Originally Published: 6/9/2018
Employment Gains: The May jobs report clinched it (TWW, Unemployment, 6/2/18): the recession is over. However, a lot is left to do. Though the unemployment rate is the lowest in almost 2 decades, Ben Casselman, writing at the NY Times, wanted to look at the numbers in “some longer-run context.” And he did. Casselman reminds us that we lost nearly 8.7 million jobs in the Great Republican Recession but since then we’ve gained 18.9 million. (He noted that net growth needed to increase just to keep pace with the increase in the working-age population. That increased about 10 million during the same period of time.) Employers have added jobs for 92 straight months and the gains have been steady. The official unemployment rate is now at 3.8%, the lowest since 2000. “The progress is increasingly reaching groups that often face discrimination or other disadvantages in the job market: The unemployment rate for African-Americans hit its lowest level on record in May. The jobless rates for Hispanics, teenagers, and those with less than a high school education are likewise at or near multidecade lows.”
Defining Unemployed: The unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story. The Bureau of Labor Statistics only counts people as unemployed if they are looking for work. So, if you’re no longer in the workforce - either voluntarily or involuntarily - you aren’t counted as unemployed. “The official unemployment rate ignored millions of people who had abandoned their job searches as hopeless.” According to Casselman, fewer Americans, as a share of the population, have a job today than before the recession, but that’s largely because of the retirement of the Baby Boomers. So, if you adjust the numbers for the demographic shifts, the employment rate is back to where it was before the Great Recession, “but still well short of its peak in 2000.”
Wage Growth: The real problem with the Great Recession’s recovery is the lack of wage growth. Typically, a tighter labor market prompts employers to raise salaries to keep the workers they have and lure new ones. With this recovery wages have risen, but not as much or as quickly as expected. “Economists are divided over what explains the disconnect, with some seeing evidence of a long-term, structural shift in the economy, and others arguing that the slow wage growth suggests there is still room for the economy to improve.” But an answer seems to lie in the juxtaposition of the the definition and wages. If you are working but no longer have a full-time job or have to work 2 jobs to make the same amount of money you made before the recession, you’re not unemployed. However, your hourly earnings have not increased. This has led to the fear that workers have added debt with the expectation of making more money, an expectation that hasn’t happened. Consumers added $63 billion in debt in the first quarter of this year and owed a collective $13.21 trillion as of March 31st. But delinquent payments on credit purchases is increasing. Consumer credit experts are very concerned. (NBC)
Executive Power: The NY Times obtained a 20-page memo from Trump’s lawyers to special counsel Robert Mueller wherein they argue that the president could not possibly have committed obstruction “because he has unfettered authority over all federal investigations.” [Emphasis added.] The memo reads like a legal brief. The NY Times posted a copy they annotated. His lawyers also contend that the president cannot illegally obstruct any aspect of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling “because the Constitution empowers him to, ‘if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.” On Monday Trump doubled down, insisting that “numerous legal scholars” have concluded that he has the absolute right to pardon himself. (NY Times) This means he is completely above the law. No matter what he does, he can pardon himself - he believes.
Paul Manafort: He’s been accused of witness tampering. Prosecutors filed a petition with the court asking the judge to revise the terms of his house arrest or send him to jail while awaiting trial. (NY Times) But he’s getting help from Sean Hannity. On Wednesday Hannity “called on the witnesses in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to delete their evidence and destroy all their hardware in an attempt to derail the case.” It would be illegal to do this. (Business Insider) But Manafort’s problems are getting worse. Mueller has added a new obstruction charge to the list of charges against him. Mueller also added charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice against Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a close associate of Manafort’s, who is suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence. (NY Times)
The Count: For those of you keeping count of the witch hunt, Muller is up to 20 witches and 3 businesses that have been either indicted or admitted guilt and a total of 75 charges filed. (Washington Post)
Fighting ISIS: The Defense Department admitted that it has no idea of how many civilians it has killed in the 4 years it has been fighting ISIS. (Vox)
China: Chinese government hackers accessed “highly sensitive data” from the computers of a Navy contractor. The data included secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines by 2020. (Washington Post)
Jordan: Thousands protested against the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) austerity measures, “including a new income tax draft law and price hikes.” These proposals are the latest “in a series of economic measures, along with repeated price hikes on basic goods, since Amman secured a $723 million 3-year credit line” from the IMF in 2016. (Guardian)
Mexico: It’s hitting back against Trump’s tariffs. It will impose its own tariffs on about $3 billion worth of American pork, steel, cheese, and other goods. (NY Times)
North Korea: The “prideful but cash-poor pariah state” is requiring that someone pay for Kim Jong-un’s hotel stay in Singapore at the meeting with Trump. (Washington Post)
