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Trump Team Continues to Act Guilty Over Russia Ties

6 hours 26 min ago

One of my complaints about Hillary Clinton during the email affair was the fact that she sometimes acted guilty even when she wasn't. Now it's Donald Trump's turn. Here is the Washington Post today:

The Trump administration sought to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying to Congress in the House investigation of links between Russian officials and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, The Washington Post has learned, a position that is likely to further anger Democrats who have accused Republicans of trying to damage the inquiry.

....Yates and another witness at the planned hearing, former CIA director John Brennan, had made clear to government officials by Thursday that their testimony to the committee probably would contradict some statements that White House officials had made, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The following day, when Yates’s lawyer sent a letter to the White House indicating that she still wanted to testify, the hearing was canceled.

Yates, you'll recall, was the acting attorney general left over from the Obama administration who Trump fired for refusing to defend his first immigration order in court.

This whole Russia thing is crazy. Whenever I start believing there's really something there, I feel like I'm turning into a nutball conspiracy theorist. But if there isn't anything there, it's plenty odd that the Trump team keeps acting as if there were.

Leverage and Liquidity Are the Keys to a Strong Banking System

7 hours 6 min ago

I'm a big fan of higher capital ratios (i.e., lower leverage) as a way of making the banking system safer, so I was disturbed when Tyler Cowen pointed to a new paper suggesting that high capital ratios don't reduce the likelihood of financial crises. Instead, a team of researchers suggests that what's more important is the type of capital. Deposits are the most stable source of funding for any bank, and liquidity is king. Put these together, and what's important is the loan-to-deposit ratio:

As you can see, the LtD ratio rose steadily in the postwar era, doubling from 50 percent to over 100 percent by 2008. This indicates that credit was expanding, with banks making more loans for every dollar in deposits they took in. This, the authors say, is a better predictor of financial crises than raw leverage:

In this triptych, capital ratios are in the middle, and they don't change much before and after a financial crisis (denoted by Year 0). However, right before a financial crisis there's a steady decline in deposits as a percentage of total assets (which indicates a decline in the quality an;d stability of a bank's capital base) and a steady rise in the loan-to-deposit ratio. These are the indicators that seem to be associated with financial crises.

So is there any point to higher capital standards? Yes indeed: they may not prevent financial crises, but they make recovery from a financial crisis much quicker. Just compare the green line and the red line in the charts below:

Both of these charts show the same thing: in countries with higher capital ratios, recovery from a financial crisis was far faster. Five years out, the difference was a full 13 percentage points of GDP per capita.

If these researchers are right—and I'll add the usual caveats about this being only one study etc.—then the key to a strong, resilient banking system is twofold: a low loan-to-deposit ratio produces a liquid capital base that helps avoid financial crises, while a low leverage ratio produces the necessary capital to recover quickly if a financial crisis hits anyway.

Leverage and liquidity are key. In one sense, this is nothing new, since anyone could have told you that. But this paper suggests that they're important for slightly different reasons than we thought.

No, Obamacare Isn't Exploding. But Trump Could Still Blow It Up.

7 hours 15 min ago

After Republicans abandoned their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act Friday, party leaders all but conceded that Obamacare is here to stay—at least for awhile. "We're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said at a hastily arranged press conference half an hour after he yanked the bill. President Donald Trump sounded a similar note, saying that it's time for Congress to move on to tax reform.

Both Ryan and Trump warned that the failure of their bill was devastating news for the US health care system—though not necessarily bad news for the GOP. Obamacare, they argued, would inevitably fall apart, and Democrats would be blamed for its downfall. "I've been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode," Trump said from the Oval Office Friday. "It is exploding right now."

"It will be dead soon," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday afternoon.

The idea that Obamacare is in a death spiral was central to Republican efforts to destroy the law. They point to rising premiums for individuals on Healthcare.gov and insurers fleeing some markets. Thirty-two percent of counties now have only one insurance provider, up from 7 percent of counties in 2016

But the truth is more complicated than the GOP wants you to believe. Yes, in some states there are problems with the individual insurance marketplaces created by the law. But those problems don't exist everywhere in the country, and experts expect even the problematic markets to stabilize. That isn't to say Obamacare is completely out of the woods, and perhaps the biggest danger facing the law comes from Trump himself. There are plenty of ways the administration could use its regulatory power to blow up the program—more on that below.

To understand the problems facing Obamacare's marketplaces, you first need to understand what the law actually does. Before the ACA, there was a mishmash of incomprehensible plans in the individual market. For consumers, it was often extremely difficult to figure out what the plans would actually cover, and insurers were free to reject applicants or jack up prices to astronomical rates for people with preexisting conditions.

Obamacare simplified that all. Insurers would no longer be allowed to reject people because of preexisting medical conditions. In order to make that financially feasible for insurance companies, the law included an individual mandate requiring people—including young, healthy people with few medical expenses—to sign up for insurance or pay a penalty. Insurance plans would now have to meet a set of standards, and there'd be tiers of plans—Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum—which offered predictable benefits. And the government would offer subsidies to help lower-income families afford coverage.

