the estimated 60 million to 90 million households that subscribe to Prime and—given that they already do enough online shopping to sign up for a $99 free shipping program—are presumably more open than most Americans to the idea of ordering their meat, fruit, and vegetables sight unseen from the Internet. It hardly seems like a fair fight.

It’s possible I’m being overly pessimistic. After all, Instacart reportedly gets less than 10 percent of its revenue from Whole Foods, and after the Amazon deal, other grocers lined up to strike partnerships with the startup in order to gird themselves for the Bezos onslaught. Maybe the pairing of Amazon and Whole Foods will force other chains to compete harder in the online delivery space, and Instacart will emerge stronger than ever as a result. It’s just hard to forget how Bezos has vanquished rivals like Diapers.com by waging all-out price war.

What’s frustrating is that, right now, U.S. regulators aren’t even considering these sorts of issues. Modern antitrust law is mostly concerned with keeping prices low for consumers. As long as Amazon’s growth means cheap retail and free shipping, it’s unlikely the government will make a federal case out of its attempts to buy up other businesses, even if that may have serious downsides. Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods sailed by regulators, in part because nobody was really worried about whether acquiring a grocery store might put Bezos in a better position to crush smaller rivals in the online logistics space.

The thing is, while there are lots of smart people pointing out problems in antitrust law and trying to rethink its foundations, nobody has really come up with a workable new system yet. Even on the level of theory, it’s hard to say definitely how the government should handle a company like Amazon. Back in the real world, it’s up to consumers to make shopping choices that feel somewhat ethical. But those decisions are constrained by a lack of great options. Want to shop with an online superstore that isn’t slowly undercutting all of American retail using profits from its server farms? Who are you going to pick? Jet? Great. It’s owned by Walmart.

At some point, convenience and cost win out, even when it makes you feel a little queasy. Jeff Bezos is training me to get all of my material desires met more or less instantly using his wondrous fulfillment network. Am I going to fight it by paying more for delivery or grappling with my fellow shoppers for bananas? Absolutely not. While I wait for someone to come up with and implement a 21st-century antitrust policy that assuages my fears about corporate hegemony, I’ll try to enjoy having my wild-caught Pacific salmon brought to my front door free on short notice. Maybe I’ll be contributing to the slow ossification of the American economy. But it’s still better than getting ripped off at the co-op.

Republicans Have Decided to Attack Obamacare to Pay for Their Tax Cuts

Republicans Have Decided to Attack Obamacare to Pay for Their Tax Cuts

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Introducing the politics of Obamacare repeal into the tax reform conversation seems like a very easy way for Republicans to once again sabotage their policy agenda. It looks like they’re doing it anyway.

Faced with difficult budget math that could force them to scale back their tax ambitions, GOP senators have decided to fund some of their proposed tax cuts by repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate. Killing the rule, which requires Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty, could save the government $338 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—essentially by dissuading people from signing up for Medicaid or buying federally subsidized coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges.

Several high-profile Republicans—including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ron Johnson, and Ted Cruz—have have been pushing this idea for weeks, and they’ve won support from President Trump, who tweeted enthusiastically about it on Monday.

The political logic is straightforward. Under the budget they passed, Republicans are only allowed to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit with their tax cuts. This is currently forcing them to make politically awkward choices, like raising taxes on some middle-income families in order to slash rates deeply on corporations. Meanwhile, the mandate is the least popular part of Obamacare, which Republicans have vowed to dismantle anyway, and the White House has suggested that it might just stop enforcing the thing if Congress doesn’t act. Why not sack it and get more money to play with on taxes?

Of course, there are many reasons why someone might object to this idea on policy grounds. For one, killing the mandate would leave 13 million fewer Americans with health coverage, according to the CBO, which is why it saves the government money. (To be fair, the office is also in the process of rethinking how it models the mandate’s effects on coverage, but these are the numbers we have for now). Some of those uninsured will be young, healthy people who don’t want to spend money on insurance unless the government forces them to. But others are low-income Americans who don’t realize they qualify for Medicaid or Obamacare’s premium subsidies and won’t bother to find out without the mandate nudging them to go get covered. The CBO thinks Medicaid’s rolls will drop by about 5 million.

Beyond that, ending the mandate will mean higher insurance prices for people who still buy on the individual market. The entire point of the rule is to bring down the average cost of coverage by forcing more young, profitable customers into the market. It’s unclear how effectively it has accomplished that goal, which may be one reason why the CBO thinks most local insurance markets will survive without it. But the office still thinks that eliminating the mandate will lead to a 10 percent average bump in premiums. Many Americans would end up paying more for their insurance so that Republicans could lavish their tax cuts on Walmart and the Koch brothers. And some, the CBO believes, will be priced out of coverage entirely.

These consequences may not mean much to most Republicans, who showed a stunning lack of concern about actual health care policy outcomes during their attempt to repeal Obamacare. Others do seem to be a bit concerned: South Dakota Sen. John Thune reportedly said that the deal to kill the mandate also involves passing the bipartisan Obamacare stabilization bill, Alexander-Murray. (Details of this are still sketchy).

But the one thing the GOP does overwhelmingly care about is passing its tax bill, which they view as a last-ditch effort to head off a donor revolt going into 2018. And tying tax cuts to anything that smells like Obamacare repeal seems like it will make that harder.

The Republican tax plan is not overwhelmingly popular with voters. But the bill hasn’t roused the same sort of impassioned opposition as Obamacare repeal did. The mandate itself may be unpopular. But by targeting what many still consider a key part of Obamacare, Republicans risk rousing all of the same, very pissed-off forces that arrayed against their several attempts to repeal the law earlier this year.

And yet, Republicans appear to have stared into this empty power outlet, thought hard, and decided to stick a fork in it. Let’s see where this idea gets them.

The GOP’s Giant Deficits Could Be Good for the Economy. But They’re Terrible for Our Politics.

The GOP’s Giant Deficits Could Be Good for the Economy. But They’re Terrible for Our Politics.

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

For those of us who’ve spent the last few years arguing that the economy is underperforming and could use an extra boost from federal spending, this is a surreal and slightly bitter moment. Republicans, who spent the critical early years following the Great Recession demonizing Barack Obama’s stimulus as “government waste” and pushing for budget cuts, have decided that now is a good time to splurge. Having already passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut, they agreed early Friday morning to a budget deal that will increase Washington’s spending by about $300 billion over the next couple years.

This deficit binge might turn out to be good for growth, at least in the short-term. But politically, it’s a bit galling. Republicans did everything in their power to hobble the economy when it needed help. Now they’re poised to take credit if it gets red hot thanks to the sort of free spending they spent years pretending to oppose.

Nobody knows for sure what this combination of tax cuts and budget increases will mean for growth. Keynes taught us that a temporary surge of government spending could revive a weak economy by raining money on families and businesses when the private sector is clammed up. But when the economy is already running near its full capacity, deficits are less helpful, and possibly even counterproductive. The government may end up hiring workers who would have had jobs anyway, and the extra cash sloshing around may just lead to inflation. If the Treasury has to start offering higher interest rates in order to finance its debt, meanwhile, it could put a crimp on businesses by making it more expensive to borrow and operate.

The economy is much closer to firing on all cylinders today than it was a few years ago, which suggests stimulus is going to be less effective now than it would have been then. Some analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office, think we’re already operating more or less at top speed. But that conclusion rests in part on the shaky assumption that the economy was permanently scarred by the recession, and that it’s impossible to make up the ground we’ve lost since then. I disagree.

The simplest way to think about this issue—whether we’re in great shape and therefore the stimulus could be counterproductive, or we’re not yet in great shape and the stimulus will help—is to look at the job market. On first glance, it seems to be doing well. The official unemployment rate is low, and wage growth might finally be starting to pick up its pace (though it’s a little premature to say that for certain). But on closer inspection, it looks like there still might be some lingering weakness left over from the recession. The fraction of Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 who are employed—which at this point may be the best stat for judging the labor market—is still below its pre-recession peak. That suggests there is a decent number of men and women in their prime working years who could be in a job, even if they aren’t technically being counted as unemployed right now.

That’s a big part of why I’m an optimist about what the GOP’s new splash of spending might do. Things are not quite as good as they could be. And the extra stimulus may speed us to actual full employment. As far as professional estimates go, the researchers at Evercore ISI think the tax cuts and new spending could push growth to 2.7 percent next year; without those policies, they estimate it would be just 2 percent.

So, yes, this all could be welcome news for workers, both in the near-term, and maybe longer. However, I am not so sure it will be great for our politics.

Forget the GOP’s obvious hypocrisy on spending—ever since the Bush era, it’s been clear that elected conservatives do not really care about deficits, except insofar as they make a handy club for whacking Democrats. Instead, worry about the lessons Republicans might draw from this experience. During Obama’s presidency, the GOP’s mania for spending cuts—and its ability to wring budget concessions out of the president—was an anchor on the economy at a critical moment when millions were suffering from the aftermath of a financial catastrophe. Yet, the party suffered precisely zero political consequences. Instead, they’re in power in part because of the slow, post-crises economy at the end stages of a recovery that could help them hold onto Congress in 2018. Moreover, its clear that nobody actually expects them to make good on their rhetoric about fiscal prudence. They’ve abandoned it pretty much without punishment. Pushing austerity during a downturn and priming the pump when the economy is near full health might turn out to be an incredibly canny political strategy, even if it may have been unplanned. If there ever comes another time when sabotaging the economy might work to Republicans’ advantage, they have every incentive to do it again.

The Guiding GOP Policy Principle in the Trump Era Is “Screw It, Why Not?”

The Guiding GOP Policy Principle in the Trump Era Is “Screw It, Why Not?”

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Ever since Donald Trump suggested a week ago that the proper way to curb school shootings in America was to let teachers pack heat, the country has been locked in a surreal debate about the merits of trying to turn our educators into ersatz SWAT team members. On the federal level, thankfully, the idea does not seem to be going anywhere (keep your fingers crossed). But in Florida, where lawmakers are trying to muster a response to the tragic killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it is getting some traction. Bills that would train teachers to carry weapons have been approved by state Senate and House committees. Here’s how the Tampa Bay Times sums up the $67 million plan to make Kindergarten Cop a reality:

The goal: 10 marshals (teachers trained to carry a gun) in every school, which would equate to 37,000 statewide. The state would cover the costs of background checks, drug testing, psychological exams and 132 hours of training. The bill does provide a one-time $500 stipend for those who volunteer to have a gun.

For now, it seems unlikely that this proposal will become law, since Florida Gov. Rick Scott has rejected the idea of giving teachers guns (he wants more law enforcement in schools instead). But I think the fact that it’s even a live option reflects something important about how our president is influencing Republican policy thinking.

For the most part, Donald Trump does not care deeply about public policy. He likes the idea of cutting taxes and regulations. He’s instinctively nativist. Sometimes he’ll latch onto something specific, like his 20 percent tax rate or (sigh) the wall. But he does not have the patience, attention span, or interest in learning the details of most proposals, in part because he does not like to read.

But while he may be the most aggressively ignorant chief executive in our country’s history, our president nonetheless plays a crucial role in shaping the GOP’s approach to policy making. Trump’s mere presence in the Oval Office is permission slip for conservatives to pursue the nuttiest possible approach to pretty much any issue, whether it’s recklessly pillaging the health insurance market to make room for tax cuts, or trying answer gun violence by transforming Mrs. Jensen from class 3B into Annie Oakley. I call this the Why-the-Fuck-Not Effect.

People who put their heart and soul into the of public policy are often cautious by nature. They like to think through details and worry about unintended consequences. They at least try to convince themselves and others that their intricate, five-part plans will make a positive difference in people’s lives. Paul Ryan may have always wanted to turn the welfare state into pulp. But he at least spent years cosplaying as a humble wonk, cranking out white papers and slide decks to justify himself.

Trump does not have any caution. He does not give a fig about consequences or what polite Washington thinks. He cares about feeding his base and and notching big, beautiful wins. If he hears an idea on Fox News that tingles the base-feeding/win-notching receptors of his cerebellum, he’ll enthusiastically tweet it. Because why the fuck not? It’s provocative. It gets the people going.

This has given Republicans permission to embrace their id as never before. Because, again, why the fuck not? The party has long been more afraid of its base than general election voters. Trump has demonstrated that said base wants nothing more than a Golden Corral buffet full of white reactionary lunacy. And once the president has proposed something, the rules of American media require at least some outlets to treat it as a serious subject for discussion. It enters the realm of possibility. Trump doesn’t just shift the Overton window. He bulldozes right over it, and turns the shattered fragments into a chintzy chandelier.

This has played out vividly in health care and tax reform. When Sens. Tom Cotton and Pat Toomey suggested killing of Obamacare’s individual mandate to fund tax cuts, the idea seemed a little outre. The GOP had already failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Simply smashing one of its main pillars without a replacement didn’t sound like an especially popular move politically. But then Trump got behind it and the idea gained traction until it was finally included in the final bill. Because why the fuck not?

We’ve also obviously seen this with immigration. Trump’s wall used to be a punchline. Now it’s treated as a more or less inevitable part of any compromise that would give Dreamers a path to citizenship. The mainstream GOP used to insist it favored legal immigration, but wanted to stop the flow of undocumented workers. No longer, now that Trump has joined Cotton’s crusade to limit the number of people entering the country legally (Cotton is a recurring theme here). More Republicans than ever feel comfortable with pure immigration restrictionism, because why the fuck not?

And then there’s guns. Now, to be clear, I do not think that Florida Republicans are talking about giving math teachers marksmanship lessons solely thanks to Trump’s influence. The National Rifle Association has argued for years that putting a glock in every classroom is the solution to school shootings. There are already at least eight states where K-12 educators are permitted to carry on campus, and several more have introduced legislation making it easier. At least one county in Florida has already given it a try. Frankly, it’s a shock that more of the state’s school aren’t already doubling as armories, given that Florida is usually on the cutting edge of whacko gun laws.

But has Trump given this concept a massive signal boost? Absolutely. Has he given Republicans who might have worried about supporting the idea cover to embrace it? Sure. This is Trump’s magic. He’s the most important public policy thinker in the country, precisely because he doesn’t bother thinking about public policy at all. In his GOP, nothing makes sense, and everything is permitted. Because why the fuck not?

Larry Kudlow Is Joining the White House

Larry Kudlow Is Joining the White House

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Conservative CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow is set to become the next director of the White House’s National Economics Council. The Washington Post reports that he has officially accepted the job, which will effectively make him Donald Trump’s top economic adviser.

It would be easy to get snarky about this pick. Trump, the television-obsessed president who appears to get most of his information from cable news, has chosen a cable-news talking head to run point on his economic agenda. It’s a bit on the nose.

But as I wrote yesterday, Trump’s decision to tap Kudlow is probably good news for the country. The man may be a supply-side stereotype who hasn’t had a new thought about the economy since 1982, but as a result, he’s a pretty dedicated free trader. And at a moment when the White House is getting serious about throwing up tariffs, he might restrain some of Trump’s protectionist instincts. (Yes, that’s what we thought Gary Cohn would do too, but that relationship may have been poisoned over Charlottesville.)

Kudlow’s résumé also fits the job reasonably well. He may mostly be known as a pinstripe-wearing Wall Street pundit these days, but despite his lack of an economics Ph.D., he did do time as a junior economist at the Federal Reserve, as the chief economist at Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, and as chief economist at Bear Stearns. (Accomplishing that sort of career trajectory without formal credentials is a lot less common now.) He’s an objectively more reasonable choice to run the NEC than Rick Perry was to oversee the Department of Energy or Ben Carson was to sit atop the HUD. Though it may be a low bar, Trump has made much worse decisions.

Life Insurance Made Easy by Accelerated Underwriting

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Individuals with good credit and good health should find it easy to obtain life insurance without an exhaustive interview and medical exam, and that is why a concept known as accelerated underwriting was introduced. In...

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The post Life Insurance Made Easy by Accelerated Underwriting appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

Mick Mulvaney Says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Works for Payday Lenders, Too

Mick Mulvaney Says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Works for Payday Lenders, Too

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

When the White House appointed Mick Mulvaney as interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, many feared it meant trouble for the watchdog’s basic mission of shielding ordinary Americans from the banks, payday lenders, and debt collectors who prey on their pocket books. After all, Mulvaney—a renowned anti-regulatory zealot—had said in no uncertain terms that he did not think the CFPB should even exist. As a congressman from South Carolina, he was also a major recipient of campaign contributions from payday lenders; during his final election cycle, he raked in more than $31,000 from the industry, ninth among all members of Congress. (After Trump appointed him to the CBPB, Mulvaney claimed the donations wouldn’t pose a conflict of interest because, “I am not in elected office anymore.”)

So far, Mulvaney seems to be doing his best to confirm critics’ worst fears. Last week, the CFPB dropped a lawsuit in Kansas against four payday lenders without any explanation, other than a weak assurance that it would continue investigating the case. Meanwhile, International Business Times reports today that Mulvaney stealthily closed an investigation into a South Carolina-based payday lender, World Acceptance Corporation, which had previously donated to his campaigns.

While all of this was going on, Mulvaney decided to send out a memo to CFPB staff outlining the regulator’s new direction. The letter, obtained by Pro Publica’s Jesse Eisinger, castigates the agency’s previous leaders for saying that they wanted to “push the envelope” on consumer protection enforcement.

Simply put: that is what is going to be different. In fact, that entire governing philosophy of pushing the envelope frightens me a little. I would hope it would bother you as well.

We are government employees. We don’t just work for the government, we work for the people. And that means everyone: those who use credit cards, and those who provide those cards; those who take loans, and those who make them; those who buy cars, and those who sell them. All of those people are part of what makes this country great. And all of them deserve to be treated fairly by their government. There is a reason that Lady Justice wears a blindfold and carries a balance, along with her sword.

The mind reels. It should go without saying that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was designed to protect consumers. It’s in the friggin’ name. The agency exists in order to aggressively crack down on wrongdoing by financial institutions that were left to bilk ordinary households more or less freely for years. Its whole institutional structure is designed to insulate the agency from the interference of political hacks in Congress who would try to make it go easy on industry lawbreakers. Unfortunately, one of those hacks now runs it.

Regulators do not work for the companies they regulate any more than police work for the suspects they investigate; they owe businesses their rights, and nothing more. When a former CFPB official told Politico that regulators at the agency tried to “push the envelope,” he wasn’t talking about stretching the law or targeting innocent lenders. He was referring to the bureau’s decision to fine major Wall Street banks as its first major action, in order to show that it wasn’t afraid to tangle with powerful opponents. That is exactly what the agency was created to do. And it’s what Mulvaney very obviously will not.

President Signs Into Law FY 2018 Budget Bill – No Postal or Benefit Hits

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

UPMA (United Postmasters and Managers of America) – On Friday, March 23, as Congress was leaving the Capitol for its two-week Easter/Passover Recess, President Trump signed into law H.R. 1626, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. This legislation funds the government through the end of the current fiscal year. UPMA was attentive to any attempts […]

House Appropriations Committee Approves Amendment To Restore Postal Service Standards

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

The House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to restore postal service standards on June 17, in a bipartisan vote, 26-23. Six Republicans joined all of the committee’s Democrats to endorse the measure, which was introduced by Rep. Chakah Fattah (D-PA). The legislation would rescind the lower service standards the USPS implemented on Jan. 5 – which have […]

What Should You Do if a Flight Attendant Tells You to Put Your Dog in an Overhead Bin?

What Should You Do if a Flight Attendant Tells You to Put Your Dog in an Overhead Bin?

by Jeff Friedrich @ Slate Articles

After a dog died in an appalling debacle aboard a United Airlines flight Monday night, the internet assembled to pose “what ifs” and render ex post facto judgement. If, as several eyewitnesses have claimed, a flight attendant “insisted” that the dog’s owner, Catalina Robledo, needed to store the pet in an overhead bin, why didn’t the passenger object more fervently or get off the plane? And couldn’t the eyewitnesses have done more? Why didn’t they rise in mutiny upon hearing this plainly incorrect instruction?

First of all, consider the complexities of Robledo’s situation: Reporting has indicated that she does not speak English fluently, and she was traveling alone with an 11-year-old, a newborn, and her dog.

But even holding those challenges aside, much of the second-guessing presupposes that you can get what you want on an airplane using the same tactics you’d deploy to resolve a dispute with Amazon, Walmart, or Olive Garden. This expectation makes sense, because outwardly the airlines greet you with a smile and emphasize a similar commitment to customer service. But complaining on an airplane is fundamentally different, because the inside of a cabin is ultimately governed by a set of inflexible laws that prioritize safety and anticipate worst-case scenario disasters. Most of the time these regulations are just background noise, but at the heart of most passenger horror stories lies some rule that transformed an ordinary service interaction into something more akin to a police stop. These dynamics are the special sauce that makes airplanes uniquely terrible venues for conflict mediation.

So what should you do if you need to win an argument on a plane, as if your dog’s life were on the line? As a former flight attendant, here’s the advice I’d offer.

Speak Up, but Beware the Limits of Speaking Up

Even though the flight attendant aboard United Flight 1284 had it wrong, Robledo still could have been thrown off the plane had she refused to store her dog in the overhead bin. This is because of regulations that in effect criminalize insubordination on planes. Federal regulations require, for instance, that passengers follow all crew instructions. (“Crew” includes flight attendants, who are required on planes because the Federal Aviation Administration wants someone present to command an evacuation during an emergency.) If you refuse to follow directions, airlines can take advantage of the broad permissions they are granted to refuse transportation to any passenger they deem a safety risk.

But you should still speak up—as Robledo did. The key is to remain calm and to avoid monopolizing the flight attendant’s attention. “You’re allowed to disagree with flight crew,” says Justin T. Green, a partner at Kreindler, a large plaintiff-side aviation law firm, “but you must do so without interfering with the flight crew’s duties.”

If you can’t convince the flight attendant to reconsider the decision, ask to speak with the lead flight attendant. Don’t ask to speak to the pilot, because pilots are trained to prioritize cockpit duties and usually defer to their in-flight crew’s judgement when a cabin issue is reported. As one pilot explained to me, not backing them up “would cause massive issues for the lines of communication among the crew and diminishes the already fragile authority flight attendants have over passengers.”

Finally, it’s always better to speak up while your plane is still at the gate. This allows you access to the conflict-resolution specialists airlines employ in airports, who are versed in all matter of regulatory arcana.

Avoid Confrontation. Just Give In.

If your dog’s life is not on the line, consider whether your problem truly requires an immediate resolution. The rules are stacked against you inside a plane. And even where an airline is later shown to have kicked off a passenger for bad reasons, the law provides the industry with unique liability protections.

If it can wait, your problem will get a fairer assessment once you’ve deplaned. “My best advice is to try to avoid confrontations on airplanes, even when the flight crew is in the wrong,” Green told me.

Emphasize Safety

But if your dog’s life is on the line, you can flip the script. Instead of arguing, simply tell the crew why you feel unsafe. Crews are trained to make safety their first priority and encouraged to proactively report any conditions that could be unsafe. Your report would probably get relayed to another crew member, which could lead another staffer to get involved, hopefully one who’s better versed in procedure.

Pets are counted as passengers, so their safety matters, too. And you can report all safety issues, not only ones that directly impact you.

Ask to Deplane

If the crew persists in their request after you’ve told them you feel unsafe, ask if you can deplane. It should be no problem if the plane is still at the gate, and the airport employees are likely to be more responsive to your needs once you’re not holding up a plane.

Asking could work in your favor even after the plane has pulled away from the gate. That’s because it takes time to drop you back at the gate, and pilots want to get home as much as you do. As one pilot explained to me, “No one wants to return to the gate for any reason. I’m 99 percent sure that, once the captain got word of what was going on in the back, both he and the flight attendants would be either scouring the policy manual or calling company to find out what the proper procedure really is.”

For financial and logistical reasons, getting off the plane can be scary. You could be stuck buying a new round of tickets for everyone traveling in your group if the airline doesn’t help. But if you’re right, the company will almost certainly assist.

Document the Event

Airlines now find themselves in a similar position as police departments. Everyone has access to a camera and Twitter, and these are powerful tools for redressing wrongs.

File a Complaint

Once you do get home, explore the work of consumer rights organizations like Flyers Rights and Travelers United, and consider filing a formal complaint. (The Department of Transportation told me that it’s looking into Robledo’s experience, working in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, the agency that enforces the Animal Welfare Act.)