Russia: Trump is calling for Russia to be re-admitted to the G7. It was suspended from the former G8 in 2014 after it annexed Crimea. (Guardian)
California: The Thomas fire is finally out. It started on December 4, 2017, more than 6 months ago. It was the largest wildfire in the state’s modern history. (CNN)
Florida: For more than a year Florida failed to conduct national background checks on tens of thousands of applications for concealed weapons permits. The person in charge of the background checks was not able to log into the FBI crime database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. “The problem went unresolved until discovered by another worker.” (Tampa Bay Times)
Abortion: The Supremes dismissed a lower court’s decision “that allowed an undocumented immigrant teenager to obtain an abortion over the protests of the Trump administration.” (TWW, Detainee Abortions, 4/7/18) This decision came as an unsigned opinion “without noted dissents” and “throws out a precedent that might allow other teenagers in the same circumstance to obtain an abortion.” (Washington Post)
Religious Freedom: In a 7 to 2 vote, the Supremes sided with a Colorado baker in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The baker, Jack Phillips, said that forcing him to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding infringed on his religious freedom. Justice Anthony Kennedy, wrote the majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Some believe the decision is not a complete disaster because it is limited to the specific facts of this case. In fact, the decision was, in essence, that the Civil Rights Commission handled the issue inappropriately, not that religious freedom can be claimed in any commercial transaction. But Sarah Posner, writing at The Nation, believes it could “open the floodgates for other suits designed to chip away at LGBTQ rights.”
School Safety: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos set up a federal commission on school safety after the shooting at a Florida high school. (TWW, Another Shooting, 2/17/18) The commission, however, will not look at the role of guns in school violence. (Guardian)
Mexican Border: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is “doubling down” on his decision to send law enforcement officers from his department to help apprehend immigrants along the Mexican border in Arizona and Texas. This includes cops from the National Park Service and the Park Police. His justification for sending these people? He said the border was an “environmental disaster.” (The Hill)
Immigrant Detention: Senator Jeff Merkley (D, OR) went to McAllen, Texas to see firsthand how immigrant families were being treated by federal agencies. He described a facility where “hundreds of children” were locked up in cages. Quartz published photos showing children in chain-link fence enclosures at an immigration processing center in Nogales, Arizona in 2014 but Merkley said he saw these cages in McAllen, so they’re still in use. (Washington Post)
Facebook: We now know that over the past decade it shared vast amounts of its users’ personal information with at least 60 companies, including Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Samsung. Most of these partnerships are still in effect. And we also now know that Facebook didn’t bother to disclose that makers of mobile phones, tablets, and other hardware were exempt from the restrictions it recently put on consulting firms like Cambridge Analytica. (TWW, Facebook & Cambridge Analytica, 4/14/18) Facebook claims that its data sharing is consistent with its new privacy policies (NY Times) but it has data-sharing partnerships with at least 4 Chinese electronics companies, “including a manufacturing giant that has a close relationship with China’s government.” One of those is Huawei, a telecommunications equipment company “that has been flagged by American intelligence officials as a national security threat.” The agreements, which date to at least 2010, are still in effect. (NY Times)
Scott Pruitt: I debated all week whether to tell you about all the crap this guy has been pulling. Since I’ve already told you about the other stuff that’s come to light (TWW, Scott Pruitt, 5/5/18; 4/21/18, 4/7/18), I finally decided to give you the latest rundown. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) administrator had his scheduling director, Millan Hupp, contact the Trump International Hotel in Washington to purchase a used mattress at a discount. (Washington Post) Yeah. I’m not kidding. Then it came out that he had Hupp’s younger sister, Sydney, contact Chick-fil-A - on a government email - regarding a franchise for his wife. (CBS) Hupp resigned (CNBC) as did Sarah Greenwalt, Pruitt’s senior counsel (NY Times), both of whom had received inordinately large raises. (The Atlantic) And don’t forget his purchase of 12 customized fountain pens from a jewelry store for $1,560. (Washington Post) He also asked his 24/7 security team to run errands for him, “including picking up his dry cleaning and taking him in search of a favorite moisturizing lotion.” (Chicago Tribune) Then it came out that Pruitt is running over to the White House to eat a free lunch. The White House mess is “an exclusive U.S. Navy-run restaurant open only to White House officials, Cabinet members, and other dignitaries.” The White House has ask him to please eat somewhere else. (Politico) Medium published a “guide” to the 16 federal investigations into Pruitt’s behavior, as well as the 1 completed investigation. Listen to what Stephen Colbert had to say about him. (You Tube)
Veterans’ Healthcare: A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) slammed the Veterans Choice Program - created in 2014 - saying services aren’t readily available at VA facilities. But Congress enacted a new program, the VA Mission Act, meant to fix the problems. Trump signed the bill but he’s fighting the funding of the program, “arguing the initiative will be too costly for taxpayers.” It’s estimated that this initiative will take $50 billion. Trump wants the $50 billion taken from somewhere else. (Washington Post) Why don’t we take it out of the Defense Department?