The vast majority of the laws' provisions—ending lifetime limits for coverage, allowing children to stay on their parents insurance until they're 26, capping patients' out-of-pocket expenses, blocking insurance companies from screening out preexisting conditions—have quietly become popular. But the high-visibility individual insurance market, on which 7 percent of the country now gets health insurance, has run into trouble. More sick people have bought insurance than expected, and costs have risen as fewer young people than predicted have signed up. Insurance is basically just cost-sharing between large groups of people, so having a pool of sicker, more expensive people creates a vicious cycle that causes the cost of premiums to increase, which further discourages healthy people from participating.

Over the past year, the costs of premiums spiked and insurers left the market. That's left people afraid that massive rate jumps are the new norm, and that skyrocketing premium costs will cause consumers to flee. But that isn't as large of a problem as politicians and some in the media have suggested. When the markets first opened in 2013, insurance companies initially priced their plans far below expected, so the sudden increase is actually bringing costs closer to what the architects of Obamacare expected back when they were crafting the bill. And the vast majority of people buying insurance on those markets have been insulated from those premium increases. Of the 12.2 million who bought into the 2017 open enrollment, 10.1 million received some assistance from the government to offset those costs. The government caps how much these people have to pay, as a percentage of their income.

While premiums for 2017 were projected by the government to jump 22 percent, most people won't see that increase themselves. As Kaiser Family Foundation pointed out, for a 40-year-old making $40,000 in Birmingham, Ala., the cost of premiums for a Silver plan without subsidies jumped from $288 per month in 2016 to $492 in 2017. But that 40-year-old's personal responsibility after the subsidies kick in stayed essentially same: $208 per month in 2016, $207 in 2017.

Jon Gabel and Heidi Whitmore, a pair of researchers writing at Health Affairs last month, dug into the stats on these rising premiums and speculated that the rate increases could be a natural part of the "underwriting cycle," with insurers struggling to properly estimate their costs and then overcorrecting. Gabel and Whitmore argued that a full death spiral is unlikely since most people buying insurance on the marketplace receive subsidies to offset premium spikes. "Premium growth for 2018 might be modest," they write. "Many insurers would be expected to re-enter the marketplaces once premiums are set at a level that permits modest profits."

According to the Congressional Budget Office, when it scored the GOP's repeal plan, Obamacare's individual markets should remain stable going forward: "The subsidies to purchase coverage combined with the penalties paid by uninsured people stemming from the individual mandate are anticipated to cause sufficient demand for insurance by people with low health care expenditures for the market to be stable."

Moreover, the problems are not equally distributed across the country. One major reason appears to relate to Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid. The ACA pushed states to enroll everyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty line into Medicaid, which is separate from the individual insurance marketplaces. The federal government pays for the vast majority of Medicaid expansion costs. But after the Supreme Court said states didn't have to adopt the expansion, a number of Republican-controlled states rejected the program. So far, only 31 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid through Obamacare.

There's a direct correlation between the cost of insurance premiums and whether or not a state has adopted Medicaid expansion. A 2016 study found that premiums were 7 percent higher in non-expansion states after controlling for other factors. In the non-expansion states, people who would otherwise end up on Medicaid buy insurance on the individual market—they're about 40 percent of the marketplaces in these states. And since poor health has been tied to lower incomes, this group ends up driving up the cost of individual insurance for everyone else. Now that Obamacare is more settled as the law of the land, it wouldn't be surprising to see a few more Republican states adopt the federal funding for expansion to shore up their marketplaces. (Republicans lawmakers in Kansas are currently pushing a bill to do just that, despite a veto threat from the state's GOP governor.)

So Obamacare probably isn't destined to explode, but that doesn't mean Trump's prediction won't come true. It'll just be his fault if that happens, not Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi's. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has wide discretion over a number of ACA provisions that that could allow him to sabotage the law. At Politico last week, Dan Diamond wondered, "Is Trumpcare already here?" He pointed out that the Trump administration has already begun to implement its agenda through executive action.

The president's team started early in its Obamacare assault, canceling ads in late January encouraging people to sign up for insurance on the marketplaces during open enrollment, despite the fact that the ads had already been paid purchased. It was a clear attempt to decrease participation in the program. The people most likely to sign up without inducement are people in worse health who need insurance to pay for their care, so these sort of ads boosting enrollment are essential for attracting the younger, healthier groups necessary to spread out the cost and keep premiums low.

But if the Trump administration continues to attempt to undermine the law, it likely won't go unnoticed. Last week, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced that at their request, the inspector general at HHS is reviewing the decision to cancel the paid ads at the last minute.

"I'm glad that there will be an independent review of the Trump Administration's decision to cut off efforts to enroll people in the ACA," Warren said in a statement. "President Trump and congressional Republicans have made clear that their priorities include destroying the protection that ACA gives millions of families. HHS's move to halt outreach for ACA enrollment could contribute to weakening health care marketplaces and raising costs for hard working people across the country."

Obamacare Is the Law of the Land, and Kansas Republicans Couldn't Be Happier

8 hours 18 min ago

Many Republicans politicians are already moving on from Paul Ryan and Donald Trump's failure to repeal Obamacare—and in one state, they're accepting that reality by embracing a key measure in the Affordable Care Act.

On Monday evening, the Kansas state Senate voted to accept the ACA's Medicaid expansion, a policy that allows states to enroll anyone earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line in the government's health insurance program for the poor. The feds will provide the vast majority of the funding for these new recipients.

A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate supported the measure, which passed by of vote of 25-13. The state House voted overwhelming for Medicaid expansion earlier this year. Ryan and Trump's Obamacare repeal bill would have effectively barred Kansas from signing up for the program. After the national GOP's bill failed Friday, Kansas Republicans wasted little time moving forward.