For its part, United Airlines says that it has refunded Robledo and her family’s tickets—including the pet fee.

Thanks to the pilots who provided guidance for this piece, whose identities I’ve withheld to allow them to speak candidly and without the permission of their employers. If you work in the airline industry and have additional tips, please email me at jeff.friedrich@slate.com!

Trump’s Top Economic Adviser Gary Cohn Is Resigning, but He Got What He Wanted

Trump’s Top Economic Adviser Gary Cohn Is Resigning, but He Got What He Wanted

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump’s new trade war appears to have claimed its first casualty. The New York Times reports that Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, is preparing to quit the White House.

Anonymous officials tell the paper there is no single factor” behind Cohn’s decision to resign. But the timing is rather hard to ignore. Trump is preparing to impose large tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, a move that Cohn opposes. The National Economic Council director has been mounting an internal persuasion campaign to convince Trump to water down the plan he unexpectedly announced last week. But as of now, it looks like protectionists in the White House are winning the debate, and Cohn has had enough.

“Gary has been my chief economic adviser and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms and unleashing the American economy once again,” Trump said in a statement to Times. “He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people.”

That may sound like pro forma praise for a departing lieutenant. But while Cohn may be exiting on a bit of a low note, having lost an important brawl over economic policy, one could argue that of all the major Trump administration officials to bail thus far, he is the only one to have accomplished his major goal.

As the former president of Goldman Sachs, Cohn was the unofficial leader of the White House’s Wall Street wing—capital’s inside man on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., a status that earned him the not-so-subtly anti-Semitic nickname “Globalist Gary” from the administration’s Breitbart contingent. (Cohn is Jewish.) With his commanding frame and ex-trader’s personality, he quickly won the president’s esteem, and for a while, Trump even considered picking Cohn to be the next Federal Reserve chair. But Cohn’s chances at the job apparently collapsed after he decided to publicly criticize the Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which the president blamed neo-Nazis and counterprotesters for the deadly violence that erupted.

Cohn reportedly considered leaving the White House after the Charlottesville disgrace, going so far as to draw up a resignation letter (a fact which someone of course leaked to press, just so everybody knew just how upset Cohn was). But instead, he stayed on, and ultimately helped oversee the administration’s successful push to massively slash taxes for corporations. He wasn’t always the smoothest public salesman for the effort. He once kvelled that corporate CEOs were the “most excited group out there” about the bill, thus undercutting the Republican Party’s message that their tax cuts would mainly help workers. There was the awkward hand-raising incident. But ultimately, Cohn helped get the job done. And his friends in the banking industry were, of course, one of the biggest winners from the bill.

Gary Cohn: The man who swallowed the president’s racism and personal humiliation in order to guide tax cuts for his old employer at Goldman Sachs, and then quit over some steel tariffs. Wall Street is sure to welcome him back as a hero.

What Boycotting the NRA Accomplishes

What Boycotting the NRA Accomplishes

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

For many years, the National Rifle Association has offered its members discounts on services like car rentals, flights, and insurance—the same kind of benefits you’d get for signing up with bland organizations like AAA. But last week, as fury raged over the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, angry Twitter users brandishing the hashtag #BoycottTheNRA started confronting companies for doing business with the gun rights group. Many brands quickly decided it was better to walk away than stick out the controversy. Delta and United Airlines cut bait, as did MetLife. Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise, and National Car Rental all sped off too.

By the weekend, a long list of companies had severed their ties, and Twitter users were busy harranguing holdouts like Amazon (which streams NRA TV) and FedEx. The NRA could do little in response but defensively puff out its chest.

The NRA is probably right about its members, who tend to view themselves as devoted gun rights crusaders and likely won’t stop paying their dues just because they’ve lost a few travel perks. But that’s largely besides the point. Successful symbolic campaigns like #BoycottTheNRA are important because they give causes a sense of momentum—and right now, gun control advocates need all the momentum they can get.

On the surface, #BoycottTheNRA looks a bit like the campaigns that convinced advertisers to pull their support from right-wing cable-news shows like Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor, the latter of which ultimately resulted in Bill O’Reilly getting kicked off Fox News. Both efforts use consumer activism to cut off conservative organizations from their business partners. But beyond that similarity, they’re pretty different efforts. Chasing off Fox’s ad partners was a way to hit the network’s finances directly and force it to make programming changes. Stripping the NRA of its Hertz discount isn’t likely to hurt the organization’s revenues. As long as several million Americans are convinced that New Yorkers want to confiscate their guns and melt them into statues of Barack Obama, they’ll probably keep renewing their memberships.

A more apt comparison might be corporate divestment campaigns, in which activists try to convince big investors like college-endowment and pension funds to pull their money from companies in order to protest their business practices. Divestment campaigns are famously ineffective at bringing down stock values; if someone decides to take a moral stand by selling off all their shares in oil companies, for instance, bargain hunters who are not targeted by any campaign will start buying until the price goes back to where financial math says it belongs. However, divestment can sometimes be a useful tool for stigmatizing industries, especially because it tends to generate lots of press coverage and give activists a goal that’s more easily achievable than passing legislation.

Convincing companies to bail on the NRA is a similar exercise. It may seem a little bit like internet slacktivism. But it does send a message that the organization is no longer politically mainstream, which might ultimately matter to some politicians. And even if it’s not actually moving any important needles in the short term, it gives people a sense that they can make a difference, however marginal, which matters a lot in the long term for any movement trying to keep up its energy.

Of course, there are downsides to trying to stigmatize gun groups. After all, the NRA has spent years convincing its members that their way of life is under threat from coastal elites who want to take away their cherished freedom to tote 30-round magazines. When a bunch of corporations cut ties to the group in response to a celebrity-backed Twitter campaign, it reinforces that message pretty neatly.

But aside from a stray New York Times columnist here or there, I don’t think anybody is banking on winning over the NRA’s hardcore members to the cause of better gun laws. At this point, the only hope is creating a sustained movement that will make it clear that getting weapons of war off store shelves is a serious priority for Democratic voters should the party ever retake power in Congress, and not just a fleeting interest that comes into focus when tragedy strikes. Turning the NRA into a pariah is a useful moral-boosting mission for gun control advocates, even if all it’s doing right now is denying some gun owners cheap car rentals.

Update: DC postal manager, two letter carriers charged with running marijuana distribution scheme

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

The acting manager of two post offices in Washington, DC and two letter carriers have been arrested for accepting the money and using the mail service as a pot distribution center. Deenvaughn Rowe, the acting manager of the Lamond Riggs and River Terrace post offices in Northeast DC, and letter carriers Kendra Brantley and Alicia […]

Why Is It So Hard for Americans to Get a Decent Raise?

Why Is It So Hard for Americans to Get a Decent Raise?

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

If you were a delivery van driver searching for a new job any time between the years of 2010 and 2013, chances are, you wouldn’t have found many businesses competing for your services. In Selma, Alabama, there was, on average, just one company posting help wanted ads for those drivers on the nation’s biggest job board. In all of Orlando, Florida, there were about nine. Nationwide the average was about two.

The situation for telemarketers wasn’t great either. In any given city or town, approximately three companies were trying to hire for their services. Accountants only had it a little better: Roughly four businesses were posting jobs for them.

Those numbers are based on the findings of a new research paper that may help unlock the mystery of why Americans can’t seem to get a decent raise. Economists have struggled over that question for years now, as wage growth has stagnated and more of the nation’s income has shifted from the pockets of workers into the bank accounts of business owners. Since 1979, inflation-adjusted hourly pay is up just 3.41 percent for the middle 20 percent of Americans while labor’s overall share of national income has declined sharply since the early 2000s. There are lots of possible explanations for why this is, from long-term factors like the rise of automation and decline of organized labor, to short-term ones, such as the lingering weakness in the job market left over from the great recession. But a recent study by a group of labor economists introduces an interesting theory into the mix: Workers’ pay may be lagging because the U.S. is suffering from a shortage of employers.

The paper—written by José Azar of IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, Ioana Marinescu of the University of Pennsylvania, and Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute—argues that, across different cities and different fields, hiring is concentrated among a relatively small number of businesses, which may have given managers the ability to keep wages lower than if there were more companies vying for talent. This is not the same as saying there are simply too many job hunters chasing too few openings—the paper, which is still in an early draft form, is designed to rule out that possibility. Instead, its authors argue that the labor market may be plagued by what economists call a monopsony problem, where a lack of competition among employers gives businesses outsize power over workers, including the ability to tamp down on pay. If the researchers are right, it could have important implications for how we think about antitrust, unions, and the minimum wage.

Monopsony is essentially monopoly’s quieter, less appreciated twin sibling. A monopolist can fix prices because it’s the only seller in the market. The one hospital in a sprawling rural county can charge insurers whatever it likes for emergency room services, for instance, because patients can’t go elsewhere. A monopsonist, on the other hand, can pay whatever it likes for labor or supplies, because it’s the only company buying or hiring. That remote hospital I just mentioned? It can probably get away with lowballing its nurses on salary, because nobody is out there trying to poach them.

You don’t have to look hard to tell that we live in a world where many employers have extraordinary leverage over their workers—just read about the grueling, erratic, computer-generated schedules low-wage workers are forced to navigate, or the widespread proliferation of noncompete agreements. And it’s clear that American industry has consolidated enormously over the decades. Years of mergers and the rise of exceedingly profitable superstars like Google and Facebook have concentrated economic power in fewer corporate boardrooms, and research suggests that America’s transformation into a life-size Monopoly board may be cutting into labor’s share of the economy.

But studying monopsony has traditionally been tricky for economists, because they lacked good data that would let them analyze broad trends specifically in labor market concentration. The new paper hops over that hurdle by using a trove of data from CareerBuilder.com, which publishes about one-third of all online job ads in the country. (Even for economists who are paid to worry about it, industry consolidation sometimes has its upsides.) The team looked at the number of companies advertising jobs in more than two dozen different occupations, from nurses to accountants to telemarketers, in each of the country’s different metro and nonmetro areas between 2010 and 2013. They then calculated local labor market concentration using the awkwardly named Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, or HHI, which antitrust regulators use to analyze the effects of mergers on competition.

What they found was a bit startling. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission consider a market with an HHI score of 2,500 or more to be highly concentrated—if a merger between two wireless companies left that little competition for cell services, for instance, there’s a good chance the government’s lawyers would challenge it. In their paper, the authors find that America’s local labor markets had a whopping average HHI score of 3,157. Employers also tended to advertise lower pay in cities and towns where fewer businesses were posting jobs—suggesting that the lack of competition among companies was letting them suppress pay. According to one of their calculations, moving from the 25th percentile of labor market concentration to the 75th percentile would lower pay in a metro area by 17 percent.

The degree of concentration, and the effect on wages, tended to be worse in smaller towns than major cities. Places like Alpena, Michigan, and Butte, Montana, had the least competition among employers, while New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia had the most. It also varied by occupation. Equipment mechanics, legal secretaries, telemarketers, and those delivery drivers faced some of the most highly concentrated job markets; registered nurses, corporate salesmen, and customer service representatives had some of the least. But overall, the problem looks pervasive.

If the U.S. really does have the sort of widespread monopsony problem this paper documents, it would be one more important point on the constellation of reasons workers have fallen so far behind this century. It would also change the way we need to think about certain public policy issues.

Take the minimum wage. The classic argument against increasing the pay floor is that it will kill jobs by making hiring more costly than it’s worth. But in a monopsony-afflicted world where companies can artificially depress wages, a higher minimum shouldn’t hurt employment, because it will just force employers to pay workers more in line with the value they produce.

The same goes for collective bargaining. In the perfectly competitive labor markets of economics textbooks, labor unions are basically dead weight that make companies less efficient. In a world where a small clutch of businesses do most of the hiring, unions may actually fix a broken market by giving workers more sway.

Then there’s antitrust. Today, when regulators are evaluating a large merger, they tend to think about how it will affect the prices consumers pay. If two health insurers merge, will Americans end up paying higher premiums? If a wireless company eats its rival, will our cellphone bills shoot up? In principle, the government’s lawyers can also consider what corporate consolidation will do to workers, but that tends to be a backburner issue. This paper’s findings suggest that Washington needs to think more carefully about how mergers can impact the job market, not just on the national level, but in specific cities and towns, where the marriage of two, smaller companies could have a big local impact.

Of course, this is just one, early study, and like most economics research, there are questions to raise about its technique. It’s possible, for instance, that nurses or accountants are offered lower pay in cities where few companies are hiring because the economy isn’t very good there. That’s an especially big concern, since the paper draws its data from the early years of the post-recession recovery, when unemployment was still quite high. Its authors take various approaches to try to account for this, but they may not be fool-proof. Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz told me that he suspected the findings about market concentration and wages were directionally correct but that they may be a bit “overstated,” because it’s simply hard to control for the health of the labor market.

“They are getting at what is an important and underexplored topic … using a creative approach of using really rich data,” he said. “I don’t know if I would take perfectly seriously the exact  quantitative estimates.”

Still, even if the study is only gesturing in the direction of a real problem, it’s a deeply worrisome one. We’re living in an era of industry consolidation. That’s not going away in the foreseeable future. And workers can’t ask for fair pay if there aren’t enough businesses out there competing to hire.

APWU: New Postal Reform Legislation Introduced in the Senate

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

03/23/2018 – On March 22, The Postal Service Reform Act of 2018 (S. 2629) was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The APWU recognizes the efforts of the four bi-partisan Senators who worked to craft and co-sponsor the proposed legislation – Tom Carper (D-DE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “The APWU […]

APWU: New Postal Reform Legislation Introduced in the Senate appeared on PostalReporter.com.

USPS awards contract for walk in body delivery trucks to LLV maker Morgan Olson

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

USPS has awarded  long-time supplier a contract for over 3,000 Walk In Body Intermediate Delivery Trucks. USPS will use Walk In Body Intermediate Delivery Trucks vehicles on multi-stop delivery, relay, collection, and parcel post routes. USPS awards LLV maker $257 million contract for Walk In Body Delivery Trucks

No, Donald Trump Has Not Made the Economy Great Again

No, Donald Trump Has Not Made the Economy Great Again

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump is convinced that he has done wonders for the economy. The president is especially proud of the surging stock market, which he crowed about Friday morning on Twitter.

But if you look beyond the frothy heights of the Dow and S&P 500, there’s little sign that Trump has accomplished much. Yes, he’s presiding over a gradual, fairly steady expansion left over from the Obama years. And he hasn’t tanked the economy, like some feared he might. But there’s little proof he’s done anything special to significantly boost it.

This isn’t a dig at Trump’s record, exactly. Aside from rare exceptions, like passing a massive stimulus bill in the middle of a recession, there typically isn’t much a president can do to dramatically alter the course of the economy on a year-to-year basisi. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Trump’s tenure has been fairly ho hum the next time someone claims he really is making the economy great again.

Start with the labor market. On Friday, the government reported that U.S. employers added 148,000 workers to their payrolls in December. That figure will be revised a couple of times. But for now, it’s a shrug-worthy number capping off an unremarkable year of job growth. Overall, the country added 171,000 new jobs a month in 2017, down from 187,000 in 2016 and 226,000 a month in 2015. It’s not as if things sped up towards the end of the year, either, as Trump settled into the White House.

Some of this slight slowdown is to be expected. Unemployment is low, at 4.1 percent. And the closer the U.S. gets to full employment, the fewer jobs we need to create in order keep everyone who wants to work employed. The point is, there hasn’t been some sort of dramatic hiring surge under Trump. We’re just seeing more of the same.

Meanwhile, the tightening labor market still isn’t leading to much faster wage growth. Average hourly earnings for all workers rose 2.5 percent in 2017, compared to almost 2.9 percent in 2016. Once you take inflation (last recorded for November) into account, average pay has barely jumped at all.

There are other signs of lingering softness in the labor market, too. The employment rate for workers between the ages of 25 and 54 is still a good deal below its pre-recession peak. It’s rising, but it seems like some Americans who should be working are still on the sidelines.

In short, job growth is trucking along unremarkably and wage growth has actually slowed at a time when we’re still digging our way out of the crater left behind by 2008. A golden era this is not.

What about the blue collar jobs Trump promised to bring back? On the one hand, the U.S. did add 71,000 more manufacturing jobs this year than last. But it added 62,000 fewer construction jobs. Does this have anything whatsoever to do with the president’s regulatory pruning and tax-cutting? Who knows. But it’s not exactly boom times for hard hats.

One thing some serious economic commentators have tried to give Trump credit for has been this year’s surge in business investment. Last week, Binyamin Appelbaum and Jim Tankersley of the New York Times reported that thanks to Trump’s light-touch on regulation, “a wave of optimism has swept over American business leaders, and it is beginning to translate into the sort of investment in new plants, equipment and factory upgrades that bolsters economic growth, spurs job creation — and may finally raise wages significantly.”

This seems to be an overstatement at best. While it’s true that business investment has picked up the pace this year, much of that has been due to rising oil prices, which have led drillers to restart their rigs after shuttering them during the crude crash of 2015 and 2016. As economist Dean Baker notes, at least 43 percent of this year’s increase in business investment has come from the oil and gas industry—which the Bureau of Economic Analysis labels under the category “mining exploration, shafts, and wells.” Without all that oil drilling, investment has been good, but not necessarily something to write a sweeping article about. (Also, it’s worth noting that investment would have looked a lot strong under Obama if oil hadn’t been such a drag).

That brings us back to the Dow. While Trump surely isn’t responsible for every point that stock indexes have tacked on during his presidency—we’re in the middle of a long runup in global asset prices that’s been supported by loose central bank policies—I do think he probably deserves some credit. Corporations will be more profitable thanks to the massive tax cuts. Investors don’t have to worry about any big new regulations that might slow down business. It’s a recipe for high share prices.

With that said, it’s worth remembering that most stocks in the U.S. are owned by millionaires. The top 10 percent of Americans, with net-worths of $1.1 million or more, control almost 84 percent of household-owned stocks (that includes the mutual funds in retirement accounts like 401Ks). While there’s some evidence that Americans spend a bit more when stocks are up, which helps the real economy, the bull market is directly benefiting a relatively small, wealthy slice of the country.*

Obviously, it’s a bit early to tell what the full effects of Trump’s economic policies have been. We don’t even have GDP data for all of 2017 yet. The big tax cut just passed, and might yield a bit more investment by businesses. But as of now, there’s just no sign that Trump has delivered any kind of dramatic change. Donald Trump inherited a pretty good economy. Unlike the rest of his presidency, he’s managed not to muck it up.

*Correction, Jan. 5, 2017: This post originally implied that the 84 percent of all stocks owned by the top 10 percent of U.S. households did not include retirement accounts such as 401Ks. The figure does in fact cover such pension accounts.

The Fight Over CHIP Has Reached New Heights of Absurdity (or Depths of Cruelty)

The Fight Over CHIP Has Reached New Heights of Absurdity (or Depths of Cruelty)

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program is becoming ever more absurd and potentially devastating by the day.

Back in December, lawmakers passed a temporary funding bill meant to keep the widely popular program running through March, since they had failed to agree on how to fund a full, five-year reauthorization of the law. But it turns out that the $2.8 billion Congress set aside may not have been enough. Late last week, the Trump administration warned that some state CHIP programs could start running out of money as soon as this month.

“The funding … should carry all the states through January 19, based upon best estimates of state expenditures to date,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokesman Johnathan Monroe told NPR. “However, due to a number of variables relating to state expenditure rates and reporting, we are unable to say with certainty whether there is enough funding for every state to continue its CHIP program through March 31, 2018.”

Failing to reauthorize CHIP before states exhaust their funding would be a pointless debacle. The program provides insurance to roughly 9 million lower-income children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. If Congress doesn’t act, many of those kids could end up losing their coverage outright, just as states warned before the stopgap passed last month.

Everybody agrees this would be be a very, very bad thing. CHIP is one of the few federal programs with broad bipartisan support. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who now chairs the Senate Finance Committee, helped create it back in 1997, a fact that he brings up every time reporters ask him why he hasn’t just gone ahead and made a deal to renew it. But the GOP is notoriously willing to put programs they acknowledge are important in peril for the sake of separate political objectives, and as such, they’ve decided to try and extract painful spending cuts in return for extending health insurance for kids. In November, before the party turned its attention entirely toward taxes, Republicans proposed raiding a preventative care fund set up under Obamacare to fund. This was a non-starter for Democrats—that pool of money finances valuable health care efforts like vaccination and diabetes programs—and the two sides ended up at loggerheads.

But now, the question of how to fund CHIP going forward has been rendered all but moot. That’s because the Congressional Budget Office recently updated its estimate of how much reauthorizing the law would cost. Where before extending the program through 2022 would have required $8.2 billion, the scorekeepers now think it would take just a measly $800 million.* The smaller price tag is an unexpected side-effect of the GOP’s decision to fund their tax bill by killing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate—a move that’s widely expected to drive up insurance premiums on the individual market. The CBO believes that many children who lose CHIP will simply end up enrolled in Obamacare coverage, which, thanks to the mandate’s demise, will now cost the government more to subsidize. As a result, keeping CHIP up and running now looks relatively cheaper than before. Much cheaper.

Bottom line: Thanks to an odd twist of budgetary fate, Congress could keep CHIP running for couch cushion money—an amount so small it barely merits a budgetary offset, especially in the wake of a $1.5 trillion tax cut. The president could probably cover much of the expense by limiting his golf-time, if anybody was really desperate to scrounge up some lose change. There is absolutely no reason why Republicans shouldn’t bring renewal up for a vote immediately, before states run into peril. To wait any longer would show nothing but pure callousness towards American parents and children.

*Correction, Jan. 9, 2018: This post incorrectly stated that extending CHIP for 10 years would cost $800 million according to the CBO’s original analysis. That was the cost of extending the program for 5 years.

In Defense of the Small City

In Defense of the Small City

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

The president saw a nation divided in two. Nearly half its population had moved into teeming cities where corporate leaders were amassing the greatest personal fortunes the world had ever seen. The other half was stuck in rural America—stuck, in the words of the historian David Kennedy, with “economic insecurity, inadequate health care, poor schools, rutted roads, cultural torpor, and the near-total absence of increasingly common urban amenities.” The year was 1908, and Teddy Roosevelt responded by establishing a Commission on Country Life. Its task, the president told Congress, was to diagnose and halt “the constant draining away of so much of the best elements in the rural population.”

I’ve been thinking about the Country Life Commission recently, not because it succeeded in making country life more attractive (the share of urbanized Americans has grown without pause since 1820 and doubled since 1900), but because it tried.

We’re in the midst of a similar schism at the moment, a dichotomy that has been of singular focus since the 2016 election. The divide today is more precisely between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan economies (many midsize cities are struggling too). But aside from rolling back environmental laws and promoting scattered subsidy deals (Carrier, Foxconn), Donald Trump hasn’t showed much interest in what ails the places that helped bring him to power. In a July interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president went so far as to say, “I’m going to start explaining to people: When you have an area that just isn’t working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t get people, I’m going to explain, ‘You can leave.’ ”

The plight of post-industrial cities like Buffalo, New York, as well as rural communities in Appalachia and the South, is also being dismissed by thinkers on the left and the right. National Review’s Kevin Williamson wrote in 2016, “these dysfunctional, downscale communities …
deserve to die.” Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman recently offered a similar prognosis: “Smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.” The underlying idea is that America has just too many cities, and Americans have to fix that problem by moving to the prosperous ones.

Fixing cities that aren’t doing so well is difficult, speculative, and expensive, the economist’s argument goes, whereas helping their residents move to thriving places is a tried-and-true solution. There is certainly reason to move to opportunity. After a century of convergence, incomes across states are diverging again. During the postwar era, low-wage cities experienced faster wage growth—catching up to their high-wage counterparts. Since 1980, that trend has vanished. High-wage, high-skill cities, the ones Richard Florida called “superstar cities,” are increasingly pulling away from the rest of the country.

Mark Muro at the Brookings Institution is one of many economists tracking the schism.
A little more than half the U.S. population lives in its 53 largest metros—those with more than 1 million residents. Since the financial crisis, these places account for more than 93 percent of U.S. population growth, two-thirds of economic output, and 73 percent of employment gains. All those shares are growing. Those numbers fall rapidly and progressively as you look at midsize cities, small cities, and rural areas. By the numbers, America is splitting into two separate countries—a wealthy metropolitan country, and everywhere else—which poses challenges to everything from monetary policy to political consensus.