ACA: The Justice Department has broken with tradition and won’t defend lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act brought by GOP-controlled states. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter stating that he agrees with the states’ lawsuits that the ACA provision requiring most Americans to carry health insurance “soon will no longer be constitutional” and that, as a result, consumer insurance protections under the law will not be valid either. I suppose he’s including the pre-existing conditions ban. (Washington Post) What does he mean by “soon will no longer be constitutional?” It either is or it isn’t constitutional. I assume he thinks the issue will go before the Supreme Court and, with the new justice, they will get the decision they want. Also, as I’ve pointed out before, the Center for American Progress crunched the numbers and found that health insurance premiums are going to skyrocket for families by a national average of $1,000 - due to the repeal of the individual mandate.
EPA Regulations: Scott Pruitt promised to turn environmental regulations back to the states. And he’s done it. “The effects are already apparent. States now have more leeway regarding how they regulate toxic pollutants like coal ash, for instance, and more authority over which areas are targeted for failing to clean up pollution like ozone.” However, nearly one-third of the states’ top environmental officials “have direct conflicts of interest with industries they’re supposed to oversee.” (Think Progress)
Toxic Chemicals: The EPA, “after heavy lobbying by the chemical industry,” is “scaling back” the way it determines health and safety risks associated with dangerous chemicals on the market. “Under a law passed by Congress during the final year of the Obama administration, the EPA was required for the first time to evaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals and determine if they should face new restrictions, or even be removed from the market.” Many of the chemicals are in everyday use, like dry-cleaning solvents, paint strippers, and others used in “health and beauty products like shampoos and cosmetics.” Here’s a list of the first 10 chemicals they’re looking at. (NY Times) The EPA has decided that it will now exclude from its calculations “any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, the ground, or water.” (NY Times)
Another Record: The U.S. had its warmest May in history, “blowing past [the] 1934 Dust Bowl record.” Almost every bit of land in the contiguous United States was warmer than normal in May. “Temperatures were more than 5 degrees above normal.” Many areas also had the wettest May on record. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations have contributed to the record temperatures. (Washington Post)
Fossil Fuel Subsidies: A new report from Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) reveals that the world’s richest countries are still subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of at least $100 billion a year. The G7 - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and U.S. - agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2025.
Coral Decline: The decline of coral in the Great Barrier Reef is “unprecedented.” The Australian Institute of Marine Science said that the “steep decline” in the coral cover is a phenomenon that “has not been observed in the historical record.” It’s latest report claims: “It is unprecedented in the 30-plus year time series that all 3 regions of the [reef] have declined and that many reefs have now very low coral cover.” It says the reef may never recover. (Guardian)
Ikea: It’s going to phase out all single-use plastic products from its stores and restaurants by 2020. (Guardian)
CFPB: The leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is required by law to hold in-person meetings with its Consumer Advisory Board (CAB). But Acting Director Mick Mulvaney (TWW, CFPB, 2/3/18; Payday Lending, 1/27/18) has canceled 2 in-person meetings and numerous conference calls. “Contact has been limited to one phone call in March that was supposed to last one hour but ended after 20 minutes.” The most recent cancellation was this week. (The Intercept) Mulvaney was so opposed to meeting with CAB that he decided to get rid of them. He fired all 25 members “days after some of its members criticized his leadership of the watchdog agency.” He said he’s going to revamp it. Members were told they were being replaced but they could not reapply for a spot on the new board. Members include “prominent consumer advocates, academics, and industry executives.” (Chicago Tribune)
ZTE: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that they’ve reached a deal with ZTE Corp to reverse the ban on its buying parts from U.S. suppliers, “allowing China’s No. 2 telecommunications equipment maker to get back into business.” (TWW, ZTE, 5/19/18) Under the deal, ZTE will change its board and management within 30 days, pay a $1 billion fine, and put $400 million in escrow. “The government will suspend the 10-year ban but it can activate the ban if there are any violations. (Reuters)
Bayer: It’s $62.5 billion takeover of Monsanto will close this week. “Bayer last week won U.S. approval for the Monsanto takeover after months of delays in a drawn-out review, clearing a major hurdle for a deal that will create by far the largest seeds and pesticides maker.” (Reuters) May God have mercy on our souls.
Volkswagen: It is going to stop animal testing “after coming under intense public condemnation for financing experiments on the effects of diesel exhaust on monkeys.” (EcoWatch)