Medicaid expansion still faces a major obstacle in Kansas. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has repeatedly signaled his opposition and is expected to veto the bill. The state legislature could override that veto—as they came close to doing with a tax reform measure earlier this year—but that requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber. In the state House and Senate, Medicaid expansion was two and three votes shy, respectively, of that super-majority.

Kansas is one of 19 states that have rejected the ACA's Medicaid expansion, costing the state nearly $1.8 billion in federal funding to date. A study by the Kansas Health Institute projects that more than 150,000 people in the state would sign up if expansion is implemented.

Basically, the Arctic Is Melting, the World Has Gone Crazy, and It's All Our Fault

12 hours 30 min ago

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The fingerprint of human-caused climate change has been found on heat waves, droughts and floods across the world, according to scientists.

The discovery indicates that the impacts of global warming are already being felt by society and adds further urgency to the need to cut carbon emissions. A key factor is the fast-melting Arctic, which is now strongly linked to extreme weather across Europe, Asia, and North America.

Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have long been expected to lead to increasing extreme weather events, as they trap extra energy in the atmosphere. But linking global warming to particular events is difficult because the climate is naturally variable.

The new work analyzed a type of extreme weather event known to be caused by changes in "planetary waves"—such as California's ongoing record drought, and recent heat waves in the US and Russia, as well as severe floods in Pakistan in 2010.

Planetary waves are a pattern of winds, of which the jet stream is a part, that encircle the northern hemisphere in lines that undulate from the tropics to the poles. Normally, the whole wave moves eastwards but, under certain temperature conditions, the wave can halt its movement. This leaves whole regions under the same weather for extended periods, which can turn hot spells into heat waves and wet weather into floods.

This type of extreme weather event is known to have increased in recent decades. But the new research used observations and climate models to show that the chances of the conditions needed to halt the planetary waves occurring are significantly more likely as a result of global warming.

"Human activity has been suspected of contributing to this pattern before, but now we uncover a clear fingerprint of human activity," said Michael Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US who led the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Kai Kornhuber, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, and another member of the research team, said: "We looked into dozens of different climate models, as well as into observational data, and it turns out that the temperature distribution favoring planetary wave stalling increased in almost 70 percent of the simulations."

Large scale wind patterns are largely driven by the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics. But global warming is altering this difference because the Arctic is heating up faster than lower latitudes and because land areas are heating up faster than the oceans.

Recent changes in the Arctic are particularly striking, with record low levels of ice cover and extremely unusual high temperatures. "Things in the Arctic are happening much faster than we expected," said Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, also at PIK.

"It is not just a problem of nature conservation or polar bears, it is about a threat to human society that comes from these rapid changes," he said. "This is because it hits us with increasing extreme events in the highly populated centers in the mid-latitudes. It also affects us through sea level rise, which is hitting shores globally. So these changes that are going on in the Arctic should concern everyone."

Other climate research, called attribution, is increasingly able to calculate how much more likely specific extreme weather events have been made by global warming. For example, the heat wave in south-eastern Australia in February was made twice as likely by climate change, while Storm Desmond, which caused heavy flooding in the UK in 2015, was made 40 percent more likely.

How the Arctic can lead to extreme weather

Meal Kits Make Money on Razor-Thin Margins. So This Shocked Us.

12 hours 30 min ago

Several years ago, the California meat entrepreneur Bill Niman began applying an extremely old idea to his ranch on the Northern California coast: He would treat beef as a seasonal delicacy, only slaughtering cows fattened while the grass is lush and green, from late spring to fall. As my colleague Maddie Oatman noted in a 2013 piece, the practice harkened back to a time before the rise of the modern corn-centered feedlot, which severed beef's "tie to grass growth cycles," Maddie wrote. When grass-based ranchers indulge the modern appetite for year-round beef by slaughtering hay-fattened cows in the winter, the meat is inferior in quality and taste, hurting grass-fed beef's reputation, Niman argued.

Now, Niman is applying an up-to-the-minute idea to his old-school ranch: He has sold his operation to the meal-kit company Blue Apron. Niman will stay on as CEO of BN Ranch, now a subsidiary of Blue Apron.

The news stunned me. Blue Apron is a fast-growing company with $800 million in annual sales. Niman's previous company, Niman Ranch, is a sizable producer—but Niman himself hasn't been associated with it for years, and it's now owned by chicken giant Perdue. "I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys," Niman told Business Insider in 2015. "You can't really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now]." I had thought Niman's new company, called BN Ranch, was a tiny niche operation, more suited to supplying Northern California foodie temples like Chez Panisse than providing fodder for a galloping "unicorn" (Silicon Valley-speak for a startup valued at $1 billion or more) that delivers more than 8 million meals per month.

Turns out, I was wrong about the new Niman company's size. In a phone conversation, Niman explained that he has spent the past several years quietly scaling up BN Ranch using the same method he used during the original Niman Ranch's '90s/early 2000s heyday: by banding together with other ranchers along the West Coast who share his devotion to grass and seasonality, marketing their meat under the BN Ranch brand. In order to provide year-round product while sticking to his fresh-grass principle, Niman also sources from pasture-based ranches in New Zealand, which has a "perfectly complementary season to ours," he said. Niman calls it "following the global grass seasons." Niman said the butchered beef travels to the United States via boat, aging while en route, which he characterized as an energy-efficient process. 