When Saskia Sassen popularized the term in the early 1990s, she noted that “global cities” were more and more oriented toward each other, rather than inward toward their own hinterlands, perpetuating a diminished role of the nation-state. In December, the Upshot’s Emily Badger put this in practical terms: Where San Francisco Bay shipyards once drew timber and engine parts from rural towns and manufacturing cities across America, today’s Silicon Valley companies are much more likely to interact with Japanese investors, Chinese regulators, and European lawyers.

Hence the focus on helping Americans move. This is not as easy as it sounds: Yale law professor David Schleicher has laid out three issues that have contributed to Americans’ declining geographic mobility: zoning restrictions that raise housing prices in coastal cities, occupational licensing requirements that make it hard for professionals to cross state lines, and welfare benefits that are difficult to take from place to place. *Those barriers aren’t going anywhere: In many places, high housing prices are swallowing an entire generation’s disposable income, negating wage gains. Still, even economists who advocate a Rust Belt revival based on higher education and immigration, like Bloomberg View’s Noah Smith, think consolidation might be necessary. Smith has written, “It probably makes sense for the country to have fewer, larger cities. That change will require a lot of people moving.”

It doesn’t help that there are relatively few big ideas for revitalizing the left-behind places, be they rural communities, small cities, or struggling neighborhoods. Shortly after the 2016 election, Vox’s Matt Yglesias proposed relocating federal agencies to Midwestern cities. “Each of these regulatory agencies is surrounded by a swarm of highly paid lawyers, economists, and lobbyists who make careers out of influencing their decisions,” he wrote. “Right now, those folks all live in the DC metro area, where they drive up the cost of already expensive housing. Their spending would do a lot more good in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, where they would create secondary jobs and bolster a larger regional economy.” Not a bad idea, though Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati are, for the record, large metropolitan areas, and the Detroit suburbs do just fine.

Other, less sweeping ideas involve offering carrots for talented and industrious people to move to depopulating communities. In 2015, David Laitin and Marc Jahr wrote in the New York Times, “Let Syrians Settle Detroit.” This was not an entirely novel idea: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had earlier discussed getting the Obama administration to offer 50,000 visas for high-skilled migrants to come to Detroit. But Snyder’s plan was dubious—how could you force visa recipients to stay in Detroit?—and the Laitin-Jahr idea was impossible because America hasn’t even accepted one-third that number of Syrian refugees since the war began. This type of geographic enticement is often tried on a small scale: In 2016, for example, the Stanford Graduate School of Business offered three students a free ride on the condition they live in the Midwest after graduation.

What’s clear is that corporate America, despite displays of outreach like Mark Zuckerberg’s listening tour and a J.D. Vance–backed venture fund for “flyover startups,” will only do what’s best for itself. That much was evident from Amazon’s public search for its second headquarters: In narrowing its list to 20 cities, it cut all metros with fewer than 1 million people and a good number of big legacy cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Amazon isn’t just going to go to St. Louis because what’s “good for America is good for Amazon,” even as Missouri prepared to drop $2.4 billion to accommodate the online giant.

As much now as in 1908, any effort that makes a difference will have to start with the federal government. A provision of the GOP tax bill will create “Opportunity Zones” in distressed regions, offering tax cuts for investments (though the evidence on the efficacy of such programs is not great). The urban theorist Aaron Renn outlines some back-of-the-napkin proposals, like tougher regulation of Silicon Valley firms or a stimulus/bail-out for Midwest legacy costs, from indebted pension funds to corroding pipes. Others have drawn the comparison to the European Union’s so-called cohesion policy, which has for decades funneled money south and east from the continent’s prosperous core, the so-called blue banana that stretches from Manchester, England, to Milan. Or to regional development bodies like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

In any case, the triumph of the coastal cities, as well as the rapid expansion of the Sun Belt sprawl, was not accidental or, in fact, inevitable—they were the results of high-level choices. One of my favorite pieces on the subject is Brian Feldman’s 2016 Washington Monthly story on how mergers hastened the decline of St. Louis by stripping the city of company headquarters. The policies that enabled that process could be revised, or even reversed.

Some of these ideas to revive the heartland seem outlandish, especially in the light of comparatively pedestrian proposals to help people to move to Boston and Seattle. But that’s where a high-profile, respected group like the Country Life Commission could come in. Helping people move is important; we ought to figure out how to help the places they came from, too. Vibrant small cities not only offer a hedge against the health of our big ones—certain as that health seems now—but a number of distinct perks of their own. They’re small enough for regular people to participate in politics and make a mark on civic life; small enough for responsive, local ownership over institutions and infrastructure like banks, broadband, retail, and food production; small enough for short commutes and easy access to nature. Newly populated by immigrants, small cities are no longer the staid, conservative outposts they once were. It’s time for some big ideas about how to make them viable again.

And those efforts should take place before our current metropolitan glory days are upended by hazards unforeseen (war, changing cultural preferences) and foreseen (climate change, automation). After all, as recently as 1980, few would have predicted the resurgence awaiting America’s largest city. At that time, New York was struggling with debt, depopulation, deindustrialization, and a crime rate that would peak with an astonishing 2,245 murders and 147,000 stolen cars in 1990. Even if you take the hard-nosed economist’s view that America’s current population distribution is inefficient, there’s a reason to help the places whose plights seem as dire now as New York’s did then: to prepare ourselves for the moment we might need them. The status quo won’t last. It never does.

Donald Trump Says the Stock Market Made a “Big Mistake” by Falling

Donald Trump Says the Stock Market Made a “Big Mistake” by Falling

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

After a few days of silence, our president finally decided to weigh in on the choppy state of the stock market this morning.

It’s easy to read this as just another example of Trump being Trump. The man has spent much of his time in office taking credit for rising stock prices. Now that they have suffered a light setback, he feels compelled to deflect blame—as is his wont—and redirect it onto misguided traders, targeting the entire equities market the way he does Head Clown Chuck Schumer or Sleazy Adam Schiff.

But there is a glimmer of truth to the tweet. Trump is right that the stock market’s fluctuations are pretty counterintuitive these days. There really was a time when good news about the economy would have sent the Dow Jones and S&P 500 higher. No longer! Now, the faintest hint that the economy could be heating up is apparently enough to spook investors into a sell-off. After all, the most recent tumult started after the government reported some mildly positive news about wage growth.

This is a big conceptual leap forward for the president, though he still has some ways to go: The market’s initial reaction wasn’t necessarily a “mistake,” at least from the perspective of a money manager. If wage increases accelerate, it could theoretically lead to higher inflation, which may encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates sooner rather than later, which would probably be bad for stock prices. But eventually, the market started swinging wildly for reasons that ostensibly had nothing to do with economic fundamentals. Much of the selling may have been an overreaction that seems to be partly reversing itself now.

In other words, stocks have been weird, and the president is grokking that. So maybe this tweet is an inchoate acknowledgment that the market is not, actually, always an accurate reflection the wider economy.

Or maybe our nation’s angry grandpa is just shouting at clouds again. I don’t know.

Pros And Cons Of USPS Federal CU's IRA CD deal | Bankrate.com

Pros And Cons Of USPS Federal CU's IRA CD deal | Bankrate.com


This 24-month IRA CD pays 3 percent APY, but there are caveats.

L.L. Bean Has Ended Unlimited Returns, and I Am Fairly Certain It’s My Fault

L.L. Bean Has Ended Unlimited Returns, and I Am Fairly Certain It’s My Fault

by Justin Peters @ Slate Articles

I’m responsible for this. That was my first reaction when I read Friday morning that outdoorsy retailer L.L. Bean had decided to stop guaranteeing its merchandise for life. For more than a century, L.L. Bean had offered a lifetime return policy, allowing customers to return or exchange L.L. Bean merchandise at any time for any reason—even years after the initial purchase date. Now, citing “abuse” of the policy, the retailer will only offer a one-year exchange period—and, even then, exchanges will only be granted if you have a receipt. I really feel like this is sort of my fault.

Let me explain. About seven years ago, I bought a pair of slip-on shoes at L.L. Bean—brown, bulky, waterproof shoes that were sort of like Merrells except a lot cheaper. (I think they cost $40.) I wore them through the winter, put them away for spring and summer, and broke them out again come fall. I wore the shoes hard, and they were cheap shoes to begin with, so by the end of the year the soles were damaged and the exterior stitching was starting to come undone.

I needed new shoes, and so I went to L.L. Bean to buy a new pair of the same ones that had served me well for a year. Imagine my surprise and delight when the sales associate told me of the store’s generous return policy and invited me to exchange my old shoes for new ones, free of charge. What’s more, I also got a $10 gift card because of an in-store promotion of some sort. Not only did I get free shoes, I also got free money. Six years later, I still count this as one of the greatest days of my life.

I haven’t spent a dollar on closed-toe shoes since then. Every year, around Christmas, I would drive to the L.L. Bean store in the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, Illinois, near where I grew up, to exchange my old shoes for new ones.  Over the years, it became a cherished family outing. My mother, who is amused by my sense of thrift, insists on accompanying me on what she refers to as my “scam.” “You’d better not tell anyone about your scam,” she routinely warned me. “If too many people catch on, they’ll stop doing it.”

Well, they did, but I nevertheless take great umbrage at the idea that it was somehow dishonest for me and other customers to take L.L. Bean up on its policy. The company made much of its lifetime guarantee, advertising it on social media and elsewhere. Judging from my experiences, the company even encouraged its in-store employees to tout that guarantee. I feel no guilt about taking L.L. Bean up on its offer. If they didn’t want people to take the swap, they shouldn’t have offered it!

In a letter to customers posted Friday on the company’s Facebook page, executive chairman Shawn O. Gorman announced the decision and griped that “a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent.” While I agree that it’s bad karma for people to buy old L.L. Bean merchandise at yard sales for cheap and then return it at L.L. Bean as if they had purchased it there—Gorman claims that this happened, and I do not doubt him—I am nevertheless annoyed by his blamey statement. Customers of a retail store should not be expected to be strict Constitutional originalists. If the intent behind a given policy varies from the text of the policy, then it’s incumbent on the company to change the text of the policy to better reflect its intent. That’s not the customer’s responsibility.

L.L. Bean’s lifetime warranty might have been a foolish one that was prone to exploitation, but it was their policy, and it’s not one that the company kept secret, either. It was a marketing tool more than anything else, meant to foster good feelings and brand loyalty. I certainly felt warm and fuzzy toward L.L. Bean, and the company’s absurdly generous warranty certainly led me to spend more money there than I would have otherwise. But now the policy is history, and I can no longer count on getting a free pair of new shoes every single year for the rest of my life. It’s the end of an era in Justin Peters’ footwear styles—and my wife, for one, is thrilled. The shoes I’ve been exchanging for six years are hideous.

Statement from Postmaster General Brennan on the Postal Service Reform Act of 2018

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

USPS – March 23, 2018 “There is an urgent need for the Congress to enact postal reform legislation this year. We are hopeful that with the introduction in the Senate of the bipartisan Postal Service Reform Act of 2018 by Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE), Claire McCaskill (D-MI), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and […]

Manassas VA post office employees tell 7 On Your Side their workplace is ‘deplorable’

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

3/26/2018 MANASSAS, Va. (ABC7) — The 7 On Your Side I-Team obtained pictures of inside the U.S. Post Office on Euclid Avenue in Manassas, Virginia. Sources inside the post office call the working conditions deplorable and even hazardous. Floors in restrooms are dirty and sinks are nasty. Walls are covered in something and the soap dispenser […]

Manassas VA post office employees tell 7 On Your Side their workplace is ‘deplorable’ appeared on PostalReporter.com.

What's Killing the Post Office? (It's Not Email)

What's Killing the Post Office? (It's Not Email)

Boomerang: Email Productivity

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night has stayed the United States Postal Service. But has email? We were curious whether email was the cause of USPS’s recent, well-documented woes. Does our love (and extensions) for snoozing in Gmail and scheduling email in Outlook make us complicit

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

by Justin Peters @ Slate Articles

Two years ago, I watched every single Super Bowl, so I can say with absolute certainty that, for whatever reason, America’s most-watched sports event is usually a terrible football game. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Americans have come to care so much about Super Bowl ads: They know that while the game will probably fall short of its hype, at least they’ll see a few entertaining commercials.

Last year’s Super Bowl reversed that trend, with a great game surrounded by a bunch of lackluster ads. This year’s Super Bowl followed suit. While the game itself was an all-time classic—easily top 10, maybe even top five—this year’s ads were a poor crop. For every humorous or striking one, there were at least three others that were boastful, cloying, cringeworthy, or misguided. I blame Trump, personally. A lot of companies worked too hard to imply or outright shout their high-mindedness in the face of the president’s churlishness; others took the opposite approach, and produced spots that were excessively braggadocious and aggressive. Let’s sort out the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. I couldn’t recap all of this year’s ads—sorry if I omitted one of your favorites—but these are the ones that stood out the most to me. To the commercials!

First Quarter

Toyota leads off its Super Bowl ad buy with a spot featuring Paralympic skier Lauren Woolstencroft, who has won eight gold medals. I’m glad the carmaker gave Woolstencroft some publicity—her perseverance and determination are indeed inspiring—but it makes me cringe when stories like hers are used to, well, sell cars. It doesn’t take any perseverance or determination to buy a Toyota. It takes approximately $20,000 to $40,000, or somewhere between $199 and $399 per month for a series of months.

I’m a sucker for commercials featuring sassy robots, and so I liked the Sprint ad in which a room of hyperintelligent androids mock their creator for sticking with Verizon even though Sprint’s network is allegedly almost as good and half as expensive. It then takes him to a cellphone store where he meets the creepiest robot of all: the Can You Hear Me Now Guy.

M&Ms presents a high-concept commercial in which a red M&M magically transforms into Danny DeVito, asks a bunch of confused strangers if they want to eat him, and then gets hit by a truck. Not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but I think this was basically the plot of Throw Momma From the Train.

Wendy’s—unofficial corporate motto: “Our Food Is Meh, but at Least We’re Jerks on Twitter”—takes a direct shot at McDonald’s for using frozen beef. “The iceberg that sank the Titanic was frozen, too,” says the ad. In your face, McDonald’s!! While I love a good fast-food feud as much as anyone, I feel like Wendy’s would do well to mind that old proverb: “Restaurants that sell weird square hamburgers shouldn’t throw stones.”

Peter Dinklage lip-dubs a Busta Rhymes song in an ad for Doritos, and then is immediately followed by Morgan Freeman lip-dubbing a Missy Elliott* song in an ad for Mountain Dew. These ads seemed lazy to me, but I guess I’m not their demographic: I don’t like chips, Mountain Dew, or lip dubs. Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman I can take or leave.

Second Quarter

I didn’t watch much football this year, so I completely missed the rise of the Bud Light “Dilly Dilly” phenomenon, a medieval-themed series of commercials featuring the nonsensical catchphrase “Dilly Dilly.” The beer’s Super Bowl spot concludes the Dilly Dilly saga by introducing a new character—the Bud Knight—who wields a magical sword and always brings enough beer for everyone. An insubstantial yet inexplicably popular spot for an insubstantial yet inexplicably popular beer.

E-Trade presents its version of those terrible Fox News ads that encourage the gullible to invest their retirement savings in commemorative coins. The ad shows a bunch of senior citizens being forced to work well past the expected retirement age—and being forced to listen to a bad parody of “The Banana Boat Song”—because they didn’t save enough money during their prime working years. Yes, our fraying safety net and disappearing pensions mean we’ll all be working into our golden years. No, opening an account at an online stock brokerage is not the way to solve our retirement woes.

Avocados From Mexico continues its entertaining run of Super Bowl spots with an ad in which members of a white-robed guacamole cult seal themselves away in a desert dome that’s stockpiled with “everything [they’ve] always wanted”—only for chaos to ensue when they realize they forgot the tortilla chips. Big points for a very funny Chris Elliott cameo, and for the implication that guacamole eaters are functionally indistinguishable from Heaven’s Gate cultists.

Diet Coke: It’s not just for your colleagues in accounting anymore! The diet soft-drink brand puts a dictionary-definition millennial in front of a yellow brick wall to hold a can of Diet Coke Twisted Mango, dance awkwardly, and mumble to herself. I didn’t really get this ad, but I also think that “off-putting” might have been what the ad agency was going for. Regardless, I am now fully aware that Diet Coke comes in mango. Mission accomplished!

Pringles brings us behind the scenes of a fictitious Bill Hader film as two crew members linger at craft services and stack different flavors of Pringles atop each other to create new flavor combinations, like “barbecue pizza,” and “spicy barbecue pizza.” Funny commercial, but I feel like Pringle-stacking would not be as wow-worthy in real life as it looks on TV. You know what a barbecue Pringle paired with a pizza pringle tastes like? A Pringle.

Febreze gives us a brief faux-documentary about Dave, the only man in the world whose “bleep” doesn’t stink. The reason why Dave’s waste is miraculously odor-free? The spot doesn’t say, but I can only attribute it to midichlorians. The point of the ad: Since Dave won’t be at your Super Bowl party, but everyone else will, you should probably buy some Febreze to deodorize your bathroom after your gluttonous friends destroy it. I’m not typically big on bathroom humor, but I liked this spot for its attention to detail. Well-directed, well-produced.

I loved the Squarespace spot featuring Keanu Reeves talking to himself as he stands atop a motorcycle that he is riding through the desert. Not sure what else to say about this one. Keanu Reeves. Talking to himself. On a motorcycle. In the desert. I fully believe that this is what the John Wick character does in his spare time.

“I have a dream that one day a recording of a speech I gave about redefining greatness as a function of your readiness to serve your fellow man will be licensed by my descendants for Ram to use in an offensive truck commercial.” Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. said that? Oh, wait, he didn’t. Oh, well, some of his descendants licensed the recording to Dodge all the same, and the result was the night’s most tone-deaf and abhorrent ad, in which one of the greatest moral leaders of the 20th century is made to shill for Dodge.


So a priest, a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist get in a pickup truck and drive to a football game together. It’s the setup to a bad joke, and it’s also the premise of a Toyota commercial that is much better than it ought to be, thanks to good and funny performances by its lead actors. I want to know more about this unlikely group of friends. What do they do when it’s not football season? Do they ever go on road trips together? And how do the crabby nuns who sit near them at the game affect their friend dynamic? I would watch at least half an episode of this sitcom, if it were a sitcom instead of a dubiously effective Toyota ad.

Pepsi runs a self-mythologizing ad featuring Kyrie Irving’s “Uncle Drew” character, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, and a bunch of other people who at one point or another have been paid to pretend that they like Pepsi. “Pepsi is everywhere in every timeline” is the gist of the ad. “This is the Pepsi for every generation,” the ad concludes, before abruptly cutting to Jimmy Fallon drinking a Pepsi, apparently sitting high above the ground in the curl of the “S” on a “Pepsi-Cola” billboard. “And this is the Pepsi that brings you the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show!” Fallon chirps. I am sad to report that, as far as I know, Fallon did not fall off of the billboard.

Amazon Prime runs an ad for the new, allegedly action-packed Jack Ryan TV series, starring John Krasinski, aka Jim from The Office, who is trying very hard to make people believe he is a credible action star, perhaps so that they will stop calling him “Jim from The Office.” The ad also features an awful cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” In conclusion, while this ad did not make me excited to watch the Jack Ryan show, I am looking forward to revisiting Season 2 of The Office very soon. Stay in your lane, Jim from The Office!

Mercedes Benz runs a car ad that is plainly and simply a car ad. It just features a bunch of vehicles—a motorcycle, a hot rod, a sports car, a rocket car, a truck of some sort, and, of course, a Mercedes AMG E63 S Sedan—revving their engines at a stoplight in preparation for a drag race. The winner? The Benz, of course, because the Benz can accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.3 seconds.

Third Quarter

Budweiser gives itself a back-pat with a minute-long spot explaining how the company uses its canning infrastructure to provide clean water to disaster zones. Good for Budweiser! Giving needy people cans of water is certainly better than giving them cans of its gross beer.

After Super Bowl season comes tax season, and it’s always been thus, which is why I’m a little surprised that this is the first Super Bowl to count Intuit—maker of TurboTax and QuickBooks—as an advertiser. The 15-second spot makes much of its own brevity—“time is money,” after all—and features a large robot helping a frustrated TV viewer push a “Skip Ad” button. I’m not sure the conceit works, since the Super Bowl is literally the one time of year when people don’t want to skip the ads.

Kia puts an astoundingly haggard Steven Tyler behind the wheel of one of its cars and sends him speeding around a racetrack in reverse. When he gets out, he has apparently traveled back through time, as he looks a good 40 years younger and is immediately beset by groupies. “Feel Something Again,” Kia implores, as “Dream On” plays. This was probably an effective spot for Kia, if only because I feel like “Eagles fans” and “people who still think Aerosmith is cool” are basically the same demographic.

Next, a striking ad featuring the rapper and musician Pras Michel, gagged and blindfolded, on stage in a vast and empty theater. As music begins to play, he removes the tape that had been covering his mouth. Then he removes the blindfold, gives the empty room a look, and leaves the stage. “Be celebrated, not tolerated” appears on screen. This is an ad for Blacture, a (seemingly very well-funded) website on black culture, which Pras plans to launch in two months. Good ad. I’m intrigued!

We see a bunch of babies writhing on a gray sheet as a narrator coos a message of tolerance and equality. What is this an ad for? “Some people may see your differences and be threatened by them. But you are unstoppable,” the narrator continues, as the camera pans across more cute babies. Seriously, what is this an ad for? “You will be heard, not dismissed. You will be connected, not alone,” she says, as the shot slowly fades to pink. Oh. Oh, no. It’s a T-Mobile commercial. Hey, if you can’t compete on cost or quality, you might as well dump a bunch of babies on a bed and make like you’re UNICEF instead of a lesser cellular service provider.

Eli Manning dances to “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” with Odell Beckham Jr. in a Dirty Dancing parody for the NFL. Why does this ad exist? I cannot say, but Eli Manning seems to be enjoying himself and I guess I’m glad that he’s keeping busy.

Fourth Quarter

After a long layoff, Groupon is back in the Super Bowl. This year’s ad features Tiffany Haddish singing the praises of shopping local, plus a miserable old plutocrat opening the door of his mansion to be greeted with a football in the groin. All together now: Football! In! The! Groin! Come the revolution, we can clearly count Groupon as an ally.

Amazon posits a world in which its Alexa voice-activated assistant loses its voice, forcing the company to cycle through a slew of celebrity replacements. None is satisfactory—Gordon Ramsay berates a hapless man who asks Alexa for a grilled cheese sandwich recipe (“Its name is the recipe!”); Cardi B does not know the distance from Earth to Mars; Rebel Wilson ruins a yuppie’s wine-and-cheese party by lasciviously misinterpreting his request to “set the mood”; Anthony Hopkins feeds a peacock while insinuating he has kidnapped a woman’s lover. Funny ad, but my main takeaway here was less Alexa is a useful service and more Celebrities are idiots.

In 1971, Coca-Cola put a bunch of jolly hippies on a hilltop and had them sing about world peace and sugary soda in one of the most iconic commercials in history. The company’s Super Bowl spot Sunday night tried to hit similar themes, showing us people of all sorts enjoying Coke all over the world. I didn’t love the ad, which felt like a bunch of incoherently combined stock footage. Coca-Cola should have just re-aired “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Plus, “there’s a different Coke for all of us” is a fine motif, but it isn’t really true, is it? Some diet and regional variations notwithstanding, there’s only one Coke. It’s called “Coke.”

No joke: I think Peyton Manning is a first-rate commercial actor. I enjoy his doofy TV persona; I am actually always excited to watch his ads. And so it truly pains me to say that the Universal Parks and Resorts spot really misused Manning’s comedic talents. “Peyton Manning: Vacation Quarterback” is a great premise, but his lame interactions with the child actors and Universal characters and attractions all fell flat to me. Call me when Universal launches “Chicken Parm: The Ride.”

Hyundai runs a self-congratulatory ad in which Hyundai owners are whisked away from the security line at the NFL Super Bowl Experience and made to watch videos in which pediatric cancer patients and their families praise Hyundai for donating money to children’s cancer research. Next, the Hyundai owners are forced into in-person meetings with the people on the videos, who dole out hugs and say things like “I just want to thank you for owning a Hyundai.” You’re welcome? I felt bad for the Hyundai owners who were apparently ambushed into appearing in this commercial.