Niman says BN Ranch started supplying Blue Apron two years ago, and now provides the meal-kit company with half its beef. The goal, he said, is to eventually provide 100 percent. Niman plans to continue growing the beef business, not by scaling up production at his own ranch, but by bringing in more farms both in the United States and in the southern hemisphere. Niman says he visits the farms in the network often, including the one in New Zealand.

I asked him how Blue Apron can possibly pay its rancher-suppliers an attractive price while also covering costs, much less turning a profit, given the company sells meals at a rate as low as $8.74 per eater, and a BN Ranch boneless rib eyes fetch $19.99 per pound retail. He said the relationship works for the meal-kit titan and for for ranchers, because Blue Apron buys the whole cow at a fair price, and "writes menus around every part of the animal." For the rancher, that's a great set-up, because it removes the burden of marketing—for every $20/pound steak sold, a rancher has to market several more pounds of less-fancy cuts. Blue Apron, for its part, gets access to top-quality beef at a much lower price point than it would get by buying individual cuts on the open market. And the variety of cuts works for a company that sends out as many as three recipes per week to millions of customers.

I left my conversation with Niman thinking the tie-up made sense. Yet I still have doubts about the meal-kit business model, which I aired here. In short, food businesses generally operate on razor-thin profit margins, and meal kits are no different. They don't have the huge real estate expenses that restaurants do, but they face the pricey task of shipping millions of hand-packed boxes stuffed with small amounts of lavishly cosseted perishable goods across great distances. The price they charge customers may not sound cheap at first glance, but it seems punishingly so to me when you consider all those expenses. I wasn't surprised last fall when workers at Blue Apron's Richmond, California, packaging complained of tough conditions and low wages last fall. Nor was I shocked in December, when Blue Apron delayed its much anticipated initial public stick offering, because  the company "has struggled to improve profit margins as much as management wanted in the face of more competition," as Bloomberg reported.

Yet Blue Apron's big move into the grass-fed beef business does suggest confidence about the future.

The Young Turks Really, Really Don't Want You to Compare Them to Breitbart

12 hours 30 min ago

Cenk Uygur bristles at the notion that the progressive media company he co-founded more than a decade ago, the Young Turks, is becoming the Breitbart of the left—that is, a pugilistic news outlet waging an ideological war with the establishment class. If you ask him, the comparison is backward. "Andrew Breitbart, when he was on my show before he passed away, said they emulated us, not the other way around," Uygur told me in mid-March, after finishing a panel at South by Southwest. "They get a lot of credit now because our idiot president reads them, but in terms of traffic, they're nowhere near us." Besides, he added, Breitbart had done it wrong. "The trick is to be honest, and that's the part they left out."

The comparison, though, was still on Uygur's mind a few days later. "We have 80 million unique viewers" a month, he said on his nightly YouTube show—a figure that's roughly double Breitbart's monthly readership. "Breitbart is a pimple on our ass."

Yet in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the 46-year-old Uygur, a longtime critic of the Democratic Party's political establishment, has ventured into an unfamiliar and uncertain place in Democratic politics. Fed up with the "sellouts" in Washington, Uygur has emerged as a leader of a coordinated progressive effort to unseat incumbent Democrats en masse in House and Senate primaries next year.

In December, Uygur, Kyle Kulinski, a Young Turks network colleague who hosts "Secular Talk," and a pair of top Bernie Sanders campaign staffers launched Justice Democrats, a political action committee that aims to recruit and fund a slate of primary challengers under an anti-corporate, progressive banner. Justice Democrats boasts 200,000 members and has raised more than $1 million. In March, it formally joined forces with another branch of the Sanders diaspora, Brand New Congress, which has vowed to run more than 400 progressive House and Senate candidates in 2018.

To further this effort, Uygur is preparing to deploy his show—which appears on YouTube and the Young Turks website—as a battering ram against Democrats who don't fall in line. He says he will offer airtime and fundraising help for progressive challengers.

The Young Turks (TYT) is the political opposite of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon's alt-right home page. But Uygur's platform increasingly shares one big thing in common with the combative right-wing site that unabashedly eggs on intra-Republican challenges and sells "RINO hunter" coffee mugs in its online store: a mission to make the establishment squeal.

"Let them keep thinking what they're gonna think," Uygur said of the Democratic Party's consultant class. "We're gonna rout them. It's a whole new world. And yes, new media will drive us to totally new results. It'll be a much more progressive future. They have no idea what's gonna hit them."

There is plenty of cause for skepticism. Liberals don't have much of a track record when it comes to knocking off Democratic incumbents. Their biggest success in recent years came in 2006, when Democrat Ned Lamont, an opponent of the Iraq War, beat Sen. Joe Lieberman, a prominent hawk, in the Democratic primary. Yet Lamont went on to lose to Lieberman in the general election, when the incumbent ran on the "Connecticut for Lieberman" ticket. Uygur, though, believes the progressives' lack of success in knocking off centrist or moderate Democrats has been partly due to mainstream media outlets depriving would-be challengers of oxygen. And that's where he comes in.

The Young Turks started as a radio show in 2002 and eventually grew into a YouTube-based media company with 11 shows. (Uygur also hosted a MSNBC show by the same name for six months in 2011.) It is a for-profit company that received a $4 million investment three years ago from a venture capital firm headed by former Louisiana Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer. (The partnership is not as strange as it sounds; Roemer has become a leading critic of the post-Citizens United campaign finance world.)

At the same time Uygur is gearing up to do battle in Democratic primaries, he's mounting a major expansion at TYT. Since the election, TYT has raised $1.4 million in crowd-sourced donations and hired eight new staffers and contributors. The new hires largely fit Uygur's combative model. One new recruit is Michael Tracey, a bomb-throwing former Vice writer who recently called the media's "bizarre new obsession with (allegedly) rising anti-semitism" a "moral panic." Other recent hires include Shaun King, the Black Lives Matter activist and former New York Daily News columnist, and Nomiki Konst, a reporter and commentator who was chosen by the Sanders campaign to serve on the Democratic National Committee's post-election unity commission. The Huffington Post's Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim signed on as a TYT commentator, as did David Sirota, a popular progressive journalist who has recently specialized in business reporting.

TYT is gleefully in-your-face, with an advocacy bent that's atypical for a news outlet. Last month, while Konst was covering the election of the Democratic National Committee's new chairman in Atlanta, she found herself in a Twitter skirmish with longtime Hillary Clinton adviser Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress. During this scuffle, Tanden criticized TYT for taking money from Buddy Roemer. Konst replied that her own position was crowd-funded, and then she pulled out a smartphone and filmed a TYT Facebook Live segment threatening to expose Tanden for "all the money you've taken and all of the things you've done." (Asked about this later, Konst would not specify what she was referring to, but said it would be the subject of an upcoming story.)

Although TYT itself does not back candidates—and staffers such as Konst aren't involved with Justice Democrats—Uygur and Kulinski say they intend to use their shows and their social-media accounts to provide a platform and raise money for the candidates they endorse. This is not Uygur's first venture into direct political action. In 2011, he launched Wolf PAC, a group that aims to end corporate political influence by forcing a new constitutional convention of the states. The convention would then, in theory, pass a "Free and Fair Elections Amendment" limiting corporate donations. (Five state legislatures have backed his plan so far; 33 are needed to trigger a convention.) In February, Wolf PAC raised $55,000 for a Connecticut Democratic state Senate candidate, Greg Cava, who came up short in a special election in the state's most Republican-leaning district. The previous Republican had won by 36 points; Cava lost by 10. "So the message I had after the election was, 'If you're gonna vote against Wolf PAC, go ahead and do it, but you should make sure you have a 27-point lead,'" Uygur said.

Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress aren't the only progressive outfits that have sprung up to challenge their party's incumbents. Another group founded by Sanders campaign alumni, We Will Replace You, was launched in February with a similar intent. Unlike the other groups, We Will Replace You does not intend to recruit candidates; it is more focused on applying pressure on the Democratic lawmakers it considers most vulnerable, though it also plans to eventually aid candidates who fit its mold.

Co-founder Claire Sandberg, who was Sanders' director of digital organizing, is bullish about the idea of replicating the decentralized model of the Vermont senator's presidential campaign on behalf of other long-shot challengers. "We want to make it clear to Democrats that they need to pick which side they're on," she said. "They can either pick the side of Donald Trump and his Wall Street cronies, or they can pick the side of the people who are on the streets."

For now, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are putting in the behind-the-scenes work, recruiting and grooming a slate of candidates who will be rolled out later this year. The groups solicited the names of potential candidates from TYT viewers and progressive activists and received 8,000 suggestions. After four rounds of vetting, that list was whittled down to about 70 people. Of those, 30 candidates are currently being trained by Sanders campaign alumni. The first candidate the groups endorsed is Cori Bush, a pastor and nurse from St. Louis, who is running in a primary against nine-term Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay.

As for the Senate, Uygur and his allies' most immediate targets are moderate Democrats Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. (Manchin recently has dared progressive activists to primary him.) No progressive challenger has yet materialized to take on either of them, but Uygur is confident he will find contenders.

"I don't have a time frame on it, but I can guarantee you that it'll happen," he said. "But Manchin is the tip of the iceberg. Who cares about Manchin? We're going after the core of the party—he's just the symptom."

Trump Set to Take an Axe to Climate Change Rules

March 27, 2017 - 11:55pm

This is all completely expected, but it's still depressing as hell. The Trump administration has already approved two new pipelines and said it will reconsider tougher fuel economy standards that Barack Obama put in place, but that was just the start. The LA Times reports that Trump's willful destruction of the planet will kick into high gear tomorrow:

President Trump on Tuesday will order the Environmental Protection Agency to dismantle his predecessor’s landmark climate effort, backing away from an aggressive plan to cut emissions at power plants that had been the foundation of America’s leadership on confronting global warming....The directive that administration officials said Trump will issue takes aim at the Clean Power Plan, a far-reaching initiative former President Obama signed in 2015.

....Trump’s plans to curb climate action also reach well beyond power plants. A pioneering EPA rule that sets a “social cost” for carbon, placing a dollar value on the long-term damage caused by each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, will be eliminated. An Obama-era requirement that all government agencies factor climate effects into their decision making, particularly as they launch new projects, is also targeted. Trump will also lift a moratorium on coal leasing on federal land.