Stella Artois enlists Matt Damon to offer socially conscious viewers a sort of trade: Purchase a limited-edition Stella Artois–branded beer glass online and the beer company will donate money to Damon’s charity water.org, which works to improve clean-water access in developing nations. “If just 1 percent of you watching this buys one, we could give clean water to 1 million people for five years,” says Damon. This sort of pitch always makes me upset. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Stella’s parent company, is a multibillion-dollar corporation that could just donate money to clean-water charities anyway without guilting us into buying a dumb beer glass. Super Bowl ads this year cost around $5 million per 30-second spot. How much clean water could Stella have bought the developing world with $5 million?

Speaking of water, we next see a Jeep Wrangler driving through a swamp of some sort. The Jeep is red, the water is brown. “How many car ads have you seen with grandiose speeches over the years?” asks the narrator as the Jeep proceeds to drive up a rocky waterfall. Too many! (I’m talking to you, Toyota and Hyundai.) “Companies call these commercials … ‘manifestos,’ ” the narrator continues, as the Jeep drives out of sight. “There’s your manifesto.” A Jeep is a car that can drive over rocks and through water is a manifesto I can get behind.

*Correction, Feb. 6, 2018: This article originally misspelled Missy Elliott’s last name.

The Week JFK Airport Stood Still

The Week JFK Airport Stood Still

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

On Thursday, Jan. 4, the “bomb cyclone” descended on John F. Kennedy International Airport, smothering Queens, New York, with 8 inches of snow and disrupting America’s largest point of entry. Hundreds of flights were canceled before the first flakes fell; delays fanned out across the globe. Thousands of travelers were stranded in nearby hotels, some for days on end, or at the airport itself, where blankets and meal tickets were rationed and police had to step in to keep peace. Passengers compared the scene at Kennedy to a refugee camp and a bomb shelter. Thousands of bags remained at JFK well into last week, and others still have not been reunited with their owners.

Mistakes were made. But in other ways, it’s not surprising that the disruption was severe. For one, snow and airplanes don’t mix. Thanks to JFK’s role as a crucial node in American air travel, any delays ripple across the globe. And an airport like JFK, which must manage an average of 1,100 flights a day, is a finely tuned and highly sensitive operation. Commercial aviation is an industry managed down to the minute, conscious of the cost of an olive and the fuel savings from a thinner in-flight magazine. There is no slack; its very efficiency makes it vulnerable to disruptions that are both predictable and, given the way the industry chooses to operate, unpreventable.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK, has commissioned former Obama Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to conduct an investigation into the events of the weekend. But LaHood would not need to dig very deep to understand what triggered such a cascading failure. I interviewed people who work at, have worked at, and watch Kennedy Airport, as well as travelers who were caught in the worst of it (their responses have been lightly edited for clarity). The common theme: Under pressure to run smoothly, the system overpromised its ability to do so at every turn, transforming one very snowy day into a chain of failures that would ensnare some travelers for an entire week.

* * *


Thursday, Jan. 4

8:42 a.m.: The New York office of the National Weather Service issues a blizzard warning for the JFK area—frequent gusts of more than 35 mph, heavy snowfall, visibility under a quarter-mile. The last planes to land at Kennedy Airport for 24 hours touch down. Holds and diversions begin.

10:17 a.m.: Norwegian 7013 flying from London’s Gatwick to JFK lands in Albany, 140 miles north. The 304 passengers of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 are bused four hours to JFK. Albany’s Times Union reports that the airport “doesn’t have the equipment to unload [787 luggage] containers.”

10:45 a.m.: The Port Authority closes all JFK runways “temporarily”; flights head to smaller airports in Albany and Newburgh, as well as to Baltimore and Washington. The AirTrain shuts down. The airport is expected to reopen at 3 p.m., says the Federal Aviation Administration.

Robert Mann, former charter-airline executive officer at JFK: “The turning point was probably when the Port Authority decided to close JFK to start cleaning up. They had what appeared at the time to be a pretty optimistic goal to returning it to service. Their estimate would have had implications for somebody dispatching a flight scheduled to arrive after 3 p.m.”

Greg Lindsay, co-author, Aerotropolis: “It all went wrong, obviously, when the Port Authority  announces they’re going to close it for less than a full day. I thought that was crazy when I read it. Once that happened the die was cast.”

1 p.m.: Baltimore–Washington International Airport declares it can’t accept any more wide-body planes (the kind with two aisles); eventually two dozen flights from JFK, Newark, and Philadelphia will end up at Dulles in Washington. Passengers are told they will be bused to New York. Flights from London are diverted as far west as Chicago, 800 miles off course, where O’Hare is jammed with diverted planes. Meanwhile, dozens of international flights continue toward JFK under the assumption it will reopen at 3 p.m.

2 p.m.: JFK announces the airport will reopen at 8 p.m.

3:35 p.m.: Iberia 6253 en route from Madrid to Kennedy makes a U-turn west of the Azores and returns to Madrid. Total flight time: 8 hours, 15 minutes.

Consuelo Arias, director of communications for Iberia, via email: “The closure of JFK Airport due to snow had been extended twice. … Our flight hadn’t reached the point of no return yet.”

Robert Mann, former charter-airline executive officer at JFK: “If you took the bait [by believing the airport would reopen that day], you got screwed. You as the airline got screwed, you as the customer got screwed. And I suspect it managed to also screw anybody trying to get out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that number of flights just turn around mid-Atlantic and head back.”

6 p.m.: JFK announces flights will resume on Friday at 7 a.m. More trans-Atlantic flights turn around: Norwegian 7019 loops back to Paris. Virgin 25 makes its pivot to conclude a seven-hour round trip from London. Royal Air Maroc 202 circles back to Casablanca.

* * *


Friday, Jan. 5

5:26 a.m.: Delta 467 from Tel Aviv lands in Detroit instead of New York, one of 13 diversions for international Delta flights that departed for Kennedy on Thursday. On the flight is a group of more than 100 young Americans returning to the U.S. from a Birthright trip to Israel, some of whom would not reach their final destinations for another 30 hours.

Jared Simon, passenger, Delta 467: “We get to Detroit. None of us paid for any of our tickets and the counter lady goes: ‘Because you’re a group you have to go back to JFK,’ and I said, ‘I have a connecting flight to West Palm Beach.’ And she said, ‘Not our problem, you’re going to JFK.’ ”

6 a.m.: Crews scramble to plow paths for planes and operations vehicles.

2 p.m.: Delta 467 from Tel Aviv arrives in New York via Detroit. At least 12 international flights are waiting for gates at JFK. Waits grow to two to four hours. Snowplows damage runway lights. Disorder grows on the tarmac and inside the terminals, where stranded passengers have been since the previous day. Outside, snowbanks and the unplowed tarmac reduce space for parked airplanes and hamper the mobility of support vehicles. Some workers have slept at the airport; many tarmac operations are short-handed. Workers like the men “on the ramp”—the low-paid staff that unload bags from cramped airplane holds—try to play catch-up in frigid conditions, relying on hand warmers inside their gloves. Norwegian 7013, the plane that was marooned in Albany, leaves for London with everyone’s baggage onboard.

Robert Mann, former charter-airline executive officer at JFK: “Where could you have warehoused these airplanes? Sometimes you warehouse planes by telling them to take a lap around the inner and outer taxiways. In the process of warehousing you create further congestion.”

Jared Simon, passenger, Delta 467: “We go to get our bags, and we see hundreds of people screaming. So I’m like, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ I’m a small guy, so I start wiggling around the crowd, and I hear these people had been waiting there since 5 a.m. in the morning.”

Adam Newman, passenger, Delta 426 (New York to Los Angeles): “Where you come off the AirTrain and walk into the terminal, there were just people sitting against the wall, arms around their knees and the arms around the luggage. They looked like refugees.”

3 p.m.: Dulles Airport, inundated with diverted flights, turns a runway into a parking lot for wide-body planes.

7:48 p.m.: Kuwait Airways 117 lands at JFK from Ireland; passengers won’t get off the plane until 1:30 a.m., likely because there are no gates available at Terminal 4. Big domestic carriers with hubs and terminals at JFK, like JetBlue and American, can afford to hold or cancel flights in an attempt to manage their gates, planes, and customers systemwide. For international airlines, however, which share space in terminals with dozens of rivals, a kind of prisoner’s dilemma ensues: Everyone might have been better off holding more flights, but no one wants to be the carrier to cancel. The relatively low price of jet fuel—barely half what it was six years ago—reduces the cost of doing everything but canceling: diverting, flying in circles, turning back halfway across the Atlantic. Even luxury airlines like Emirates are unlikely to have a spare plane sitting around in New York. One cancellation can cause a ripple effect that lasts for days.

Adam Newman, passenger, Delta 426: “My flight [to L.A.] was supposed to be at 3:30 p.m. It got delayed, delayed, delayed until 10:30, and then we boarded. We went out on the tarmac for hours, third in line to take off, and then we had to go back to the gate because the crew had worked too many hours. They got this poor kid, probably 20 years old … and they put him at the gate with about 200 people in a semicircle around him asking what to do. He was just about to cry the whole time. He kept apologizing and I said: ‘Nobody wants an apology, we just want to know what to do.’ And everybody started cheering.”

Réal Hamilton-Romeo, senior public relations manager, Norwegian USA: “For the average person looking at it, ‘The nose [of the plane] is clear; just get us on the next flight.’ It’s not that easy. Flights are booked 90 to 100 percent to capacity. A lot of these aircrafts are scheduled extremely tightly. You do that to get the most efficiency out of your staff as well as the multimillion-dollar aircraft.”

Stan Boyer, vice president, Sabre Airline Solutions consultancy: “Load factors on the flights are probably 15 percentage points higher than they were 12 years ago. There are more flights and less capacity to deal with it.”

Jared Simon, passenger, Delta 467: “At 9 p.m. on Friday [after a Delta connection to West Palm Beach is canceled], I took a $100 Uber from JFK to Newark. I spent $115 on a Holiday Inn and woke up at 4 a.m. The plane is supposed to take off at 6 a.m. But at 5:45, they told us our crew had not arrived yet. People were screaming, ‘Give me the application, I’ll become a flight attendant!’ ”

Sam Horowitz, passenger, XL Airways 51 (New York to Paris): “Everything was fine until I got past security. The flight was delayed from 9:25 p.m. to 11, to midnight. At 12:30 a.m.
[Saturday morning] it was canceled completely. Someone said we had to go back and talk to a representative to help us with rebooking a flight. But there was no XL representative in the building. All the XL passengers had to sleep on the floor that night in Terminal 4. We were promised a hotel, nothing ever came of that. They said they couldn’t book a hotel. At around 5 in the morning someone started sending around a piece of paper to get everyone’s contact info to start a class-action lawsuit.”

Midnight: Shortly after midnight, an empty China Southern 777, while being towed, clips wings with a Kuwait Airways 777 waiting for takeoff. The passengers en route to Kuwait City are taken to hotels.

* * *


Saturday, Jan. 6

7:19 a.m.: At sunrise, JFK is sliding toward an eventual record low of 7 degrees and a wind chill of minus 13. The winter storm has “severely disabled equipment,” the Port Authority will say later in the day, in its first extended comment on the state of things at JFK. The storm “created a cascading series of issues for airlines and terminal operators,” the PA explained. Additional international flights bound for JFK are redirected. Just west of Ireland, Lufthansa 400 turns back for Munich.

7:25 a.m.: At Kennedy, passengers deplane Air China 989 from Beijing via air stairs after sitting for more than seven hours on the tarmac. Gusts of more than 30 mph bring the wind chill to minus 12.

Robert Mann, former charter-airline executive officer at JFK: “When hydraulics get cold, bad things happen. A scissor lift works fine under normal temperature ranges, but it’s sometimes really finicky at low temperatures. If you’ve worked out on a ramp in 30-knot winds when it’s 5 degrees, you don’t want to do it for more than 10 minutes at a time. It’s a life-safety issue to have thousands of people outside in that weather.

9:45 a.m.: Austrian Airlines 87 lands in Vienna, five hours after departing Vienna.

Jason Rabinowitz, aviation journalist: “I buy [the equipment explanation] to a degree, but then how does Toronto do it? It was also a manpower issue—some of them had worked so long they had to go home.”

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “We got to the airport at 8 in the morning [following a Friday night cancellation] and we didn’t leave until 7 p.m. There were people sleeping on the floor and there was no one from Norwegian airlines there at all. We didn’t get told our flight was delayed until probably 6 p.m. when it was meant to be at 3:20. There were passengers sitting on the luggage conveyor belts. There was one bloke sitting behind the check-in desk, every time we’d ask him he’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ He told one passenger at one point—who had pretended to go on the computer trying to keep everyone’s spirits up—that was almost as bad as pulling out a policeman’s gun and he could have him arrested.

Réal Hamilton-Romeo, senior public relations manager, Norwegian USA: “These airplanes don’t fly themselves. We have pilots and flight attendants with mandatory work requirements. There were people working 40 hours nonstop to ensure that our passengers were getting home on time. The first break they took was on Saturday afternoon.”

Sam Horowitz, passenger, XL Airways 51: “We had blanket rations, a food voucher we couldn’t use because all the food was inside security. We moved into the back of the airport. We started lying [down] outside the chapels.”

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “The bathrooms were disgusting. There were seven bathrooms for hundreds of people, none of the soap worked, and none of the hand driers worked either—and that was in the whole airport.”

2:15 p.m.: JFK records a high temperature of 14 degrees, a record for the lowest high temperature on this day. The Port Authority issues a NOTAM, or “notice to airmen,” requesting that all incoming international flights call their dispatchers to see if they should continue to JFK. Later that afternoon, the Port Authority will issue a second NOTAM closing Terminal 1 to all arriving aircraft. Low-cost carriers like Norwegian and XL Airways are particularly affected. Among other things, they are less likely to have so-called interline agreements that make it easy to put passengers on other carriers’ planes.

Robert Mann, former charter-airline executive officer at JFK: “It’s like saying, ‘Stop the conveyor belt, all the candy is falling off.’ For most foreign carriers at Kennedy, you don’t necessarily have your own people working there, you might have contractors or airline partners. And you don’t have much flexibility in terms of using the facilities in that station because they’re heavily scheduled and you’re sharing terminal, check-in, and gate positions with a host of other carriers. It becomes a real food fight.”

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, author, The Metropolitan Airport: “The Terminal City model of decentralized terminals [from the 1950s] was a pioneering ‘public/private’ partnership of the Port Authority. … The decentralized system as a whole is, however, more fragile. … You will notice that the Terminal City model was not widely imitated outside New York.”

5:32 p.m.: Just west of Iceland, Aeroflot 122 begins its U-turn to head back to Moscow. A couple of hours later, Norwegian 7015, which is carrying the bags of the Norwegian 7013 passengers who landed in Albany on Thursday, is diverted to Stewart Airport, 60 miles north of New York City, where the luggage is finally unloaded. Back at JFK’s Terminal 4, French travelers are so overjoyed at being permitted to check in for their canceled Thursday flight they chant “La Marseillaise.” The flight will not depart until noon the next day.

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “We were lucky to get put up at the Marriot in Downtown Manhattan. One man said it was nice to see the Statue of Liberty through the windows of the coach on the way to the Marriot.”

Devani Ramoutar, front-desk agent, Best Western–JFK Airport: “The most they stay is two or three nights [usually]. Some of them were just tired, aggravated. Just wanted to get out of here. People are usually a little more calm. But we’re used to it.”

Sam Horowitz, passenger, XL Airways 51: “We’re waiting for the buses, maybe about 10 p.m., and then it’s 11, 11:30, nothing was happening. Then I saw the unaccompanied minors go back upstairs. And I thought: ‘Oh my God, they’re going to cancel the flight again.’ After that, all hell broke loose. People were screaming, families sobbing, I starting crying. People started storming the podium area where the JFK people were. I turned around and there was NYPD corralling us again. They had to break up a few minor scuffles between passengers and workers. Everyone was shouting in French so I had no idea what they were saying. The last thing the XL passengers saw was another flight boarding. And that just increased tension even more.”

* * *


Sunday, Jan. 7

8 a.m.: By the fourth day of the crisis at JFK, tens of thousands of bags are reportedly separated from their owners.

Stan Boyer, vice president, Sabre Airline Solutions: “At JFK, because there are so many terminals and bags need to go from terminal to terminal, you run into not just an automation issue but an equipment issue where you may not have enough equipment to tug those bags around.”

Sam Horowitz, passenger, XL Airways 51: “I took a three-hour power nap at the Day’s Inn and then went back to baggage claim until 2 p.m. The woman there knew me by name at that point, and she said, ‘Your bag is not coming today.’ ”

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “We were walking around asking people, gate to gate, ‘Are you Norwegian? Are you Norwegian?’ At the airport on Sunday they were giving out mattresses, like a bed that you’d have around a poolside.”

3 p.m.: A water main breaks in Terminal 4, forcing a partial evacuation and flooding hundreds of bags in inches of water.

Gary Carey, passenger, Emirates 395 and 201 (Hanoi to Dubai to New York): “[After arriving Saturday] we didn’t have our bags, and then on Sunday there was news that the baggage terminal had flooded. And some of my medications are in my bag. And I bought some custom suits!”

Chris Piasta, Roman Catholic chaplain at JFK: “After the pipe incident, everything changed and we really got busy—not as much with passengers but with employees. Airline people were facing a lot of angry people, and they were basically taking the heat. … Don’t forget: These people have their own life. They need sometimes a few moments to relief the stress, vent, so that’s what we provide for them.”

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “They were waiting for airport staff to bring on bottles of water [aboard the replacement flight] because we had to flush the toilet with bottled water. We were delayed on the plane for an hour and half because there was a mechanical problem. They said the engine was frozen, though we’d just seen it land. Then they told us the flight was canceled. There were people crying. I think it was just pure shock and devastation. People were trying to call their children, worried about losing their jobs.”

Chuck Schumer, U.S. senator, at a news conference: “When it’s cold, as cold as it was, you cut the airport a little slack. But what happened at JFK was way beyond cutting a little slack. It seemed almost everything broke down; it seemed like a disaster. Whether it’s runways not being plowed, whether it’s the baggage machines that transport the baggage freezing, whether it’s not notifying people what’s going on. … It seems almost everything that could go wrong went wrong, including two planes actually colliding. They should have been way better prepared, plain and simple JFK has to follow the Boy Scouts’ motto: ‘Be prepared.’ They weren’t.”

Rick Cotton, executive director, Port Authority, to reporters: “What broke down—and it broke down badly—was the coordination between terminal operators and the airlines to assure that there were gates available for the arriving airplanes. … What happened at JFK Airport is unacceptable and travelers expect and deserve better.”

* * *


Monday, Jan. 8

2:35 a.m.: Sam Horowitz arrives in Paris via a La Compagnie flight out of Newark after abandoning her XL Airways flight and her bag, which will eventually arrive at Roissy–Charles de Gaulle Airport on Wednesday.

8:48 a.m.: After the airline denies his request for a flight voucher, Adam Newman of Friday’s Delta 426 uses Facebook Live to broadcast his phone call with Delta HQ in Atlanta. Delta gives Newman a $200 voucher.

8:23 p.m.: The Norwegian 787 that had left Albany for London with the passengers’ baggage still in its hold returns to Stewart Airport, in Newburgh, New York, where the bags are unloaded and shipped to JFK.

Natalie Eagle, passenger, Norwegian 7016: “The WhatsApp group was started between me and my husband and a couple other passengers, and we added everyone. People at other hotels, people who are already home. Probably a hundred people. You’d pass your phone onto someone else, everyone just trying to get through to someone. [My husband’s] phone bill is an extra 100 pounds just from [Sunday] night.”

Réal Hamilton-Romeo, senior public relations manager, Norwegian USA: “There are things that could have been done differently, but it’s hard to single out any one particular thing, and I’m not going to say anything that could be misconstrued as negative against our partner, the Port Authority.”

Sam Horowitz, passenger, XL Airways 51: “Frustration and terrible circumstances really lead to making good friends. Now I feel like I have contacts in Paris because I know girls in Paris, and we talked about them coming to visit me in Copenhagen. Now I can reflect that and think, I met these girls because we were all suffering together. I met some really good people that I hope I’ll get to see again.”

Christopher Schaberg, author, Airportness: “The conundrum of flight that airlines don’t typically want to acknowledge openly, but it might serve them well to be more direct about: This whole thing is always on the verge of being such a total mess. … Perhaps we’d all be a bit better off (psychologically, at least) if we went in expecting, well, if not the worst, at least expecting something to go wrong at some point. … Airlines want to promote images of perfection and idealism. But that’s just not the reality of mortal air travel.

* * *


Wednesday, Jan. 10

11:20 a.m.: Six days after the snowstorm, more than 5,000 bags remain at JFK Airport.

1 p.m.: After being rebooked on Iceland Air, with a seven-hour layover in Reykjavik, Natalie Eagle and her husband land on Wednesday evening at Heathrow Airport, more than 100 hours after first arriving at JFK for their flight, and with still one more hour to go: Their car is parked on the other side of London, at Gatwick Airport.

The Port Authority did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Terminal 4 did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Terminal 1’s “contact us” link leads to a 404 error page.

Boomerang for Gmail Comes to Edge, Now Supports Five Browsers

by Brendan Greenley @ Boomerang: Email Productivity

If you look around the Boomerang office, you might see any of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, or Edge on our screens. Like fine wines or cheeses, people have strong, personal preferences for certain web browsers. Google-philes love the ease of Chrome syncing with their accounts, open-source and privacy enthusiasts back Firefox, and Opera users are […]

Scott Pruitt Is Still Flying First Class in Brave Defiance of the Dangers of Coach

Scott Pruitt Is Still Flying First Class in Brave Defiance of the Dangers of Coach

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Scott Pruitt is back in the big seats. Two days after an exposé in the Washington Post revealed the EPA administrator had spent more than $90,000 on plane tickets in June alone, not including fares for his unprecedented security detail, Politico reported that Pruitt was spotted flying first class from D.C. to Boston on Tuesday, a jaunt that takes a little more than an hour.

Shortly after landing, Pruitt addressed the criticism in an interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader, saying that while he does not make the decision to fly first class himself, he had experienced “incidents” during his first months atop the Environmental Protection Agency:

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment. … We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

A very toxic environment—you don’t say.

It’s true that Pruitt has generated an enormous amount of public outrage for rolling back environmental laws, and the EPA inspector general has said Pruitt has received more death threats than his predecessors. (The EPA inspector general is also investigating the lavish travel budget.) But it’s not clear what hazards, aside from those to your knees, lurk in the coach seats of the world’s most highly securitized public spaces. Nor is it evident how a first-class seat, separated from the proletariat by a gauze curtain, would help stop an assailant. Records obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project don’t show whether Pruitt’s security detail also flies first class.

Pruitt is just the latest Trump Cabinet member to come under fire for using public money to subsidize luxury travel. As Dahlia Lithwick and I wrote in June, officials have been dipping deep into the public purse for travel expenses as far back as the Roman Empire, though this administration seems particularly comfortable with the practice. After Health and Human Services head Tom Price resigned over air travel expenses last year, OMB chief Mick Mulvaney reminded the Cabinet of the undemocratic implications of ostentatious expensing.

It’s flamboyant behavior, but it also reflects the paranoia that appears to run deep in this Oklahoman oilman at the helm of the EPA. In addition to his security detail, as I wrote on Monday, Pruitt ”spent $25,000 on a soundproof privacy box for his office because he was worried about eavesdropping. He installed biometric locks and swept the office for bugs.”

But personal safety doesn’t explain all of Pruitt’s expenses. On Tuesday, CBS reported that the administrator obtained a waiver for his purchase of a $7,000 round-trip business-class ticket from New York to Milan to return on Emirates, one of the world’s pre-eminent luxury airlines (government officials are supposed to use U.S. carriers when possible). Pruitt said it was the only flight that could get him back in time for Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting—yes, that one. Business class travelers on Emirates’ Milan to JFK service receive, among other perks, a leather-trimmed Bulgari travel bag. He can use the shaving cream to defend himself from jet-setting clean water activists.

New York May Finally, Finally Charge People Who Want to Drive Through Manhattan

New York May Finally, Finally Charge People Who Want to Drive Through Manhattan

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Manhattan is home to the most valuable land in the United States. Retail rents on Fifth Avenue can top $4,000 per square foot; the price per square foot for a TriBeCa apartment is over $2,000; Midtown office rents hover in the $80 per square foot range. But to drive your 2-ton, 50-square-foot private vehicle around all day? Miraculously and inexplicably free.