Oh, and apropos of Trump gutting climate change rules because climate change totally isn't a real thing, a paper published today suggests that climate change is permanently altering the jet stream in a way that produces conditions during the summer that are more favorable to long episodes of extreme weather. That means more extreme droughts, more extreme heat waves, more extreme rain, and so forth. No worries, though. Trump will be sure to take care of everyone affected by this stuff. You can count on it.

Kid Confuses Waterheater For Robot, Hugs "Robot," Shows World What Love Truly Is

March 27, 2017 - 11:16pm

This is so intensely adorable.

And  I want you to know that I do not find most things adorable.

People might tell you that I find things adorable or that I may have found things adorable in the past but people lie. People LIE. It's what they do.

Liars, the lot of them.

Never in my life have I found anything cute or adorable.

Cynical! That's my bag, doll. I dance to the beat of a heartless drum. Sad, worn-out, on my own. When I was young I would go from town to town and witness all the things collected in the local papers that were said to be cute or adorable and I would be unmoved by them. The townsfolk, they would say, "here comes that unmovable machine who feels not for cute things. For he is the bane of our existence! Never admitting how adorable or cute our things are!" And I would try to explain to them that it wasn't personal. "It's a calling, not a job."

But they wouldn't hear. Or at least couldn't forgive.

Yet, here I am. Captain Cynical, voted most cynical 3 years running in the Blaine County (Idaho) Cynics' Fare, which you shouldn't try to look up because though it is a real thing that existed when I lived in Blaine County in the early aughts the records were destroyed in a flood. Don't look up the flood either. The records of the flood were destroyed in a fire—HEY MAYBE YOU SHOULD GET OFF MY BACK, YEAH?

I didn't come here for a Spanish inquisition. I came here on a mission from the Care Bears to warm your cold hearts.

Anyway, here's the video. I don't know anything about it. Could be fake. Maybe the kid is an actor. Maybe the robot is an actor. Maybe I'm an actor. Maybe acting is a construct. Maybe we should talk about this at Burning Man.

This little girl thought a broken water heater is a real life robot. It's just not fair how cute it is pic.twitter.com/TLbuKKEEbY

— Ben Tolmachoff (@bentolmachoff) March 27, 2017

Have a great night.

Trump Just Released His Plan to Gut Obama’s Climate Policies. It’s Worse Than You Thought.

March 27, 2017 - 10:00pm

President Donald Trump will issue his long-promised executive order rolling back federal government efforts to fight climate change Tuesday.

The wide-ranging order, which will be accompanied by other environmental directives, targets Obama-era policies across the government, including in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Defense. It directs the EPA to revisit the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon pollution from power plants and was considered the center-piece of former President Barack Obama's climate policy. Additionally, Trump is asking the Justice Department to stop defending the plan in court.

The president will instruct agencies to rescind a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands; rewrite limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry; and ignore the EPA's current calculation on the costs of carbon pollution. There are also broad directives reversing an Obama initiative requiring that federal departments consider climate mitigation strategy and the national security risks of global warming.

One of Trump's more notable "Day One" promises is missing, however: The United States will remain in the landmark Paris climate accord for the time being—despite Trump's pledge to "cancel" it.

Still, environmentalists are furious. "This is not just dangerous; it's embarrassing to us and our businesses on a global scale to be dismissing opportunities for new technologies, economic growth, and US leadership," Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called Trump's actions "a declaration of war on American leadership on climate change and our clean energy future" in his own statement.

Indeed, Tuesday's actions are just the start of a long fight over the federal government's role in confronting climate change. Undoing the regulations already on the books, from the Clean Power Plan to the methane rule, could take several years. And Trump will face fierce resistance throughout the protracted fight. Green groups are already threatening legal action.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and Trump himself have all stuck to a similar script while previewing the order. They insist it will create jobs and help the United States achieve energy independence (although the US wasn't "energy independent" before the Obama rules existed). At a recent Kentucky rally, Trump claimed the executive order would "save our coal industry." (It won't.)

On a press call Monday night, a senior White House official also stuck to that script. That is, until reporters asked him whether administration staffers who worked on the order accepted the science behind global warming and sea level rise—and the research showing that climate change makes extreme weather worse.

"I would like to see" that research, said the official, who spoke on background to reporters. "Send it to me."

Asked whether the president and his staff all believe in manmade climate change, the official stumbled, "Um…again I think it's not a controversial statement. The key question is the extent over what frame of time." Asked whether the official personally believed climate change is manmade, he said, "Yeah, sure I do. That doesn't say much does it?"

It actually says a lot. Trump and Pruitt have both at times dismissed climate science—Trump infamously called it a Chinese hoax. Environmental lawyers think these pronouncements could strengthen their lawsuits. "It is possible that statements of that sort will come back to haunt them," Richard Revesz, a New York University environmental law professor, said. "It would suggest they prejudge the science before consulting with scientists. There is a pretty high burden for departing from an existing rule."

Here's the rundown of some of what Trump's executive actions will do:

Gutting the Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan was the Obama EPA's strategy for reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants 32 percent by 2030. Under this rule, states would have to submit plans to achieve customized emissions targets using a mix of renewables, natural gas, and energy efficiency. The Supreme Court put the rule on hold last year as attempts to block it wind their way through the court system, so the EPA's work on the program has ground to a halt.

Trump's order directs the EPA to revise the plan and review what it thinks is required under the Clean Air Act, which forms the basis for the power plant regulations. The moves will require an extensive public notice and comment period to justify any changes, and the administration has yet to make a timetable public.