Perhaps not for long. The island—which can be driven to only by 20 metaphorically taxed but largely toll-free bridges and tunnels—has finally reached a state of traffic congestion so bad it prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo last summer to endorse some form of a fee to drive into the central business district. This month, his committee released its report on the subject: a full-throated call to price access to Manhattan south of Central Park. If this becomes law, it would be the first “congestion charge” to take effect in the United States, though similar policies are in place in London, Stockholm, and Milan. Singapore has had a congestion charge for more than four decades.

Supporters argue this will do two things: raise money for the troubled transit system and reduce traffic on Manhattan streets. This in turn would bring about a quieter city, cleaner air, faster trips for buses and emergency vehicles, and encourage carpooling, biking, walking, and transit. Cuomo has said he will carefully review the committee’s recommendations, and all sides—outer-borough politicians, Uber and taxis, straphangers, Manhattan business interests, and AAA—are prepared for a battle over the details.

Opponents say it’s a classist policy that will cement Manhattan’s status as a gated city where even a drive downtown comes with a price. Mayor Bill de Blasio, lukewarm to the idea, has framed congestion pricing as a burden on the outer-borough poor, despite evidence showing that only 4 percent of outer-borough workers commute by car to Manhattan, and fewer than 5,000 of those workers fall below the poverty line. That 5,000 is out of the 1.5 million people entering the borough for work each morning.

The report takes pains to emphasize that the situation on the borough’s streets has deteriorated considerably since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a similar program a decade ago that died in Albany. In just six years, vehicle speed in the central business district (CBD) has fallen from 9.35 mph to 6.8 mph. In the Midtown core, vehicle speed is down from 6.52 mph to 4.7 mph. You might as well walk.

The flow of traffic has congealed despite the fact that in 2015, there were 45,000 fewer vehicles entering the Manhattan CBD than in 2010—the equivalent of removing an entire bridge’s worth of traffic. So what happened? Probably Uber: Taxi trips in the CBD are up by nearly one-quarter since 2013, thanks to ride-hail services. And that underplays the effect on traffic. The number of hours that taxis were on the road with no customers doubled between 2013 and 2017 thanks entirely to ride hail companies. In the long run, shared vehicles are an evident improvement over personal cars, but all that circling has slowed things down considerably.

The city has dropped the ball too. While parking violations are rigorously policed, most moving violations go unpunished. Manhattan drivers are largely free to double-park, drive in bus lanes, and block the box, causing cascading traffic effects. The city hands out 160,000 parking placards as pork for city employees and their friends, which drivers use to park illegally and for free. Bus service has been allowed to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the state-run subway has struggled mightily to provide reliable service.

All of it adds up to a sense that congestion pricing must, in some form, be implemented for the Manhattan core. Even de Blasio appeared to soften his faux-populist opposition last week. Cuomo’s committee laid out a preliminary scheme for the tolls designed to raise more than $1 billion a year:

—$25 for truckers
—$11.50 for drivers
—$2–$5 for taxis

It is a strong first bid, and one that leaves room for the governor to negotiate with pols from Staten Island, Long Island, the Bronx, and Westchester, many of whom want perks like dedicated transit and toll discounts, as well as with the many businesses that operate in or drive through the Manhattan CBD. Lower Manhattan residents will reap quality of life benefits but may pay for it through more expensive goods and services. Then again, with peak-hour pricing, a congestion charge might also encourage off-hour freight deliveries, which (in a recent experiment) cut delivery times from 108 minutes around noon to 25 minutes after 7 p.m.

Two big questions remain unaddressed. First, if this money is going into a transit lockbox—which everyone considers the primary benefit of the fees, though the others are just as important—why should we think the MTA will spend it wisely, given the agency’s predilection for prioritizing suburban commuters and wasting billions on capital improvements? Second, how serious is Cuomo about getting the plan past the Republicans who control the New York statehouse, and what might be sacrificed to make that happen? Many of them continue to consider driving into the nation’s densest city a God-given right, because it’s been that way for decades. But there’s nothing liberating about the city’s permanent traffic jam.

In reality, driving in Manhattan has always been a lousy emblem of the borough’s everyman character, since New Yorkers have never been likely to own cars, and trains (and before them, ferries) have always carried far more people to and from the island. After the recent disappearance of so many old-time shops and rent-regulated apartments, driving down Broadway appears fated to bear some misplaced egalitarian nostalgia. The roads into the city could be free when a million fewer people lived here. No longer. Even Billy Joel took the Greyhound on the Hudson River Line.

Divorce for Federal Employees: What to Do

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Federal benefits can be affected in a significant way by major events in life such as the birth of a child or marriage. In fact, instances of divorce can lead to a lot of complications...

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The post Divorce for Federal Employees: What to Do appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

How You’ll Be Able to Tell If Trump’s Corporate Tax Cuts Are Raising Wages Like He Promised

How You’ll Be Able to Tell If Trump’s Corporate Tax Cuts Are Raising Wages Like He Promised

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Republicans pitched their tax bill by arguing that cutting corporate rates would boost business investment and eventually lead to higher wages for American workers. Now that the legislation has passed Congress, a number of companies have announced on cue that they are planning to either boost pay, hand out bonuses, or ramp up their investment spending.

These developments have been met by skepticism from Democrats. During the tax debate, liberals, myself included, generally mocked the idea that companies would happily share fatter profits with workers. And many have pointed out that several of the corporations sending out press releases this week touting their investment in their workers have important regulatory issues pending before the Trump administration, and probably need to curry some favor.

The truth is that it’s way too soon to know how and if these cuts will trickle down; we’re going to be debating whether the Trump tax cuts worked for a long, long while. That makes now a good time to offer a very basic primer on how corporate tax cuts are actually supposed to raise wages, and what we should expect to see if this new bill delivers on its promises.

The standard story that economists tell about corporate tax cuts and worker pay is not especially intuitive. It also has nothing to do with corporations generously showering raises on their employees just because they can. Instead, the theory has to do with investment. Cutting the corporate tax rate makes American companies more profitable. That, in turn, should attract money from overseas as investors chase higher returns. Businesses can then be expected to take that cash, and use it for capital investments that will make them more efficient or create money making opportunities—new assembly lines, production robots, AI systems, medical imaging equipment, you name it. As a result of all this high-tech investment, employees should become more productive—which is to say, they’ll generate more revenue for their company per hour of work. As productivity goes up, so should wages. In some cases, companies will be paying more because they’ll be hiring coders and engineers instead of clerical workers and assembly hands. But competitive pressure for labor should also raise wages overall. (None of this is necessarily supposed to affect the total number of jobs out there, mind you; in theory that’s determined macroeconomic factors like interest rates and the size of the potential workforce.)

“It’s not about companies saying oh wow, we got a big tax cut, we’re going to share some of it with our workers. That’s not what the story is,” Tax Policy Center Co-Director Eric Toder told me. “It’s about capital moving to the U.S. and productivity going up.”

To be clear, I am not saying this is the way the world always works. There are serious economists out there who doubt that there is any strong relationship between corporate tax cuts and employee pay at this point, and they’ve raised questions about nearly every step of the narrative that I’ve outlined. Can the U.S. really attract infinite amounts foreign capital? Will companies really invest rather than just spend more on dividends and share buybacks? Is there still a strong link between productivity and pay for all workers?

Once in a while, corporate tax cuts might also lead companies to raise pay for reasons that don’t have anything to do with the productivity narrative. For instance, if a business regularly pays bonuses based on its profitability, and profits go up, then you’d expect bonus season to be more festive. Other employers may realize that they need to raise wages in order to keep up with competitors, but be worried about ticking off shareholders who hate spending money on labor. A tax cut could give those executives space to hike pay. Personally, I have a suspicion that might be why Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank are using corporate cuts as an excuse to raise their minimum wage level to $15 per hour. After all, JPMorgan made a similar move in July.

With all that said, the productivity story is the main one that economists tell, and people should keep it in mind as they try to judge whether the Trump cuts are having their supposedly desired effect.

What does that mean in practice? For starters, you should be skeptical every time a company says it’s boosting pay just because the tax cut passed, since that’s really not how all of this is supposed to work. More generally, if wages go up quicker over the next few years, that won’t necessarily be a sign the Trump cuts are working (though the White House will surely treat it that way). The labor market has been getting tighter for a while now, as the economy has finally shaken off the vestiges of the Great Recession. If paychecks start getting fatter faster, it may just be because unemployment is low and companies finally need to compete to keep people on the job.

If we start to see a noticeable jump in corporate investment, however, that might be a sign that the bill Republicans just passed is working as advertised. It could be a hint of other things as well. Some economists think that a tightening job market itself could drive investment and productivity growth as companies look for ways to shave labor costs. Companies could also just think that the economy is strong and now is a good time to spend money to make money. But if there is an investment boom in the near future, and that is then followed by faster wage gains, it would at least open up the possibility that the Trump cuts are doing some good.

In short: If you want to know whether tax cuts are boosting wages, you can’t just track wages. You also have to keep an eye on corporate investment, too. If one goes up but not the other, it means the tax cuts probably aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, at least in the textbooks.

Got it? Now get ready to argue about all this stuff for the next ten years.

Victory in McConnell vs USPS NRP EEO Class Action

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

CLAIMS FOR MONEY AWARDS DUE NOW 3/26/2018 The EEOC entered a final decision finding that the U.S. Postal Service discriminated against the Class of approximately 130,000 USPS employees when it subjected them to the National Reassessment Process (NRP) between May 5, 2006 and July 1, 2011. The USPS employees who were reviewed under the NRP […]

Victory in McConnell vs USPS NRP EEO Class Action appeared on PostalReporter.com.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Has a New Mission: Protecting America From "Burdensome Regulations"

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Has a New Mission: Protecting America From "Burdensome Regulations"

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Another day, another federal agency determined to undo the rules it was designed to write and enforce.

The latest is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the crisis-era creation of Sen. Elizabeth Warren charged with investigating the deceptive practices of lenders, wire services, auto dealers, credit card companies, and so on. The banking watchdog’s mission statement now lists its first order of business as hunting down “outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome regulations.”

Slate has reached out to the CFPB for comment, but the change can likely be traced to the arrival of Acting Director Mick Mulvaney, who took over the CFPB on Nov. 27. The South Carolina Republican is also the director of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, and as the Intercept’s Dave Dayen reports, has quickly moved to fill the ranks of the CFPB with Trump loyalists. (Meanwhile, there is an ongoing legal battle over the director’s chair, to which Obama-era Deputy Director Leandra English also has a claim.)

“Mick Mulvaney’s new slogan shows that he’s more interested in doing the bidding of big banks than standing up for American families,” Warren said in a statement to Slate. “That’s disgraceful.”

Asking Mulvaney to head the CFPB is like having a cat guard a can of tuna: An agent destined not to fail to protect the thing in question, but to lustily destroy it. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote last month, Mulvaney is “not a fan of regulations or regulators, and especially not the CFPB.” He has called the agency a “sick, sad” joke. While a member of the House, he tried to eliminate it. In an interview with the Washington Post this month, shortly after assuming control of the 1,600-person office, he said he supported efforts by House Republicans to block a CFPB rule targeting payday lender fees.

Mulvaney is the latest federal administrator—along with EPA chief Scott Pruitt, HUD chief Ben Carson, and DOE head Betsy DeVos—who appears to be ideologically opposed to the mission of the agency he’s appointed to run. Lucky for him, he’s in a position to change it.

Carl Icahn Perfectly Timed $30 Million Stock Dump Before Trump’s Tariff Announcement

Carl Icahn Perfectly Timed $30 Million Stock Dump Before Trump’s Tariff Announcement

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Onetime Trump adviser Carl Icahn sold more than $30 million in steel-sensitive crane stock in the weeks before the president announced his intention to slap a 25 percent tax on steel imports, according to an SEC filing flagged by ThinkProgress.

Various partnerships under Icahn’s control sold off almost a million shares of the Manitowoc Co. starting with big sales on Feb. 12 and 13. On Feb. 16, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross published a report calling for a 24 percent tariff on steel imports to the United States.* On Feb. 21 and 22, Icahn dumped another several hundred thousand shares, dropping his ownership stake below 5 percent and releasing him from the responsibility to disclose further sales. Then, on Thursday, Trump announced he would be signing steel tariffs next week, despite vocal opposition from business interests.

Trump has been rumbling about steel tariffs since the campaign trail, of course, but Icahn’s timing was remarkable: Manitowoc’s stock has fallen by about 20 percent since Icahn began dumping it, punctuated by big losses after the Ross report and Trump’s announcement on Thursday. Icahn saved several million dollars by unloading his stock between $32 and $34 a share. (It was $27 at the time of publication.)

Icahn, who was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign, was named by the president-elect in late 2016 as a special adviser on regulatory reform, gaining direct access to the president without relinquishing any of his massive holdings. He resigned that position last summer after an article in the New Yorker revealed how he attempted to use his influence to adjust an obscure Environmental Protection Agency rule to boost the value of refineries in which he had invested.

At the time, Trump appraised Icahn as “someone who is innately able to predict the future, especially having to do with finances and economies.” Consider it predicted.

Correction, March 2, 2018: This post originally misspelled Wilbur Ross’ first name.

Will Your Spouse Receive Their Life Insurance Benefits?

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

  Are you absolutely sure that, in the event of a sudden death, you will receive the benefits of your spouse’s life insurance? When a policyholder with life insurance dies, there are many circumstances that...

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Texas couple indicted for their roles in the murder of Postal Worker

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

3/23/2018 Federal Grand Jury Indicts Hutchins Man and Woman for Their Roles in the Murder of an U.S. Postal Service Employee DALLAS — A federal grand jury in Dallas returned a three-count indictment this week charging Donnie Arlondo Ferrell, 25, and Bei-jing Tashawna Walker, aka “Channelle Walker,” 24, both of Hutchins, Texas, with felony offenses […]

Texas couple indicted for their roles in the murder of Postal Worker appeared on PostalReporter.com.

Bank of America Just Reminded Us of Why We Need Postal Banking

Bank of America Just Reminded Us of Why We Need Postal Banking

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

This week offered a small but vivid reminder that we can’t expect banks to serve anybody except their shareholders.

On Monday, Bank of America ended a free checking service used by some of its lower-income depositors called e-banking, which it had been gradually winding down for several years. The final customers were transferred to new accounts that will require them to keep a minimum balance of $1,500 or agree to have $250 from their paycheck directly deposited into their account every month. Otherwise, they will have to pay a $12 monthly fee.

Unsurprisingly, the move has gone over poorly with the public. For Americans with irregular incomes, even the modest direct deposits required to avoid getting hit with fees may be too much of a hurdle to clear. A Change.org petition protesting the move has more than 50,000 signatures at the moment. “Bank of America was one of the only brick-and-mortar bank [sic] that offered free checking accounts to their customers,“ the petition reads. “Bank of America was known to care for both their high income and low income customers. That is what made Bank of America different.“

Perhaps public pressure will make Bank of America decide to backtrack, but it seems unlikely. What this news mostly shows is that we shouldn’t rely on for-profit financial institutions to provide basic, essential services to the needy. We should rely on the post office.

In spite of what some of its customers may have thought, Bank of America never cared very much about its poorer depositors. That’s because bank don’t care about people. They care about profits. And lower-middle class households who have trouble maintaining a minimum balance in a checking account are, by and large, not very profitable customers, unless they’re paying out the nose in overdraft fees.

As Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of Georgia law professor and expert on consumer banking, pointed out to me, the entire concept of a “free“ checking account has long been a bit of a fiction. “They’ve never been free. That’s the truth of it. They’ve always been laced with overdraft fees and you’ve had to have minimums,” she said. “Free has been a misnomer for a while.” Banks have also had even less of an incentive to cater to low-income customers ever since federal regulations passed in the wake of the financial crisis started crimping their ability to collect overdraft charges.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bank of America began offering its e-banking accounts in 2010 not as a public service, but as a marketing ploy meant to prod more customers into doing their banking online. Customers were spared a monthly fee, so long as they stayed away from tellers and elected to receive their statements via email. The program soon outlived its usefulness, however, as online banking quickly became the norm; Bank of America stopped offering it to new customers in 2013, and started moving current ones out in 2015.

None of this would be especially scandalous if so many Americans weren’t desperate for affordable banking options. Unfortunately, we live in a country where even middle class households have trouble getting access to basic financial services—about 7 percent of households are entirely unbanked, meaning they lack a checking or savings account, while another roughly 20 percent are underbanked, meaning they have to rely on expensive products like payday loans. It’s understandable that needier Bank of America customers who considered themselves lucky to have nabbed free checking would be dismayed to lose it.

So what’s the solution? You could go back to letting banks charge low-income families usurious overdraft fees in the hope that more of them will at least be able to open a nominally free account, though that seems less than ideal. You could also place your hopes in financial tech firms like Simple, which currently offers no fee, no minimum balance checking accounts without overdraft charges. It can do that, in part, because it doesn’t have any physical branches, which may suit former e-banking customers just fine, especially if they have smartphones. But if mobile banking were really the solution to America’s banking program, I’m not sure we’d still be talking about the issue. Simple is a great solution, in theory. In practice, not everybody has a smart phone or is that savvy a customer.

Instead, it’s probably time to stop hoping that profit hungry banks will provide affordable services to unprofitable customers. There’s been a long-running conversation about whether the United States should bring back the sort of postal banking system common across much the rest of the world, and that the U.S. had up until the mid 20th century. The U.S. Post Office could offer basic financial services, including bank accounts, to needier customers who aren’t being served today.

Though it may seem a tad far-fetched in the anti-government Trump era, this is not an idea that only journalists or academics have been interested in. The post office’s inspector general released an entire report exploring the concept in 2015, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been a vocal supporter of it. As Baradaran said to me, Bank of America and its ilk are “not even pretending” to care about the sort of people for whom $12 a month is too much to pay for a checking account. It’s time for the government to take those customers off their hands.

Congress’s Big Spending Bill Contains Some Great News for Restaurant Workers

Congress’s Big Spending Bill Contains Some Great News for Restaurant Workers

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

America’s waiters and waitresses can rest a tiny bit easier Thursday: The giant spending bill making its way through Congress contains language designed to stop restaurant owners from using a controversial new regulation as an opportunity to steal their workers’ tips.

The provision, which HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson reported on earlier Thursday, is designed to head off problems that likely would have arisen thanks to a rule proposed by the Department of Labor in December. The change, widely condemned by labor groups, would once again let restaurants force their front-of-the-house staff to pool the tips they earn and share them with kitchen workers as long as they were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (The Obama administration banned that practice by regulatory fiat in 2011.) Critics of the move argued that it would essentially legalize tip theft because, as written, the rule did not require mangers or owners to actually redistribute gratuities among their workers once they were pooled. Instead, they could just pocket the money. The left-wing Economic Policy Institute estimated that the loophole would have cost workers $5.8 billion in lost tips annually.

Thankfully, the $1.3 trillion appropriations bill Congress is in the process of rushing to President Trump’s desk would ban that sort of skimming. It states simply that, “An employer may not keep tips received by its employees for any purposes, including allowing managers or supervisors to keep any portion of employees’ tips.” Simple as that.

It appears this addition to the bill was a bipartisan collaboration. Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, said she crafted the tweak alongside Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, whom she’d previously sparred with over the tip rule. As I wrote Wednesday, Acosta also decided to bury an in-house economic analysis by his department that suggested the regulation would cost workers billions a year. His decision to work with Democrats on a fix rather than continue ignoring the problem is one of the more heartening examples of functioning governance that I can recall in recent months.

As Jamieson notes, not all Democrats or labor advocates are entirely pleased with the new language, since it would still leave room for restaurant owners to force their waiters and bartenders to share tips with cooks and dishwashers. I think you can have a legitimate argument about whether that’s really such a bad thing. The basic case in favor of tip pooling is that front-of-the-house staff in restaurants often unfairly earn more than back-of-the-house staff (who tend to be minorities) because waiters and bartenders can rack up tips, while cooks cannot. Letting managers redistribute the nightly tip haul among all their workers could help alleviate that inequality. The basic con case is that people who earn tips by dealing with the insane and often abusive behavior of customers should get to keep them, and that managers might actually use tip pooling as an excuse to cut the base pay for kitchen workers (they’d cut their cooks’ hourly wages, then replace the money with gratuities taken from their waitresses). This is a deep and fierce debate that gets into the heart of restaurant economics, and raises the question of whether or not tipping is even a reasonable business model anymore.

But at the very least, it seems servers won’t have to worry about having their owners outright pocket their pay.

USPS awards 7 year, $140 million contract to Ryder Truck Rentals

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

Award Date 6/1/2016 Awardee RYDER TRUCK RENTAL INC, 6000 Windward Parkway Alpharetta, Georgia 30005 Award Amount The planned period of performance will be a total of seven (7) years with a three year base period and two (2) two-year option terms. The minimum amount of $3M with a maximum of $140M (for all years). USPS […]

Mick Mulvaney’s Latest Scandal Makes Him Look Like a Craven Hypocrite

Mick Mulvaney’s Latest Scandal Makes Him Look Like a Craven Hypocrite

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

For many months, the Trump administration has been attempting to push through a regulatory change that would make it easier for restaurant owners to skim tips from their employees. As if that weren’t rotten enough, it now appears that high level officials, including White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, attempted to bury a government analysis showing how badly the move would hurt workers who rely on gratuities to make a living.

Back in December, the Department of Labor proposed a rule that would overturn an Obama-era regulation and let restaurants force staff like waiters, waitresses, and bartenders to their share tips with their colleagues in the kitchen, as long as they were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In theory, this is not an inherently bad idea. It’s unfair that front-of-the-house staff, who in high-end dining tend to be young and white, can make a decent living off tips, while back-of-the-house staff like cooks and dishwashers, who are typically minorities, have found themselves stuck earning near poverty wages. Wouldn’t it be great if the Trump administration’s proposal let managers gather up tips and distribute them more fairly among their whole crew? But in reality, the regulation could also become a license for your local Buffalo Wild Wings proprietor to simply commit tip theft.

As the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute has noted, “the rule doesn’t actually require that employers distribute ‘pooled’ tips to workers. Under the administration’s proposed rule, as long as tipped workers earn minimum wage, employers could legally pocket those tips.” Why not just tweak the language? Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta claims his department doesn’t have the legal authority to ban tip theft; Congress would have to do it.

It’s hard to say precisely how much pay America’s servers could see siphoned off if Trump’s regulation takes effect, in part because there’s a lack of good data about tip theft in general. But it’s possible to make an reasonable estimate. The Economic Policy Institute, for instance, thinks that restaurant workers could lose $5.8 billion annually in the bargain. The Department of Labor, on the other hand, has been officially silent on this point. Despite the fact that federal law requires government agencies to perform a cost-benefit analysis for new regulations, the proposal that department put out in December did not contain any estimate of the economic toll the regulation change might take on workers. The administration claimed that it couldn’t produce such an analysis, because it was too hard to predict how restaurants, their employees, and customers would react to the change.

It turns out that wasn’t the whole story. In February, Bloomberg Law’s Ben Penn broke the news that Trump appointees in the Department of Labor had actually flushed multiple in-house estimates of how the rule would effect restaurant workers, including one that showed they would lose billions in tips:

Senior department political officials—faced with a government analysis showing that workers could lose billions of dollars in tips as a result of the proposal—ordered staff to revise the data methodology to lessen the expected impact, several of the sources said. Although later calculations showed progressively reduced tip losses, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team are said to have still been uncomfortable with including the data in the proposal. The officials disagreed with assumptions in the analysis that employers would retain their employees’ gratuities, rather than redistribute the money to other hourly workers. They wound up receiving approval from the White House to publish a proposal Dec. 5 that removed the economic transfer data altogether, the sources said.

On Wednesday, Penn reported out Mulvaney’s role in the scheme. In short, the section of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget responsible for reviewing all new federal regulations tried to block the new tip pooling rule unless the Department of Labor added its cost estimates back in. Mulvaney, as director of OMB, overruled them, and let the proposal go through.*

This weird and wonky scandal shows how far the administration is willing to go to downplay unflattering data and push through a regulation that will likely hurt working class Americans. But there may be an upside. Amit Narang, the regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, told me that the decision to hide its cost analysis could make the tip pooling regulation easier to challenge in federal court under the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires the government to take certain steps while promulgating new regs. “This is about as serious a violation of the rule making process as there is,” he told me. This week’s revelations “make it 100 percent clear that there was a deliberately withheld economic analysis. That’s a big problem in defending this rule legally. I think that makes it very vulnerable.”