Trump is instructing the EPA to revise the rule (and weaken it substantially)—rather than rescind it entirely—presumably because the Supreme Court told the agency in 2007 it must regulate carbon pollution if it finds carbon to be a threat to human health. The agency issued this so-called "endangerment finding" in 2009, and it was upheld in a 2012 appeals court case. As long as the EPA's finding that climate change poses a health danger remains in effect, the EPA is legally required to issue regulations based on the "best available science." While revoking the endangerment finding has long been a goal of some on the right, it would be a difficult feat that would likely involve convincing the courts that climate change is, as Trump contends, a hoax.

Adding more complication still, the DC federal court of appeals has yet to issue its opinion on the legality of the Clean Power Plan, after hearing the case on an expedited schedule last fall. As expected, Trump is now asking the Department of Justice to withdraw its defense of the plan.

Ignoring the Cost of Carbon

In 2007, a federal appellate court ruled that when performing a cost-benefit analysis on its fuel efficiency standards, the Bush administration had to account for the costs that carbon emissions inflict on society by contributing global warming and other problems. The court recognized that "while the record shows that there is a range of values [for the social cost of carbon], the value of carbon emissions reduction is certainly not zero.”

Of course, translating the impacts of carbon emissions and climate change into an economic "cost" that can be measured in dollars is a complicated undertaking. Obama's EPA ultimately worked out a formula for tabulating these costs and used it as a basis for its climate regulations.

Trump's order directs the EPA to ignore this calculation.

Ending the Moratorium on Coal Leases on Public land

In January 2016, Obama ordered a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands until Interior could update its badly outdated leasing program. Trump is now directing the department to reverse that moratorium. Unlike the Clean Power Plan, which was a formal rule that can only be undone through a drawn-out process, Interior can act on this directive immediately.

When that happens, environmental groups are ready to fight back. Earthjustice expects this to be the first in a long series of legal battles over Tuesday's order. The group says it plans to file a lawsuit within hours of the agency's action.

"We expect to challenge any action that allows coal leasing to resume before [an] environmental review is completed that evaluates whether the federal coal leasing program should be reformed (or scrapped altogether) in light of its significant climate impacts and failure to generate a fair return for US taxpayers," Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine said.

Rolling Back Methane Restrictions

The Obama administration finalized a series of regulations toward the end of his presidency limiting methane emissions. Among them was an Interior rule limiting excessive flaring and venting from oil and gas operations on public lands. Like the Clean Power Plan, this change will have to go through a formal rulemaking process in order for Trump to undo it. Trump will also rescind Obama's broad strategy, released in 2014, for reducing methane emissions.

The White House Is Looking Pretty Swampy These Days

March 27, 2017 - 11:04am

Here's a quick tour through the Donald Trump swamp today:

Jared Kushner, who has no evident qualification aside from being married to the boss's daughter, has been named to head up a new White House Office of American Innovation, which will have "sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions." I guess that bringing peace to the Middle East wasn't enough to keep Kushner busy.

Trump pal Carl Icahn is working on a plan to change the rule that governs the way corn-based ethanol is mixed into gasoline. Icahn is also the majority stakeholder in CVR Energy, which would have saved more than $200 million last year under Icahn's proposed change.

Rep. Devin Nunes, one of Trump's most loyal spear carriers, announced last week that there "might" have been "incidental" surveillance of some folks "close" to Donald Trump. But where did his bombshell come from? It turns out that Nunes met with his source at the White House grounds. So his "source" is most likely the White House itself. Maybe even Trump himself. It wouldn't be the first time Trump has done something like this.

I guess that's it for today. The day is young, though, so you never know.

On Retirement, There's a Big Disconnect Between Today's Workers and Actual Retirees

March 27, 2017 - 10:29am

The folks at EBRI have published the results of the 27th annual Retirement Confidence Survey, and once again it shows a puzzling disconnect between workers—who are relatively pessimistic about retirement—and actual retirees. Here's an example:

Generally speaking, workers are a lot more nervous about retirement than actual retirees. What's even more interesting, the disconnect began in the early aughts, when the economy was still booming. Since then, the gap has continued to grow. The 2017 results are only one data point, but they show a gap of 19 percentage points. What's going on? Why are workers so nervous, while actual retirees are reporting increased confidence?

Here's another chart:

Workers are apparently convinced that they'll never retire young and will most likely have to work forever. Actual retirees show a much different story: 39 percent retired before age 60 and only 4 percent kept working after age 70.

I know it's fashionable to talk about how screwed Xers and millennials are, and how 401(k)s have wrecked retirement. But the data just flatly doesn't back this up. Millennials earn incomes that are pretty similar to boomers, and 401(k)s have turned out to be comparable to old-style pensions. It's true that the Social Security retirement age has increased, which might account for some of the difference in expected retirement age, but only in the 65-69 age band.

Actual retirees have a message for us: things aren't so bad. In reality, the vast majority of them retired by age 65 and the vast majority say they're financially comfortable. It's likely to be pretty much the same for today's workers.

Combining Obamacare and Trumpcare Might Save Health Insurance

March 27, 2017 - 8:40am

Is bipartisanship coming back into style? With Republicans hopelessly divided, Reince Priebus suggested this morning that maybe it was time to work with Democrats on health care reform:

“I think it’s time for our folks to come together,” Mr. Priebus said, adding that it is time to “potentially get a few moderate Democrats on board, as well” as they try to bring down premiums and stabilize insurance markets.