The story also comes served with a bitter digestif of irony. In public, Mulvaney has been a quite vocal advocate for carefully considering the costs of new regulations, presumably because it would lead to government to implement fewer of them. In May of last year, he told reporters that the Obama administration “failed to follow the law in many, many circumstances” and “simply imposed regulation without proper regard to the cost side of that analysis”—a claim that earned him three Pinocchios from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column. When Mulvaney became acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this year—yes, he now wears two major hats in the Trump administration—he sent an email to staff telling them that they’d have to be diligent about justifying all their rules with careful economic analysis.

Speaking of data: the Dodd Frank Act requires us to ‘consider the potential costs and benefits to consumers and covered persons.’ To me, that means quantitative analysis. And while qualitative analysis certainly can play a role, it should not be to the exclusion of measurable ‘costs and benefits.’ In other words: there is a lot more math in our future.

Mick Mulvaney: A stickler for math when it comes to regulating payday lenders, but not so much when it comes to stealing tips from waitresses.

*Correction, March 22, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Bloomberg’s reporter as Ben Parr.

USPS Orders an Additional 3,339 Extended Capacity Delivery Vehicles

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

USPS  Extended Capacity Delivery Vehicles Last year USPS signed a contract worth over $250 million to  purchase 9,113 2016 Ram ProMaster 2500 commercial vans as extended capacity delivery vehicles.  The contract  was awarded  to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles LLC (FCA). The purchase was separate from the pending  USPS Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) contract and contract […]

AT&T’s $1,000 Christmas Bonus Does Not Mean the GOP Tax Bill Will Raise Your Wages

AT&T’s $1,000 Christmas Bonus Does Not Mean the GOP Tax Bill Will Raise Your Wages

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

On Wednesday afternoon, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson announced his employees would get a Christmas bonus of $1,000. Now that the tax bill lowering the corporate tax rate to 21 percent had passed Congress, Stephenson wrote, the world’s largest telecom would, as promised, increase its investment in the United States by $1 billion next year—starting with a nice holiday bonus for all the company’s 200,000 employees.

By nightfall, the company had been joined by Comcast, which offered a $1,000 Christmas bonus to non-executive employees. Two banks, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bancorp, announced they would raise their base pay to $15 an hour.

Conservative economists have long believed that it would be investment, not bursts of executive generosity, that would drive up worker pay as companies took home more money. The empirical evidence is not good. Even as corporate earnings have ascended to their largest share of GDP since the postwar boom, and corporations get better and better at dodging the taxman, wages and salaries now occupy their lowest share of GDP since the second world war. Real wages have barely budged upward since 1980—and have fallen for the lowest-paid workers. Wall Street actively cheers against pay bumps: When American Airlines announced raises for pilots and flight attendants, the company’s stock fell 5 percent. “This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers,” Citi analyst Kevin Crissey wrote to clients. (Let them eat airline peanuts!)

Bottom line: Corporations have plenty of money. Critics say the tax cut is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Still, maybe, surely, slashing the corporate tax rate by 14 percentage points will be the thing to finally get America’s biggest companies to share some money with their workforce?* Kevin Hassett, the chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, predicted earlier this year that the average household would receive a $4,000 to $9,000 raise from reducing business taxes alone. In October, the president himself promised $4,000 raises to truckers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Communications Workers of America, a union whose members are employed at big telecoms like AT&T and Verizon, asked bosses to put that figure in writing. They did not.

CEOs have long said that lower taxes would lead to more spending on capital expansion, R&D, and wages. But at a conference in November, Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn asked a room full of CEOs who was planning to invest more if the tax bill passed. Almost no one raised a hand. “Why aren’t the other hands up?” Cohn asked.

Since most U.S. workers have taxes withheld from their biweekly paychecks, the reductions in the individual tax rate will come across in the form of lower withholding and look like higher wages. You’ll get more money every two weeks. But will your boss actually be paying you more? Not for the hell of it. Corporations tend to raise wages because they’ve created more, better-paying jobs. So far, that kind of expansion hasn’t been a big talking point for public companies… at all. In fact, AT&T’s assurance that it would invest $1 billion in the U.S. was a bit of an outlier.

It’s not that they won’t be making more money: They are. Delta CEO Ed Bastian told analysts the corporate rate drop will give the company an extra $800 million next year. Wells Fargo estimated that AT&T and Verizon could make more than a billion dollars each just on “bonus depreciation,” which allows the companies to make deductions for capital costs like cell towers up front.

So far, though, most companies have said they’ll use the impending cash glut on stock buybacks and rising dividends, both rewards for shareholders who have sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average up by 25 percent this year in preparation for this moment.

Here are some highlights of corporate responses to the tax bill, courtesy of Thomson-Reuters: Boeing added $4 billion to an existing $14 billion repurchase program. Honeywell expanded its share buyback to $8 billion. Anthem put $5 billion into share buybacks. Home Depot $15 billion. Bank of America $5 billion. MasterCard $4 billion. T-Mobile USA $1.5 billion. According to a report released by Senate Democrats, companies announced $70 billion in buybacks just in the 10 days following the Senate tax bill’s first passage on Dec. 2. “Corporate CEOs have made clear that the massive tax giveaways in the Republican plan will not be passed on to workers but to rich investors,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a statement.

Compare those allocations to, for example, a Boeing statement on Wednesday that announced “employee-related and charitable investments to spur innovation and growth.” The company would commit to $300 million in investments, including corporate giving, workforce development, and infrastructure enhancements for employees. No mention of wages. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said his company would get a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, which he might use to modernize the company’s planes.

Fifth Third Bancorp, based in Cincinnati, will raise wages for 3,000 employees to $15, or, in annual terms, $32,000 a year before taxes. Assuming those bank employees were making Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.15 an hour, this amounts to an annual outlay of $45 million from a bank that reported $630 million in profits in the first half of 2017.

So if the trickle has begun, it’s not thanks to economics but to PR—and perhaps a little bit of human guilt that a bank or telecom company could, in 2017, pay workers less than $25,000 a year. (AT&T has a merger pending before Trump’s Department of Justice; it can’t hurt that the company was the first to vindicate, in a roundabout way, the president’s claims.)

Fifth Third and AT&T will dominate Christmas headlines with news of their $1,000 bonuses. Other companies could be lured into offering bonuses or raising wages, too. Or they could be shamed for paying workers poverty wages while pumping billions into inflating their stock price. But all that could have happened without a 14 percentage point corporate tax cut.

*Correction, Dec. 21, 2017: This article originally stated that the corporate tax rate would be cut by 14 percent. It will be cut by 14 percentage points.

The Story Behind That Viral Chinese Train Station Video

The Story Behind That Viral Chinese Train Station Video

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

In the 64-second viral video, 1,500 workers in Eastern China work overnight to replace a stretch of track as part of a station upgrade. It takes them just 8.5 hours. The Jan. 20 clip traveled widely in part thanks to a mistranslation that advertised their achievement as an entire train station rather than a track replacement. To Americans, inured to contractors who take months to fix a broken escalator—and as Donald Trump put it on Tuesday night, a government that takes 10 years to issue a permit to build a road—this was a power-tool ballet. A train station in a night; what could they do in a week?

The video, uploaded by a Chinese media company, epitomizes a rising Chinese motif: We can build things faster and better than you can. China’s status abroad is increasingly associated with its building projects, particularly in Central Asia (where Xi Jinping is spending $150 billion a year on the One Belt, One Road trade project) and Africa (where China’s help on massive state projects has redefined diplomacy, not always for the better). At home, the country’s high-speed rail rebounded from early struggles with ridership, a massive corruption scandal, and a deadly crash in July 2011. It is now a happy symbol of prosperity and modernity, knitting together scores of major population centers and far outperforming the domestic airline business.

But back to the real story behind that video: While the workers aren’t building an entire station (they can’t make concrete set faster than anyone else), it is a crucial renovation to the interlocking—a place where trains can switch between tracks—just outside the main station in Longyan, a Denver-sized city in Fujian, to accommodate a new high-speed rail line. Assembling 1,500 workers, two-dozen steamshovels, and various pieces of rail-borne machinery isn’t just for show, though. The station is busy during the day, Thomas Huang, a transportation consultant in Shanghai, explained to me, meaning that rebuilding at a normal pace would significantly disrupt traffic. “The whole project has been prepared for 2 months,” he wrote to me. “It’s not common in China, but also not the first one.”

What makes this midnight railroad jamboree possible, beyond Chinese labor law? One big factor is pre-fabricated (or prefab) construction. At one point, you can see workers basically pushing a fully assembled track into place. This reflects a practice honed along the entirety of the country’s 15-year-old high-speed rail network, casting slab track at temporary outposts close to the construction site. What appears at first glance to be the instant assembly of a thousand tiny parts has largely occurred off-site, off-camera, and during the day. America does cool things with modular construction too, like put up cranes really fast. But China has taken the technique to new heights: the Chinese firm the Broad Group built a 57-story tower in 19 days using pre-made parts.

But something else is going on here. The Chinese now have more high-speed rail track (more than 12,500 miles) than the rest of the world combined, to say nothing of the country’s mushrooming subway networks. One effect of this has been the development of an enormous amount of expertise, reflected in both human skills, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and lots of qualified contractors. It’s a far cry from, say, New York City, which must deal with the same underqualified bidders over and over and open entirely new factories to order its train cars.

While other countries use prefab track, said Gerald Ollivier, a transportation expert at the World Bank, China has built about one French high-speed rail network every year for a decade. That training, he says, “means that many more construction companies in China are well versed in applying such techniques on a routine basis.” It’s a universal lesson that applies to building projects beyond high-speed rail, and beyond China: Practice makes perfect.

HR initiative aims to create a healthier campus

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

By Gisela Valencia Salad or pizza? Stairs or elevator? Movie night on the couch or Zumba at the gym? Sometimes, it’s tough to make healthy choices. Especially when the healthy choice is time-consuming and there’s that big meeting in the conference room in five minutes. Even if it seems like sacrificing personal health and wellness helps efficiency, it’s […]

The post HR initiative aims to create a healthier campus appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

A Prefabricated Tragedy

A Prefabricated Tragedy

by Matthew N. Eisler @ Slate Articles

It was to be a showcase of advanced bridge technology, a centerpiece of urban development in Miami-Dade County. It was equipped with titanium dioxide–impregnated self-cleaning concrete that would always sparkle white in the Florida sun. It was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. And it was supposed to last 100 years.

But last week, the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge failed catastrophically during construction, crushing rows of cars stopped at a red light on a busy thoroughfare. Six people were killed and 10 injured.

Failures like this invoke special horror because they are so rare, which is the only solace to be had from the tragedy. As pedestrians and motorists, we take infrastructure reliability for granted in a way that we don’t with our consumer goods. We expect cars and computers to crash, and conceptually, we can cope with that, even when the consequences are dire. When bridges and tunnels implode, though, it seems like things are truly out of our hands, the sky almost literally falling on our heads.

So it is a tad disconcerting to learn that the technology and techniques used in the UniversityCity Bridge may be coming to a neighborhood near you, if they haven’t already. The bridge was a product of something called “accelerated bridge construction,” or ABC, a technique of fast-tracked prefabricated building that has strong political backing at both the state and federal levels. More than 1,000 bridges have been built with it, and Florida International University is one of the leading research centers in this kind of engineering, an irony not lost on some commentators.

To be fair, the university did not design or build the bridge, as it hastened to point out. And neither the designer nor the builder has a spotless record. With wreckage left to be cleared, it will be a while before the National Transportation Safety Board can pinpoint the exact cause of the disaster.

What we can say is that when complex technological systems fail, usually no single factor is to blame. In her study of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the sociologist Diane Vaughan noted a phenomenon she called the “normalization of deviance,” an acceptance of assumptions and shortcuts that over time incrementally piles on risk until, like compounding interest on debt, a kind of technological bill suddenly becomes due.

Something like this probably happened at the UniversityCity Bridge. And when all the rubble is removed and the reports are written, it is likely we’ll learn that the collapse had something to do with the philosophy of accelerated construction. In a part of the country notorious for slash-and-burn urban development, it turns out that ABC can be much more complicated and problematic than its rather glib acronym implies.

First, let’s discuss what probably didn’t cause the collapse. The FIU bridge looked like a cable-stayed bridge, a highly reliable technology that has been around since at least the 16th century. Cable-stayed bridges look something like suspension bridges, but the physics are significantly different. In suspension bridges, the load is transmitted through two sets of cables, one set attached to the deck that is in turn connected to two main cables loosely strung between towers, and passes into the ground at the ends, where the cables are anchored stoutly. As anyone who has walked or driven over one can attest, suspension bridges are relatively flexible. They move, and even sway, in heavy traffic, strong winds, or earthquakes.

In a cable-stayed bridge, everything is a lot stiffer. There is only one set of cables and they are rigidly embedded into towers and the deck, which has to be a lot more robust than a suspension-bridge deck because the wires tend to exert strong horizontal forces. This design is favored when ground conditions aren’t suitable for the kind of massive anchors suspension bridges require. Such bridges require fewer materials and can be erected more quickly than their suspension counterparts.

Cable-stayed bridges are also more flexible than suspension bridges in terms of design and can be built in many different configurations that play on the arrangement of cables and towers. Boosters love them for their aesthetic potential, and some of the most prestigious recent bridge projects are of the cable-stayed variety, including Santiago Calatrava’s Margaret Hill Hunt Bridge and Sir Norman Foster’s Millau Viaduct. Cable-stayed showcase bridges have become increasingly popular in the U.S. and especially Florida, where they are regarded as expressions of civic upward mobility that no self-respecting aspiring metropolis wants to be without.

In the cable-stayed bridge, the tower is the thing. It bears all of the load, which it transmits to the ground, and it is also the dramatic fulcrum of the design. Suitably enough, in boat-mad Florida, the tower in the UniversityCity design was supposed to evoke a sailboat.

But the UniversityCity design was not actually a cable-stayed bridge. It only looked like one. It was actually a kind of truss, also a well-proven technology. The proposal diagrams suggest that the two primary deck sections could be assembled prior to the erection of the tower and cables. The main section weighed 950 tons, and was exceptionally large and heavy for a bridge intended to accommodate only pedestrians. It was swung into place on support pylons in a much-publicized operation employing a huge mobile jack. And there it sat for five days until it failed. Two days before the collapse, as the New York Times reported, small cracks were observed at the slab’s north end, where the tower was to have been installed and where the failure appears to have occurred. The cracks caused sufficient disquiet that engineers were discussing the structural integrity of the span, proclaiming it safe only hours before the collapse.

Understanding why the bridge was built and assembled in this way is a lesson both in the politics of prefab and civic boosterism. All first-year civil engineering students learn that concrete is good in compression and weak in tension. Steel is good in both. But concrete can be given tension by prestressing it—that is, by running steel cables through it. This can be done at the time concrete is cast, in what is known as pre-tension.

It can also be done after casting. This is known as post-tensioning and involves tightening and locking the cables that bind a cured slab. The UniversityCity Bridge used post-tensioned parts. In an ideal world, cable tensioning is part of the prefab process. For bridges that will bear heavy traffic, engineers want to achieve a slight upward bend called a camber, which flattens out under load and gives high carrying capacity. But sometime cables are overtightened, and engineers would want to resolve adjustments before final assembly. It seems that at the UniversityCity Bridge, the slab was stress-tested not before but after it was mounted in place. In a partly assembled structure, such a procedure is risky and has been known to end in catastrophic failure. Reports suggest that the collapse occurred when workers were adjusting the cables and, presumably, the camber.

Prefab assumes that all the complexities of construction can be front-loaded into component manufacturing, so that final assembly can take place all at once, quickly and efficiently. It has been marketed as the scientific management of building, a triumph of logistics over craft knowledge. Naturally, unions tend to hate prefab, seeing componentization as a means of destroying their ability to control the pace of construction. Managers and boosters love it for precisely those reasons.

At UniversityCity Bridge, it looks as if one of the basic precepts of prefabricated construction was undermined. If accelerated construction were premised as means of simplifying project management, prefab was surely never intended to be a complete substitute for it, as those in charge seem to have assumed. It looks as if a giant concrete Lego set was misassembled, with fatal results.

So what were the problems for which this application of ABC was the solution? Ultimately, they issue from the rush to develop some of the world’s most valuable but ecologically fragile real estate. To the pioneering activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the story of the colonization of Florida was one of greed, violence, displacement, and destruction on an epic scale, immortalized in her magisterial Everglades: River of Grass, a classic of environmental history.

Modern boosters, including FIU’s ABC center, tend to reduce Florida’s problems to traffic throughput. Western Miami-Dade was hacked out of the Everglades, which in the wet season boils over with freshwater that is kept at bay only with extensive public works. Foremost among these is the Tamiami Trail, the artery that the UniversityCity Bridge was to have spanned. Built in the 1920s to connect Florida’s east and west coasts, the road is basically a long, low dam with a highway on top of it. It cut off the flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee to the southern Everglades, drying up the wetlands and creating an environmental catastrophe.

Today, critics regard Tamiami Trail as emblematic of Florida’s shortsighted approach to urban development, although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done remedial work to remedy the water flow problem. Yet it remains an important east-west highway in the southern part of the state, and so it is a strategic traffic resource. For visitors driving in from Naples, the Tamiami is Florida’s Appian Way, and the UniversityCity Bridge was to be its triumphal arch, a gateway to greater Miami. Construction couldn’t be allowed to block traffic, which is political plutonium in any auto-centric society, especially South Florida. Enter accelerated construction.

The stakes here are far larger than the ambitions of one Sun Belt city and university. The federal government has helped fund projects like the UniversityCity Bridge through its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery initiative, a program that has drawn criticism for privileging politics over technical merit. And federal money has played perhaps the major role in terraforming the state, not least through the National Flood Insurance Program, 35 percent of which is devoted to the Sunshine State, the largest single chunk of the program.

So it is hard not to see the tragedy of the UniversityCity Bridge as a kind of metonym for the reckoning that Florida has long been setting itself up for. Designed to withstand the biggest storms nature could throw at it, the structure couldn’t withstand a perfect storm of hasty planning, managerial incompetence, and human hubris.

Correction, March 20, 2018: This article originally identified the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge as a cable-stayed bridge; it was a truss bridge. The article also said steel is weak in compression and good in tension; in fact, it is good in both. It described camber as a dangerous bend in the slab; in fact, it is a slight upward bend that is not necessarily dangerous. And it incorrectly described Tamiami Trail as the only east-west highway in South Florida.

The Trump Infrastructure Plan Just Might Have One Good Idea for Cities

The Trump Infrastructure Plan Just Might Have One Good Idea for Cities

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Donald Trump is no friend to mass transit. But tucked away in the 55-page infrastructure plan released on Monday is an intriguing idea for America’s forthcoming subways and light rails, should the administration decide to fund them at all: A demand that all new transit use some form of value capture.

Under the proposal, any city that wants federal money must show that it will collect some of the property value gains that accrue to plots along the new line, and use those proceeds to finance the project. There are lots of different technical ways to do this (with boring names like “tax-increment financing district”), but each of them is grounded in a fundamental expectation: Transit is supposed to make the land it touches more expensive.

This forces transit planners to think as hard about real estate development as getting people from place to place, and not always for the better. Many streetcar projects, for example, are rather transparently intended to spur apartment construction, rather than move people, and their abysmal ridership statistics show the peril of that approach. Relatedly, value capture proponents often oppose adding transit to neighborhoods that are already built out, even if ridership would be high. For example, New York’s deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff once called the Second Avenue Subway—which runs under America’s densest residential neighborhood—a “silly little spur that doesn’t generate anything.”

On the other hand, good transit ridership depends on density around new stations, and in most cases, new transit and new development are surprisingly out of sync. (More on that in a second.) Value capture is de rigueur in many, many cities around the world, and lays at the core of America’s original streetcar companies, which were closely involved in real estate speculation.

The Trump administration wants to make the 5309 Capital Investment Grants, a program run out of the Federal Transit Administration, conditional on value capture. CIG, which includes the popular transit funding grant New Starts, has been responsible for funding virtually every new transit project in the country, including the Second Avenue Subway. In many cases, CIG funding is indispensable: Seattle received $830 million from CIG for its $1.95 billion University Link extension, a popular light rail project in the rare city where fewer people are driving to work alone.

Requiring transit planners to recoup real estate gains would dramatically change the selection, viability, and influence of these multibillion-dollar endeavors.

Capturing value from development is above all a political challenge. If a planner commits to boosting property values, she is laying out two potential scenarios. One option: The buildings around the new stations don’t change, and home values, propery taxes (and rents) go up. That’s not a good result when so many residents face daunting rent burdens. Otherwise, the city commits to up-zoning the area around the new stations, raising property values through the construction of larger buildings without necessarily having rents rise. That’s not an easy sell for homeowners who want to have their cake (an unchanging neighborhood) and eat it too (a convenient mass transit link). And it makes renters who fear gentrification nervous as well.

That said, the status quo is not working. Los Angeles is the leading U.S. city for transit construction, and two of its most recent projects, the Expo Line (which runs from downtown to the Santa Monica Pier) and the Gold Line (which runs from downtown east into the San Gabriel Valley), show some of the problems with new transit construction in this country. Multimillion-dollar stations are surrounded by single-family homes or by parking lots even as the city reels from a housing shortage and traffic congestion. Despite all that money spent on new construction, rail ridership in Los Angeles is declining. Neighborhoods around new transit stops may even lose riders as they gentrify without adding new housing units.

Because transit is undertaken at a regional level and land use decisions are made at a local level, there is a strong disconnect between transit and land use in almost every city. L.A. County epitomizes this. Angelenos pay for new transit through sales tax hikes, but few of them benefit from it, since so few people live around the region’s stations. Measure M, a gargantuan infrastructure package passed at the ballot box in 2016, does require jurisdictions with new transit stops to pay a share of construction costs. But that may not translate into more apartments around the stops.

All California is currently heading into battle over the issue. In January, a San Francisco legislator introduced SB 827, a state bill to override local zoning around transit stops in favor of midrise buildings. It’s an attempt, after the fact, to capitalize on some of the value that transit has created—even if the bill falls short of a Trump-style demand to use that value to pay for the transit in the first place. The mayor of Berkeley, where parking lots form a moat around a stop on the BART system (in which each new track mile costs $780 million a piece) called it a declaration of war.

Ultimately, a requirement that new transit include value capture mechanisms would, I think, effectively demand coordination between transit and city planners, and could all but require larger buildings around stations.

That would bring new riders; it would also bring risks. A focus on value capture might push new projects to run into gentrifying neighborhoods where it looks like real estate growth could pay big dividends—like in New York, where a value capture–funded streetcar has been proposed for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. It would reduce the incentive to provide transit for transit’s sake. And given how strong neighborhood opposition to new housing tends to be in both high- and low-income areas, the requirement might kill new transit projects before they begin.

States Need to Step In and Save Their Health Care Markets From Donald Trump

States Need to Step In and Save Their Health Care Markets From Donald Trump

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Since failing to repeal-and-replace Obamacare in its entirety, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have undertaken a marginally quieter, piece-by-piece dismantling of the law that’s weakened and removed some of its core features. According to a new analysis released this week by the Urban Institute, those changes could leave millions more uninsured and send premiums almost 20 percent higher across the country by 2019.

The good news is that states still have the power to keep their health insurance markets from becoming casualties of Trump’s attack. Lawmakers just need to show a little political courage.

After John McCain gave Trumpcare a fatal thumbs down last year, the White House and the GOP took several steps to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Most importantly, the tax bill the Republican Congress passed in December repealed the law’s individual mandate. The requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine was long considered a linchpin of Obamacare, intended to keep premiums affordable by balancing the market between sick and healthy customers. While there were legitimate questions about the mandate’s effectiveness at forcing people to buy health plans in recent years, it’s widely believed that its demise will push up the price of coverage and result in more people being uninsured, either by choice or because they won’t be able to afford a plan.

Trump has also taken some steps to sabotage Obamacare all on his own. Right before this year’s open-enrollment period, he directed the government to stop making payments to health carriers that were meant to reimburse them for offering lower-income Americans discounted insurance. The move didn’t break Obamacare’s markets, as some feared it might, but it did warp insurance prices in strange ways. More recently, the administration proposed new rules that would make it easier for Americans to enroll in short-term insurance plans that don’t adhere to the Affordable Care Act’s consumer protection rules. These extremely cheap policies, which typically offer minimal benefits, are technically designed to fill temporary gaps in people’s coverage, such as when they’re between jobs, and are medically underwritten, meaning the insurers can reject applicants because of pre-existing conditions or charge much higher premiums to older customers.

The last White House became concerned about how short-term plans were distorting the insurance market when it realized that some younger Americans were choosing to buy them instead of the more comprehensive coverage offered on Obamacare’s exchanges, even though it meant they’d have to pay the individual mandate’s tax penalty. So in late 2016, the Obama administration enacted a new regulation limiting temporary insurance policies to just 90 days. The Trump administration would now like to extend that limit back to a year. Once the individual mandate finally disappears in 2019, it seems likely that many young people will go back to cheaper short-term coverage, siphoning healthy customers from the Obamacare market and driving up premiums for those remain on it.

How much damage could all of this do? Quite a bit, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis. Overall, it estimates that the steps Trump and the Republicans have taken will leave 8.95 million additional Americans without comprehensive health coverage as of 2019—a 3.3 percent drop in coverage compared to if the laws hadn’t changed. Of that group, 4.75 million would be entirely uninsured; the rest would buy short-term coverage. The overall size of the Obamacare-compliant individual market would drop by a whopping 39 percent, while premiums would rise by 18.2 percent, since the remaining customers would have higher health costs.

Some states will feel the effects of Trump’s sabotage more than others. There are six states—Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Oregon, and Washington—that ban short-term insurance policies. In those places, Urban expects premiums to rise by 8 percent on average, compared to 18.2 percent in states that place no limits on such plans. In Massachusetts, which has its own version of the individual mandate in place thanks to Romneycare, Urban doesn’t believe the GOP’s moves will increase premiums at all. The think tank also predicts the state’s uninsured rate will rise by a relatively small percentage.

More states should follow Massachusetts’ example. Pass a mandate, pass a short-term insurance ban if they don’t have one already, and Trump-proof their insurance markets. Of course, requiring people to buy coverage is politically unpopular. But just banning short-term insurance while letting the mandate disappear would be a double-edged sword. According to the Urban Institute’s analysis, it would probably keep premiums on the Obamacare market lower. But it would also leave more people entirely uninsured. The better choice is to simply reinstate the system that Trump has wrecked.

Even if just a few large states went the Bay State’s route, it would make a profound difference. As of now, Urban thinks the number of Californians without comprehensive health coverage could rise by more than 2 million, or 70 percent, thanks to the demise of the mandate and new rules about short-term insurance. There’s no good reason for lawmakers in Sacramento to just stand by and watch that play out.

But they might. As the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote in December, a statewide insurance mandate is unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass California’s legislature. Lawmakers have talked about creating a re-insurance fund instead, which would potentially keep premiums lower by picking up the cost when insurers get stuck with especially expensive patients. But Urban thinks states that already have reinsurance funds, such as Minnesota and Alaska, would still see large price spikes.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate just how much of Obamacare’s achievement Trump is poised to undo. The law is credited with getting an additional 20 million Americans insured. Trump’s attempts to disassemble the law one bit at a time could reverse up to almost half that progress. It’s now up to the states to not let that happen.

Former U.S. Postal Service Employee from Socorro Pleads Guilty to Federal Misdemeanor Embezzlement Charge

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

ALBUQUERQUE – 3/26/18 – Adrianne D. Marquez, 42, of Socorro, N.M., pled guilty today in federal court in Albuquerque, N.M, to a misdemeanor charge of theft of government property. Marquez was charged in a misdemeanor information filed on Jan. 23, 2018, with theft of government funds from Jan. 1, 2017 through July 12, 2017, in […]

Republicans Are Trying to Pass a Tax Plan That Everybody Hates

Republicans Are Trying to Pass a Tax Plan That Everybody Hates

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Republicans are starting to discover that, just like their failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, tax reform is going to be a slog. After months of buildup, House GOP leaders were finally supposed to unveil their tax bill Wednesday. Instead, it’s been delayed because nobody can agree on the major details—namely, how to pay for the tax cuts. (Update, Nov. 2, 2017: House Republicans finally released the text of the bill. Slate will have more coverage throughout the day.)

That, of course, is the hard part about tinkering with the tax code. Cutting rates is reasonably easy, so long as you’re not too worried about the deficit. But cutting popular deductions to cover the cost, as Republicans have promised to do, is extraordinarily hard. Just as repealing Obamacare would have been a breeze if voters didn’t actually want health care coverage, the political math on taxes would be simpler if voters supported the GOP’s basic goal of slashing taxes for large companies. But that’s the thing: They don’t.

Business tax cuts are the heart and soul of the Republican tax plan, the broad strokes of which have been public since the party released its framework several weeks ago. It would lower the top rate on corporations from 35 percent to 20 percent. It would create a special 25 percent rate for pass-through businesses, whose owners currently pay taxes on their profits as normal personal income. It would eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) taxes on overseas earnings.

All of this will cost the government trillions in lost revenue. Republicans are hoping to partially offset that massive expense by eliminating tax breaks that many people, and companies, currently enjoy, and will be very unhappy to lose. The entire home-building industry has already decided to go to war against the plan because it’s worried the bill will kill off deductions for homeowners. Northeastern and California Republicans are in open revolt over a proposal to curtail the deduction for state and local taxes, which their constituents rely on.

Meanwhile, virtually every credible bit of public polling suggests that, if anything, ordinary American think that taxes on big business should be higher, not lower. In September, the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of Americans thought that corporate taxes should go up; just 24 thought they should go down. In April, 67 percent of adults told Gallup that corporations paid “too little” in taxes. This week, CBS News found that 56 percent of its survey-takers favored a corporate tax hike, while only 17 percent backed a cut.

Even among the GOP’s base, corporate tax cuts simply aren’t that popular. Pew found that just 48 percent of conservatives who either identify as Republican or lean towards the party think that corporate taxes should come down; 49 percent thought they should go up or stay the same. Among all Republicans and leaners, including moderates, just 41 favored lowering the corporate tax burden.

Voters also seem skeptical of the Trump administration’s pitch that corporate cuts will trickle down to help their families. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, only 31 percent of Americans believe reducing corporate taxes will personally benefit them versus 47 percent who believe it won’t. (CBS got similar results.) This skepticism is entirely merited, by the way. While the Trump administration has touted optimistic forecasts suggesting that its business cuts will raise household incomes by thousands of dollars a year, there is lots and lots of disagreement among economists about whether and by how much lower corporate rates actually lead to higher wages for workers.

Given these poll results, you won’t be surprised to learn that vanishingly few people seem to think that corporate tax cuts are an urgent issue. Just 2 percent of Americans told Gallup that taxes are the most important issue facing the country. Only 27 percent of all Americans—and a bare majority of Republicans—told CBS that passing a tax cut should be the top priority for Trump and Congress. All of this seems to be reflected in the fact that the tax bill itself—which, again, hasn’t even been officially released yet—is already quite unpopular. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 25 percent of the public thought the plan was a good idea, while 35 percent called it a bad one.

Making trade-offs on taxes is devilishly hard. Making them when practically nobody wants the thing you are trading for may turn out to be impossible.

And yet, Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that they must try. The prevailing idea among GOP lawmakers seems to be that tax reform is a do-or-die task—that if they don’t pass a tax cut, voters will abandon them come the midterms. “If we fail on taxes, that’s the end of the Republican Party’s governing majority in 2018,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said recently, summing up the conventional wisdom.

This is similar to the position Republicans found themselves in on health care earlier this year—frantically charging into battle on behalf of a deeply unpopular political cause based on the logic that they need to notch some sort of win to placate their base. The difference is that this thinking at least made a modicum of sense when it came to health care. Republicans spent eight years promising to repeal Obamacare. It was the party’s unifying campaign pledge. Failing to even try would have been a betrayal of the committed activists they had spent the better part of a decade whipping into a frenzy over the issue.

There is no comparable frenzy for corporate tax cuts. Except, that is, among the GOP’s traditional donor class, particularly Wall Streeters who want to see stock prices continue their remarkable run. But the tax bill is even beginning to split the business community, and could end up making the GOP plenty of corporate enemies even as it rewards the party’s friends. Worse yet, some of the ideas being floated could lead to tax hikes on middle class families, which would presumably make voters question the next Republican who shows up promising to cut their IRS bill.

Given all that, you weirdly sort of have to admire this generation of Republicans. If political courage consists of trying to do the unpopular thing, they’re the bravest people in Washington.

Four Suspects Arrested in Connection to Sacramento Mail Carrier Robbery

by postal @ PostalReporter.com

SACRAMENTO — Authorities have arrested four suspects in connection to the robbery of a Sacramento postal carrier. The U.S. Postal Service mail carrier was robbed at gunpoint on March 9 on Calle Royal Way near the corner of Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento. Authorities announced federal charges against all four suspects 29-year-old Anthony Deleal, 29-year-old […]

Four Suspects Arrested in Connection to Sacramento Mail Carrier Robbery appeared on PostalReporter.com.

Homeowners Lining Up to Pay Early Taxes Is a Sign of Blue-State Pain to Come

Homeowners Lining Up to Pay Early Taxes Is a Sign of Blue-State Pain to Come

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

First came the winners: America’s largest corporations, calculating how a 14-point drop in the corporate tax rate would impact their bottom line. The answer: Favorably! Over the course of December, dozens of U.S. companies announced stock buybacks and dividend hikes, and a few went so far as to issue raises, bonuses, or promises of major capital investment.

And now, in these frigid waning days of December, come the tax bill’s first visible losers: wealthy blue-state property owners (and the governments their taxes support). In the four days since Christmas, homeowners have lined up at city halls across the Northeast, doing something whose unnatural aspect reveals the scale of damage the tax bill will wreak in the Northeast: voluntarily handing over thousands of dollars in taxes months and months in advance.

Hundreds of people waited on lines at city halls and county seats from Fairfax County, Virginia, to the suburbs of Baltimore, New York, and Boston, trying to pay their property taxes while they remain fully deductible on federal returns. Starting next year, the IRS will impose a limit of $10,000 on all state and local tax deductions.

Of course, the bracket here is pretty limited to a certain privileged class: homeowners who not only have enormous property tax bills but also the money and the wherewithal to pay them in advance. It is overwhelmingly a wealthy group, and one concentrated in a handful of Democratic states and counties. Real estate taxes make up only about a third of SALT deductions, but they are easy to pay in advance. And if filing now means taking $10,000 off your 2018 tax return, a little dead-week trip to the Finance Department could save you thousands on next year’s taxes.

So it’s not surprising that early payers are dedicating a few hours to fixing cash-flow issues in cities, suburbs, and counties up and down the Northeast Corridor, and in Illinois, Texas, and California as well. On the one hand, it’s hard to drum up much sympathy for the winners of a home price run that has sent the collective value of real estate in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, to take one example, higher than the GDP of the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, this week’s frenzy is a preview of the staggering collective impact that’s just beginning to dawn on state lawmakers. Taxpayers in Los Angeles County pay—and deduct from federal returns—more than $2.7 billion in property taxes each year. In Manhattan, the figure is $1.7 billion. In Westchester County, New York, which has the highest average deduction in the country, the total is $1.5 billion.

Little of that will still be deductible under the plan. Add it up with state income taxes, which make up nearly two-thirds of SALT deductions, and you’re looking at a phenomenon that will feel like a big federal tax hike—but will be taken out on state and local politicians, since blue-state taxpayers have no power in Washington. The burden has already scared pols off one new spending idea, a New Jersey millionaire’s tax for education, as fear of a wealthy-resident exodus to lower-tax locales grows.

Studies show that won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect politics in places like Connecticut, to take one state that has shied away from taxing hedge funds to shore up the budget. Wary of the impact on state finances, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued an executive order this week ordering the state’s municipalities to accept pre-payments for at least the first half of 2018. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done the same. And then the IRS on Wednesday warned that only 2018 taxes that had been assessed in 2017 would be eligible for deduction this year, meaning that anyone paying an estimate was merely making a five-figure, interest-free loan to their local government.

This illustrates two things: first, the consequences of a hastily written tax bill whose ambiguity put billions of dollars at stake during this nine-day window between passage and the new year. Expect lawsuits. And this is, in the scheme of the tax bill, a relatively small loophole.

Second, it hints at the enormous reckoning that is coming for the nation’s biggest states, where a federally deductible, high-tax model has enabled the maintenance of stellar university systems and the expansion of the safety net despite Washington’s retreat from public spending.

Blue-state legislatures face a fork in the road. They can restructure their budgets to work better under the new system. Economists analyzing the conference bill in December noted that states could redirect the burden to state taxes that remain deductible—such as employee payroll taxes or taxes on pass-through businesses. Or they could make use of a loophole that, while running contrary to the spirit of the tax bill, might abide by the letter of the law: Simply instruct taxpayers that all the property and income taxes they can’t deduct can instead be made in the form of a charitable gift, which remains deductible, to something like New York Public Schools Donation Fund.

But if they don’t do something like that, a raft of anti-tax candidates may spring from places like Nassau and Fairfax counties. They’re Democratic now, but haven’t been for long. The tax bill was the spark, but it’s blue state budgets that will burn.

How to Calculate a Raise

by Rachel Gray @ Payroll Tips, Training, and News

Employees have money on their minds. According to a Gallup poll, 59% of employees were not completely satisfied with their current pay. And, one SHRM survey found that 44% of respondents said they would leave their job to make more money elsewhere. To avoid losing their top employees, many businesses offer pay raises. Learn why employee […]

The post How to Calculate a Raise appeared first on Payroll Tips, Training, and News.

Pennsylvania postal contract truck driver charged with mail theft

by postal @ PostalReporter News Blog

Pennsylvania Postal Contract Truck Driver charged with theft of mail

US Postal Service FCU Ups 24-Month IRA CD APY

US Postal Service FCU Ups 24-Month IRA CD APY

Deposit Accounts

U S Postal Service FCU (easy membership) has raised the rate on its 24-month IRA CD to 3.00% APY. The minimum opening deposit is $250, with no stated balance...

Study Finds Telecommuting Makes Job Satisfaction Take Off

by Aubrey Lovegrove @ Public Sector Retirement News

Do you telecommute or telework? It may make your job satisfaction skyrocket. In a new federal employee study by the Office of Personnel Management, participation in teleworking or other agency-run wellness programs perform heavily more...

Read More

The post Study Finds Telecommuting Makes Job Satisfaction Take Off appeared first on Public Sector Retirement News.

There Is Not a Single Good Reason to Deregulate Banks Right Now. Democrats Are Helping It Happen Anyway.

There Is Not a Single Good Reason to Deregulate Banks Right Now. Democrats Are Helping It Happen Anyway.

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

Just ten years after the financial crisis, Congress has decided that it’s time to start deregulating the banking industry again.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats voted 67 to 32 to move along a bill loosening some of the key regulations Congress passed in 2010 to prevent another financial crisis. The bill’s Democratic supporters, such Virginia’s Mark Warner and Montana’s Jon Tester, claim they are simply trying to make “commonsense fixes” to the Dodd-Frank Act in order to free up credit unions and smaller banks from burdensome rules designed to prevent a Lehman Brothers-style collapse. But while that may be their goal, the legislation—which has been exhaustively and excellently covered by journalist David Dayen—would make it easier for community banks to hide wrongdoing like discriminatory lending, while leaving the financial system at least slightly more vulnerable to a disaster by freeing large regional banks from regulatory scrutiny. As written, there is also a chance it could end up easing restrictions on a pair of too-big-to fail giants, JPMorgan and Citibank—restrictions that were designed to keep them from leveraging up with too much debt.

But you don’t need to wade into the details of this bill to understand why it’s so infuriating. The bottom line is that there just isn’t any good reason to be deregulating finance in 2018.

The legislation’s Democratic backers have argued that Dodd-Frank went too far when it came to regulating community and regional banks, and that easing some rules will free up credit for rural areas and small businesses. As Warner put it in a statement, “The goal is simple: to help Main Street by rolling back unnecessary and burdensome regulations on credit unions and small community banks.” If Dodd-Frank was truly throttling the banking system with red tape, though, you would expect to see some signs that Americans were having trouble borrowing. But there simply aren’t any. There is no sign of a credit shortage in the United States—on Main Street or any other street.

Let’s start with the big picture. Interest rates have been extremely low, suggesting that there’s more than enough credit available to meet demand. Meanwhile, business lending has been healthy; the value of outstanding commercial and industrial loans has risen 79 percent since 2010.

Total mortgage debt has roughly returned to its pre-crisis peak.

As a percentage of the economy, credit to the private sector is hovering right around where it was in 2005, before the final manic stages of the nation’s mid-oughts borrowing binge.

Credit doesn’t seem to be scarce in rural America, either. Farm lending, for instance, pretty much shot up like a corn stalk after 2010.

And small businesses owners? They appear to have more credit available than they know what to do with. Here’s how the Federal Reserve summed up the situation its most recent report on small business credit:

Overall, between 2012 and 2017, credit conditions for small businesses were largely stable. Favorable supply conditions prevailed throughout most of the period, coupled with weak loan demand from small business owners. By 2017, credit flows to small businesses had improved, though they remained below their pre-crisis levels.

In other words, money was still plentiful and cheap after Dodd-Frank. The problem was that not enough small business owners wanted to borrow.

What about the supposed plight of community banks, which lobbyists claim are being throttled by all of Dodd-Frank’s red tape? There’s really not much to worry about. For starters, these plucky local financial institutions are perfectly profitable. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, community banks averaged an 8.67 percent return on equity in 2017, about the same as the banking industry overall. And while lending recovered more slowly at small banks than large ones following the financial crisis, business has been brisk lately; loan balances at community banks rose 7.7 percent last year, compared to just 1.7 percent across all banks.

Banking lobbyists try to elide all of this, pointing out that while small banks may be earning money, their numbers are shrinking. This is true. Over the years, droves of community banks having chosen—some would say have been forced—to merge with bigger rivals. And after the recession, bank startups pretty much ground to a halt. From 1976 to 2009, more than 130 banks were chartered each year, on average. From 2010 to 2015, just four were chartered in total. The industry likes to blame Obama’s regulations, which forced small banks to spend more on regulatory compliance. “While community banks remain resilient in the face of regulatory and economic pressures, it defies reason to suggest that their growth and ability to serve customers has been unhurt by Dodd-Frank and the massive regulatory burden it represents,” American Bankers Association President Rob Nichols wrote in 2016.

This argument is not especially convincing. Independent community banks have been disappearing for decades, as they’ve merged with or sold themselves off to larger rivals. Much of the industry’s consolidation has been driven by regulatory changes in the 1990s, which allowed large banks to more easily set up shop across state lines. But the trend dates back at least to the Reagan era. There’s also an obvious reason for why new banks stopped popping up after the recession: The economy was terrible and interest rates were near zero, making it nearly impossible for newly chartered financial institutions to make any money. When a pair of Federal Reserve economists looked at the issue in 2016, they concluded that at least 75 percent of the decline in bank startups after 2010 could be explained by factors other than regulatory issues. “The standalone effect of regulation,” they added, “is more difficult to quantify.”

But let’s step back for a moment. Why do people care about community banks in the first place? In theory, it’s because those banks are more focused on small business lending than big financial institutions like Wells Fargo or Bank of America. If small, local banks disappear, lobbyists argue, it will be harder for small-town entrepreneurs and mom and pop shops to get loans. In fact, there’s little evidence that’s true. As the Federal Reserve explains in its small business credit report: “Numerous research studies directly analyze the relationship between consolidation activity and the availability of credit to small firms. Although mergers and acquisitions sever existing bank–firm relationships and may introduce some short-term uncertainty, the results of the research generally suggest that, overall, they have not materially reduced credit availability.” Consolidation doesn’t even seem to reduce local competition all that much. Despite the massive increase in overall industry concentration over time, the average number of banks in large metro areas, small towns, and rural areas has barely budged since the year 2000.

Despite all of this, a dozen Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the party have decided that now is the time to loosen the banking industry’s leash. The politics aren’t hard to fathom. Community banks are a sympathetic constituency that wield a great deal of lobbying power in Washington. Meanwhile, many red state Democrats are coming up for re-election this year and—foolishly or not—they’re desperate to prove their bipartisan bonafides by voting with the President. So, this bill is sailing through, even if it might make the financial system a bit less stable. And moderates Dems are asking us all to suspend our disbelief, to act as if their sop to the industry is about anything other than a crass campaign calculation. “This election has nothing to do with this,” said Tester said recently. “This has everything to do with access to capital.” If that’s true, it has everything to do with a problem that doesn’t exist.

Slip Into the Christmas Spirit With These Romantic Japanese Bullet Train Ads

Slip Into the Christmas Spirit With These Romantic Japanese Bullet Train Ads

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

In Japan, Christmas is a festival of shopping and ornamentation, with perhaps a trip to KFC thrown in. Mostly, though, it’s considered a holiday for romance.

Which helps explain Japan Rail’s indelible Christmas bullet train commercials, which advertised the Shinkansen service for several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s and again in 2000. Each installment in the “Christmas Express” series is a variation on a theme: Couples reunited through train travel. The soundtrack is Yamashita Tatsuro’s hit “Christmas Eve,” which was released in 1983 but topped the charts after appearing in the ads.

Watching them over and over, I have begun to appreciate the way the direction withholds so much: The romantic encounter itself is always superseded by the excitement or worry of anticipation and sometimes not shown at all. The snub-nosed trains themselves scarcely appear, like in a glossy magazine ad that shows a handsome actor and only a glimpse of the expensive wristwatch he’s selling you. But it’s the trains, perhaps more than your waylaid lover, that you can rely on.

Gitte Marianne Hansen, a professor at Newcastle University who studies femininity in Japanese culture, has written that the advertisements illustrate the evolution of the female protagonist from one who waits passively for her lover to arrive, in the earlier commercials, to one who is making the journey herself. The voiceover narration evolves from one addressed to the traveling male protagonist, “It’s you who makes the jingle bell ring,” to a more neutral invitation, “Let’s meet, no matter the century.” (The translations are hers.)

Throughout this arc, though, the ads all portray a familiar moment of holiday alchemy, when the stress of planning and the strain of distance morph into the joy of seeing the right person at the right time.

Donald Trump’s Mythical Trade Deficit With Canada Doesn’t Bode Well for NAFTA Negotiations

Donald Trump’s Mythical Trade Deficit With Canada Doesn’t Bode Well for NAFTA Negotiations

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

During a fundraiser on Wednesday night, Donald Trump bragged about having bullshitted his way through a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During their sit-down, Trudeau had apparently noted that the United States does not currently run a trade deficit with Canada. Trump, relying on nothing but his own gut, insisted that wasn’t true:

I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid. … And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’

‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. … And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”

As usual, Trump is incorrect. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States has run a trade surplus in goods and services with Canada for three years. This is not esoteric information; the data is readily available on the government’s own website.

Once Trump’s remarks leaked, several journalists noted that the president had just bragged about making up information on the fly during a meeting with a foreign leader. This appears to have bothered Trump, who, in typical form, decided to double down with a Tweet this morning rather than admit fault.

It’s possible that all of this is simply a misunderstanding. In 2016, the United States ran a $16 billion deficit in goods with Canada, which is the figure you’re left with if you ignore all the services American businesses sell up north—things like banking, insurance, air travel, education, and the like. Judging America’s trade performance based on goods alone would not make any sense, mind you; exports are exports, whether you’re talking about cars or financial services. But perhaps Trump heard that number, and mistakenly took it to mean that the U.S. has an overall trade deficit with Canada.

If that’s the case, it would still be a cause for concern. Trump is trying to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and being misinformed about basic trade statistics makes it even less likely that he will make rational decisions about the future of the pact.

It’s also possible that Trump is surrounded by yes-men, one of whom fed him a misleading statistic in order to confirm his own mistaken assumption. That would also obviously be cause for concern.

But in the end, this is all just a reminder a broader problem: Our president lives in a solipsistic fantasy world, where facts mostly exist to confirm his own intuitions, and his staff either aren’t capable of correcting him or don’t want to. When it comes to legislation, that ignorance limits him to making nonsensical demands of Congress, because he simply doesn’t understand the issues. But when it comes to issues like trade, where he can unilaterally change U.S. policy with the stroke of a pen, his ignorance is an immediate menace.

Update 4:18 PM:

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to defend the president’s claim this afternoon on Twitter.

Sanders is citing the Census Bureau’s stats on trade in goods. They do not included services.

And once again, saying that the United States has a trade deficit with Canada if you ignore all the services we export to them is an inane and misleading point. If this is actually how most of the administration thinks about trade, we’re in even more trouble than I initially suggested.

FIU joins Healthy Campus Initiative, events with celebrity trainer to mark kick-off

by Saul mcclintock @ FIU Human Resources

College is often the first time young adults get to decide what to eat, how often to exercise and learn how to take care of themselves. But making healthy choices can also be viewed as time consuming and inconvenient. To make healthy choices easier for students, FIU – along with 19 other college and university campuses […]

The post FIU joins Healthy Campus Initiative, events with celebrity trainer to mark kick-off appeared first on FIU Human Resources.

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Amazon Is Totally Putting Its Second Headquarters in D.C., Right?

Amazon Is Totally Putting Its Second Headquarters in D.C., Right?

by Jonathan L. Fischer @ Slate Articles

Prediction for 2018: Local reporter for the Washington Post will become a very awkward job.

On Thursday, Amazon released the 20-city shortlist in its continental game show to name its second headquarters, and the picks largely consist of the major North American cities you’d expect to have a shot, thanks to their large, educated workforces and abundant infrastructure, including Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Raleigh, Miami, Pittsburgh, and New York City. While some of the picks are pleasant surprises considering the economic gift Amazon and its anticipated 50,000 jobs would bestow on the winner (’sup, Columbus, Ohio?), it’s the three picks for the D.C. area—the city itself and two of its neighboring suburban regions, listed as Montgomery County, Maryland, and Northern Virginia—that are ticking up the most eyebrows Thursday.

Should we take this as a hint that Amazon is seriously considering coming to D.C.? Some support for that notion might include the fact that CEO Jeff Bezos probably doesn’t need a third spoke in his cross-country commute from Seattle: His company is a large federal contractor thanks to its cloud business and already has a significant and growing Amazon Web Services presence in Northern Virginia; he already owns the hometown paper; and he’s presently renovating the biggest house in D.C., which he bought in 2016. In a long piece about Bezos’ increasing visibility as a public figure, the New York Times noted recently that he now visits D.C. about 10 times a year and that he “plans to host salon-style dinners” in his new home, “drawing inspiration from the celebrated dinner parties thrown by Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Post, for the city’s movers and shakers from both parties.”

Sounds fun. It would be a bummer to make it an early night so you can commute to your day job in Raleigh, right?

While the D.C. area is an expensive enough place to live these days—lots of commentators have hoped that Amazon would pick a city more in need of an economic jolt—it may be one of a very small number of metropolitan areas that ever realistically had a shot thanks to Amazon’s significant needs. As Conor Sen summed it up last year in Bloomberg View:

This is the Olympics of corporate relocations. The winning city will be able to offer a large metro area, a deep and educated talent pool with a strong local university system, a robust international airport, sufficient highway and transit infrastructure, a reasonable cost of living, a welcoming culture, a business-friendly environment, likely eye-popping tax incentives, and a local business and political community able to work together to make a convincing pitch.

About those tax incentives. While cities across the continent have debased themselves with stunts, tax breaks, and other economic carrots in order to win Amazon’s favor, the municipalities of the D.C. area may have really had to outdo themselves, since they don’t just have other regions to compete against but also each other—a dynamic that has played out every time a local sports team has pondered building a new stadium. While we don’t know everything about what kinds of promises the district, Montgomery County, and Northern Virginia have made to Amazon, it’s a good bet that they’re quite generous (what we’ve seen of the District’s pitch certainly is)—particularly considering the slowdown in federal employment in recent years and some early warning signs that the regional economy could be in trouble. Also, like New York and Chicago, D.C. already has the robust (though frequently derided) transit infrastructure smaller cities may have promised to build out, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is currently completing an extension of the Metro deeper into Fairfax and Loudoun counties, potentially making those parts of Northern Virginia more attractive to large employers.

All of this, of course, could mean nothing at all. Where other cities that made the shortlist are sprawling, the D.C. area is cut up into a city and some fairly dense neighboring counties—municipalities that have collaborated before on bids involving a major economic boost but who went at it alone this time, perhaps putting each other at a disadvantage. And a city like Philadelphia, which has a lot of what D.C. has going for it but cheaper land and more room to build the kind of urban campus Amazon favors, might prove more compelling.

If D.C. or one of its neighbors does come out on top, all three would win, at least from the perspective of the people writing the economic incentives. (Never mind that tax-break bake offs like this are bad for all of us.) It would certainly keep local press critics busy, once this town’s only newspaper baron is also the boss of its second-biggest employer.

Mail Handlers Union Say They Proudly Support The Postal Service Reform Act of 2018

by Rick Owens @ Postal Employee Network

March 22, 2018- Today, the United States Senate introduced legislation (The Postal Service Act of 2018) that, if enacted, could turn around the U.S. Postal Service finances for years to come and strengthen this most needed institution, stated National President Paul V. Hogrogian. He went onto praise Senators Carper, (D-DE), McCaskill, (D-MO), Moran, (R-KS) and […]

The CHIP Debacle Shows Democrats Need to Put the Government on Autopilot

The CHIP Debacle Shows Democrats Need to Put the Government on Autopilot

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

As I’m writing this post, the federal government appears to be hurtling toward a shutdown, largely because Democrats and Republicans have been unable to come up with a deal on immigration. [Update: It’s official.] Unfortunately, this means that funding for the critical Children’s Health Insurance Program is once again stuck in limbo, as the GOP has decided to hold the program hostage as part of its negotiation strategy, hoping that they can convince the public that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are putting the needs of undocumented immigrants over those of kids.

The situation is both immoral and absurd. About 9 million typically lower-income children rely on CHIP for their health coverage. At the moment, the program is operating on a temporary appropriation that expires in March, and several states could run out of funding before then, in which case, children could start losing their insurance. Nobody thinks that would be a positive outcome. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office believes that reauthorizing CHIP for a full 10 years would actually reduce the deficit by a few billion dollars, meaning there’s no need to even negotiate over how to offset its cost. There is not a single good reason why Congress shouldn’t simply pass a clean bill renewing the law for a good, long time—except that the GOP has decided to use it as a political bludgeon.

Hopefully, this whole grotesque episode will be resolved before kids start getting booted off their health plans. But in the meantime, Democrats should think about how to make sure it never happens again once they eventually retake power. Whenever the party takes power in Washington again, it needs to take steps to guarantee that CHIP, and other essential pieces of the safety net like food stamps, can keep running on autopilot without an occasional reset from Congress, the way, for instance, Medicare payments or Social Security checks keep rolling out pretty much no matter how things break down in Washington. That’s the only way to prevent the GOP from either sabotaging the programs, or turning them into bargaining chips (no pun intended).

The idea behind requiring Congress to reauthorize major social programs every so many years is that it gives lawmakers an impetus to examine what’s working about them, what isn’t, and then pass reforms as necessary. “If you set things and forget them, you reduce some of Congress’ incentive to kind of revisit the programs and give them the scrutiny that you might want to give them,” Molly Reynolds, a Brookings fellow who focuses on governance studies, told me. But that assumes we have a functioning Congress where both major parties are interested in making constructive policy changes in a somewhat bipartisan manner. Suffice to say, that does not describe Capitol Hill in 2018, where Republicans are dominated by a tribe of anti-tax, anti-government nihilists. We have one party that would like to keep the government running and another that wants to burn the whole thing down.

The need to reauthorize or regularly appropriate new funding for key programs gives the arsonists a built-in advantage. Remember when Donald Trump tried to sabotage the Affordable Care Act by halting some key subsidy payments to insurers? He was able to do that because Republicans refused to appropriate money for those subsidies, as Obamacare required. If Democrats had just properly set the subsidies to get paid out automatically, that wouldn’t have been a problem. When food stamps came up for reauthorization (along with the rest of the farm bill) in 2014, Republicans forced president Obama to swallow an $8.7 billion cut to the program, costing hundreds of thousands of families much needed assistance. (It’s worrisome that food stamps are coming up for renewal once again this year, just as Republicans like Paul Ryan are promising big cuts to the welfare state.) It would be easier to defend these programs, or keep ones like CHIP from being taken as political prisoners, if their funding was set to run indefinitely based on a formula, the way Social Security Disability Insurance works, for instance.

There is nothing sacred about the way Congress funds various federal programs. Lawmakers have legislated spending in different ways at different times, depending on the needs of that particular era. Right now, with partisan rancor and bad faith ruling the day, the government would work far better if, on programs that people depend on for essentials like food and health care, we could just set it and forget it.

No, Apple Is Not Creating 20,000 Jobs Because of the Tax Bill

No, Apple Is Not Creating 20,000 Jobs Because of the Tax Bill

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

On Wednesday afternoon, Apple posted a press release. The primary purpose of this statement, it seems, was to tell investors exactly how much money the company would have to pay in taxes on the profits it’s now repatriating from overseas, thanks to the Republican tax reform bill, while also announcing that it plans to build a new campus for tech support workers. But instead of simply reporting this information, Tim Cook’s media team decided to drop it in the middle of a long missive titled “Apple Accelerates U.S. Investment and Job Creation.” The iPhone maker promised to “contribute” $350 billion to the U.S. economy over the next five years while hiring 20,000 additional workers.

This has, of course, been catnip for conservative fans of the GOP bill. Fox Business predictably tweeted that Apple would create 20,000 jobs “due to tax reform.”

“This is huge folks. This is another big company. One of the biggest companies in America. Saying big time jobs, a lot of jobs coming back to America,” Fox Business anchor Charles Payne told his viewers, deploying some remarkably Trumpian syntax. “And they say it’s all because of tax reform.” CNBC also reported that Apple was increasing its U.S. investment “in part because of the new tax law,” which gave Nevada Senator Dean Heller an opportunity to gloat.

The punchline here is that Apple did not actually say that it is investing any additional money in the U.S. because of the tax law. That idea appears nowhere in the press release.

Here’s what’s actually going on. As part of its transition to a new system of International taxation, the Republican tax bill included a big, one-timed levy on all the profits U.S. corporations have been hoarding abroad for years. (This is known as a deemed repatriation.) Apple has been sitting on a giant overseas money hoard worth $252 billion. Today, we learned it would pay $38 billion to the IRS as the cost of bringing that cash home.

And what else did we learn? Not a ton. The press release predicts that between its “current pace of spending with domestic suppliers and manufacturers—an estimated $55 billion for 2018—Apple’s direct contribution to the US economy will be more than $350 billion over the next five years.” In other words, Apple will keep buying stuff from other U.S. companies. This is not a patriotic act of charity. Apple is literally saying it will continue business as usual. That alone accounts for $275 billion of its $350 billion forecast.

As for the rest of that total? In a mystifying bit of self-aggrandizement, the company is counting its $38 billion repatriation payment as another “direct contribution” to the U.S. economy. This is money they are required to pay by law. “A payment of that size would likely be the largest of its kind ever made,” the company helpfully notes. This is only true because Apple spent years making money hand-over-fist while doing everything in its power to avoid taxes.

Finally, we get to the company’s actual plans to invest in the U.S. Here, we learn that “Apple expects to invest over $30 billion in capital expenditures in the US over the next five years and create over 20,000 new jobs through hiring at existing campuses and opening a new one,” which will initially “house technical support for customers.”

The 20,000 jobs are nice. (Apple says it currently employs 84,000 U.S.) But there’s no evidence, contra Fox’s talking heads, that they’re coming “back to America” from anywhere. Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell if the $30 billion the company plans to spend would actually be a meaningful increase in its domestic U.S. investment. According to its annual reports, Apple has devoted $56.9 billion to capital expenditures worldwide over the past five years. Presumably, a good chunk of that was spent stateside, building out its retail network and its gleaming new Cupertino campus, for instance. But it’s hard to know how much. “The company has not given guidance in the past regarding where and how capital spending was allocated. This is the first I heard of a specific allocation,” Asymco analyst Horace Dediu told me in an email. So, maybe Apple really is “accelerating” it’s U.S. investment. Maybe it’s not. There’s no actual way to tell based on the information it’s shared publicly.

That brings us to the separate question of whether this spending has anything at all to do with Trump’s tax bill. The answer is almost surely not. Apple has long paid an extremely low tax rate, and it is only really bringing its overseas profits “home” on paper. In reality, the company has always been able to access that money by borrowing against it at dirt cheap rates, which it’s previously done to fund dividends and buybacks for its investors. The specific investments Apple announced today, such as the more than $10 billion it plans to spend on new data centers to support its growing cloud-based businesses like Apple Music, are things it likely would have needed to do not matter what happened in Washington.

“These are probably many capital expenditure initiatives and new site build-outs that Apple was already planning on doing regardless of repatriation,” Michael Olson, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, told Bloomberg.

Apple did not announce a $350 billion investment in the U.S. economy today. It’s not even clear Apple announced it was actually increasing its domestic investment. It certainly did not announce that it was creating jobs because of Trump’s economic magic. The company announced its tax bill and, in the same breath, made some promises about capital expenditures in the states. Then it let the press and conservatives fill in the blank. I guess it’s a clever strategy, if you’re quietly trying to pander to this White House.

Bomb Cyclone Brings Record Flooding to Boston

Bomb Cyclone Brings Record Flooding to Boston

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Ocean water carried ice floes and dumpsters through the streets of Boston and trapped hundreds of people in homes and offices on Thursday afternoon, as the nor’easter sweeping up the Eastern Seaboard brought record flooding to Boston Harbor and the Massachusetts coast.

In Boston, the National Weather Service reported the water level had reached or surpassed an all-time high, set during the Blizzard of ’78. The so-called “bomb cyclone,” one of the fastest-strengthening winter storms in history, blew into New England early this morning.

In Downtown Boston, firefighters used boats to rescue stranded motorists. Sea water full of ice chunks turned thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue, which curves around the waterfront, into lakes. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen the water come this high up in this downtown area,” Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn told reporters.

The storm surge appeared to be even worse in more exposed South Shore towns along Cape Cod Bay like Hull, Scituate, and Marshfield.

Because of its low elevation, large swaths of reclaimed land, and position at the mouth of a bay, Boston has long been considered one of the most vulnerable U.S. cities to climate change-induced storm surges. Ten feet of sea-level rise, which scientists consider the worst-case scenario, would put 30 percent of the city’s land underwater by the end of the century. Today’s tide was on track to be the highest since record-keeping began in 1921.

The storm is supposed to move on by Friday, as the city faces what might be the lowest high temperatures in recorded history—not good news if the streets remain full of water.

Valentine’s Day Month Special

by Aportada @ Lower East Side People's Federal Credit Union

In February, LES People’s members can receive a 10% discount on their bill to celebrate Valentine’s Day all month. To receive the discount just use your PEOPLES Debit or Credit Card when paying at participating locations. ENJOY 10% OFF AT … Continue reading

Good Morning. Donald Trump Just Tweeted That “Trade Wars Are Good, and Easy to Win.”

Good Morning. Donald Trump Just Tweeted That “Trade Wars Are Good, and Easy to Win.”

by Jordan Weissmann @ Slate Articles

On Thursday, Donald Trump announced that he intended to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, raising fears of a new trade war and sending stocks tumbling for the day. This morning, he woke up and tried to…do some damage control? Rally his base? Assuage the fears of anxious investors? I don’t know. Anyway, he tweeted.

This is one of those presidential missives that makes you want to stare silently into the bottom of a whiskey glass for a while. The phrase “trade wars are good, and easy to win” is both terrifying and wrong. It suggests Trump may actually want countries like China and Mexico to escalate the conflict by retaliating against us, since in his mind, trading less with them will bring down our trade deficit through the simple power of arithmetic.

That’s not actually how the world works. If the U.S. imports less from China, for instance, we may simply end up importing more from Vietnam. Meanwhile, American exporters that do business in the People’s Republic could end up losing sales, while American manufacturers could find their Asian supply chains scrambled. There are times when narrowly targeted tariffs may be necessary or useful; as I wrote yesterday, President Obama’s own attempts to stop unfair dumping by Chinese steel companies seem to have worked reasonably well. But broad, tit-for-tat trade wars are a mess that inflict damage on everybody involved.

And the more countries America picks a fight with, the more we have to lose. George W. Bush learned this when he imposed a tariff on steel from Europe, Asia, and South America in 2002. He was forced to drop the duty 20 months later, when it become clear that our trade partners were going to strike back. Here’s how the Washington Post reported it at the time:

European countries had vowed to respond to the tariffs, which were ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization, by imposing sanctions on up to $2.2 billion in exports from the United States, beginning as soon as Dec. 15. Japan issued a similar threat Wednesday. The sources said Bush’s aides concluded they could not run the risk that the European Union would carry out its threat to impose sanctions on orange juice and other citrus products from Florida, motorcycles, farm machinery, textiles, shoes, and other products.

Europe and our other trade partners will almost certainly run the same playbook of putting tariffs on politically important exports like OJ this time around. But Trump does not appear to have looked that far ahead. He’s too busy thinking on the level of an all caps tweet.

Tell that to Florida’s orange growers.

The Hyperloop Pipe Dream

The Hyperloop Pipe Dream

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

For American lawmakers, funding public transit often feels like small ball. Politicians prefer to dream bigger. Earlier this month, transportation agencies in the Cleveland region and in Illinois announced they would co-sponsor a $1.2 million study of a “hyperloop” connecting Cleveland to Chicago, cutting a 350-mile journey to just half an hour. It’s the fourth public study of the nonexistent transportation mode to be undertaken in the past three months.

“Ohio is defined by its history of innovation and adventure,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once canceled a $400 million Obama-era grant for high-speed rail in the state. “A hyperloop in Ohio would build upon that heritage.” In January, a bipartisan group of Rust Belt representatives wrote to President Trump to ask for $20 million in federal funding for a Hyperloop Transportation Initiative, a Department of Transportation division that would regulate and fund a travel mode with no proof of concept.

It’s hard to keep up: Last week, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission announced feasibility and environmental-impact studies for a different hyperloop route, connecting Pittsburgh and Chicago through Columbus, Ohio, to be run by a different company, Virgin Hyperloop One. The company—which fired a pod through a tube at 240 mph in December—is also studying routes in Missouri and Colorado.* Meanwhile, Elon Musk—who has obtained (contested) tunneling permission from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan—pulled a permit from the District of Columbia for a future hyperloop station.

But let’s first look at the hyperloop that Grace Gallucci, the head of the Cleveland regional planning association the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), told local radio could be running to Chicago in three to five years, and to the study of which the NOACA contributed $600,000.

The company behind it, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is one of a handful of U.S. entities that have emerged since Elon Musk first introduced the idea in 2012. In a promotional clip for the Great Lakes Hyperloop that plays like a sequel to Chrysler’s Detroit Super Bowl commercial, a gravelly voice intones that this is not a dream, as b-roll footage of factories is cut with aerial footage of what can only be construction of an oil-and-gas pipeline. “We’ve already got a prototype,” the narrator instructs.

They don’t. Andrea La Mendola, the company’s chief global operations officer and chief engineering council member, told me there is no full-scale prototype just yet. The company says it is building one now in the southern French city of Toulouse. “In terms of full-scale, all-integration, it will [be the first prototype],” he said. “We will start with 400 meters. Then we go up to 1 kilometer, and possibly 1.6 kilometers—if we add a curve at the end.”

I’m no engineer, but if the company wants to blast humans at the speed of sound for hundreds of miles across the American Midwest, maybe they should build the curve. A few of them.

La Mendola isn’t an engineer either. Before joining HTT as its chief global operating officer and a member of its chief engineering council, La Mendola was working as a filmmaker. He has a master’s degree in engineering—media and cinema engineering. It’s a well-deployed skill set: What Hyperloop Transportation Technologies lacks in nuts and bolts, it more than makes up for in Hollywood flair. The pods will be coated in “Vibranium,” a rebranded carbon fiber whose name you may recognize from Black Panther.

The company’s co-founders have similarly little experience in transportation or infrastructure. Bibop Gresta, HTT’s chairman, is an entertainer-turned-entrepreneur with a string of content and media ventures to his name. Dirk Ahlborn, the CEO and a self-described serial entrepreneur, founded JumpStartFund, a platform to crowdsource entrepreneurial projects—including this one.

It’s there, they have frequently stated, that the company’s unique advantage lies: in the more than 900 volunteers so enamored with the idea of a functional hyperloop that they deploy their time and expertise suggesting materials, building simulations, or developing marketing in exchange for stock options. A fawning Harvard Business Review case study published in 2017 cast conventionalities like “paying full-time salaries and being focused on traditional employment” as “substantial disadvantages.” The study praised HTT’s cost-saving strategy of collaborating over Google Docs and reported that the company’s more than 60,000 social media followers “contributed in various ways,” including alerting the CEO to new engineering research. In inventing and implementing a commercial transportation mode, the method is unorthodox, to put it mildly. Terri Griffith, a professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business and one of the study’s authors, told me she thought the company’s record of patents and feasibility studies provided evidence that the system was working even in the absence of a prototype.

The company claims to be worth $100 million, though that calculation relies on the valuation of volunteer contributions and products on loan from starry-eyed partner companies like Leybold, which manufactures the vacuum pumps that might one day suck the air out of a transportation tube. La Mendola says the company now employs about 40 salaried engineers, who are charged with merely reinventing the relationship between time and distance.

There is reason to think high-speed vacuum-tube transportation can work, at least on paper. (A pneumatic subway briefly opened beneath Manhattan in 1870.) A technical analysis by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland supports the hyperloop as “a faster, cheaper alternative to … short-haul aircraft.” The reinsurance firm Munich Re believes the concept is feasible and insurable in the medium term, though it also notes, “The nature of the challenge is extreme.”

Gresta and Ahlborn are more optimistic still. As early as 2016, Gresta told Wired: “We have solved all the technical issues.” But in the intervening two years, the company didn’t even begin the construction of its prototype, instead promising a real, functioning hyperloop in Quay Valley, California. For a while, HTT claimed that system would be giving rides in 2017 or 2018—in a back-of-the-napkin planned city of 75,000 in the California desert northeast of Bakersfield. The real estate project collapsed late last year; HTT never got beyond applying for a conditional use permit, according to the Fresno Bee. A collaboration with Deutsche Bahn was supposed to yield a passenger train by early 2017; nothing has come of it.

The inability to get stakes in the ground has not stopped HTT from garnering prestige and cash from deals around the world, however: In January 2017, an “exploratory agreement” for a “hyperloop” between Brno, Czech Republic, and Bratislava, Slovakia; also that month, an investment from Sheikh Falah Bin Zayed, a United Arab Emirates royal, for a route to Abu Dhabi; a March 2017 feasibility study for a hyperloop through the Indonesian jungle funded by $2.5 million from a local partner; a June agreement with South Korean institutions; a September Memorandum of Understanding for a feasibility study with an Indian regional government. Last March, HTT announced it is building its first life-size transportation pod to be unveiled in early 2018. (Slate asked HTT for comment on or updates to these timelines but has not heard back as of publication.)

Now Ohio joins that list, with the beginnings of what La Mendola called a “public-private partnership.” Separately, on the company’s Great Lakes Hyperloop website, it claims, “Even by conservative analysis the HyperloopTT system can quickly become profitable. It presents the ability to build a mass transit system that would not require government subsidies.” Presumably a $1.2 million study will further clarify this.

Whatever the technology, whatever the methods of financing, though, land-use acquisition is always one of the hardest parts of construction—it has stalled and complicated projects from high-speed rail in California to the border wall. The hyperloop was supposed to be a bargain compared with high-speed rail, but Colorado transportation officials estimated last year it could take $3 billion to build just 40 miles of tube. One option, La Mendola suggested to me, was to try to use existing rights of way, though the bends in, say, an interstate highway median are obviously not intended to be taken at 500 mph. (The folks at NASA suggest building it underwater.)

The other option, La Mendola said, is to not only construct high-speed tubular interstate transportation, but also “become almost a utility provider for the community.” Gresta outlined some of the possibilities in his 2016 conversation with Wired: pylons that double as vertical gardens, adorned with solar panels and wind turbines. “You are the farmer. I come to you and say listen: I put one pylon every 200ft on your land, OK? In exchange I give you electricity, water, and I give it to you, and you can do whatever you want and make a profit off it.”

It sounds almost too good to be true.

Correction, March 2, 2018: This post originally misstated that the Hyperloop One test pod was made of steel. It was made of carbon fiber and aluminum.

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