That appeal was echoed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican who opposed the House Republicans’ health bill and has also worked with Democrats to explore changes to the Affordable Care Act without repealing it.

I don't know if this is just wishful thinking, but there might be a deal to be made here. Obamacare has a number of smallish problems but only one big one: Its insurance pool is unbalanced, with too many older-sicker (OS) customers and too few younger-healthier (YH) customers. Insurers expected differently back in 2013, which is why they priced their policies too low at first, eventually leading to big premium increases last year. It's also why several insurers have pulled out of the Obamacare market entirely. Fix the pool, and you fix a bunch of other problems at the same time.

So how do we get more YH folks to buy insurance? There are carrots and sticks, and the biggest stick is to strengthen the individual mandate by increasing the tax penalty for not buying insurance (and tightening up enforcement). However, the individual mandate is the single most hated part of Obamacare among Republicans, so there's not much chance of doing anything there. At the same time, we also can't replace the mandate with Trumpcare's continuous coverage provision, since the CBO seems pretty convinced that this would decimate the market. Basically, this has to be left alone.

But what about carrots? The best way of attracting more YH customers is to make policies cheaper for them. There are several ways of doing this, but one way would be to combine the income-based subsidies of Obamacare with the age-based subsidies of Trumpcare. Something like this:

  • Reduce the income-based subsidies by about a third.
  • Add a flat-rate version of Trumpcare's age-based subsidies: $500 per person across the board.
  • Change the age band to 4:1, a compromise between Obamacare and Trumpcare.
  • Ensure continued funding of Cost Sharing Reductions.

This would probably be more popular than Obamacare's current subsidies, since middle-class workers would at least get something to help them out with insurance even if they made too much money to qualify for today's income-based subsidies. Nobody would be left out completely. Here's a rough guess at how this would look for a single individual:

Obviously there would be winners and losers here. Somebody with a detailed model would need to analyze this, but my horseback guess is that the overall changes would be fairly modest. Still, if the middle class gets a bigger share, the poor will get a smaller share. Likewise, if the young get a bigger share thanks to the widened age band, the old will get less. There's no way around that arithmetic unless Republicans are willing to increase the total subsidy level. But these are concessions that might be worth making.

What else? We have to leave the taxes in place, but Republicans seem to have a real issue with the medical devices tax. Democrats could agree to get rid of it. Maybe the employer mandate could also be repealed, since it doesn't seem to be all that necessary.

The devil, as always, is in the details, and there are other issues with Obamacare that could be shored up too. But balancing the pool is really the biggest one, and adopting a compromise between Obamacare and Trumpcare might do a workable job of fixing that.

Could this happen? Republicans, as we know, are averse to compromise of any sort because it brings instant charges of selling out from the true believers. But the true believers aren't very popular right now, so maybe Republicans would be willing—even eager!—to use this as a chance to take them down a peg. Among Democrats, the biggest opposition to a deal is going to come from people who don't want to give Donald Trump a victory of any kind. But for a chance to stabilize a program they've spent decades trying to get passed, they might be willing to talk.

Bipartisanship is in poor odor these days, so maybe this is all just pie in the sky. But it's at least worth investigating. After all, we don't need everybody on board, just 60 percent of each caucus. That might be doable.

Republicans Are Trying to Elevate Elizabeth Warren. So Are Democrats.

March 27, 2017 - 5:00am

On February 7, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was reading a letter critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), then the nominee for attorney general, when the Senate's top Republican forced her to stop. Invoking an obscure Senate rule against disparaging colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had Warren ejected from the Senate chamber. Minutes later, she appeared on MSNBC and #letlizspeak began trending on Twitter. Warren then read the full letter—which had been written by Coretta Scott King in 1986—on Facebook Live. By the next morning, the Facebook video had been viewed more than 5 million times.

McConnell, known as one of the savviest political operators in Washington, appeared to have made an uncharacteristic mistake. Rather than silence Warren's message, he made it go viral. McConnell defended his decision that night by stating that he had warned Warren but "nevertheless, she persisted"—a phrase Warren's supporters have now emblazoned on apparel, mugs, and their bodies as tattoos.

But there were some who theorized that McConnell was, as ever, two steps ahead. Reporters and pundits debated whether McConnell had intentionally elevated Warren's public profile because he wants the Democratic Party to be defined by one of its most liberal members. Not long after, a report in Politico corroborated this theory: Republicans have decided to use Warren as a sort of boogeyman ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, when 10 Democratic senators are up for reelection in states Donald Trump won. By late February, the committee tasked with electing Republicans to the Senate launched digital ads attacking vulnerable Democrats by stating how often they had voted with Warren.

At a time of division within their party, Republicans believe the best strategy is to unite against a common foe. Without Barack Obama in the White House, they need someone else to run against in 2018. Warren, a household name and an unapologetic liberal, is an easy choice. Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington, DC, says going after Warren is part of the Republican playbook for 2020, as well. "Always define your opponent before your opponent can define you," he says. And taking on Warren now, O'Connell suggests, will hurt her chances if she becomes her party's presidential nominee in 2020.

A law professor who studied bankruptcy and debt, Warren arrived on the political scene in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. She pushed the federal government to set up an agency to protect ordinary Americans from unfair practices by Wall Street and other industries—an effort that led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the Senate, she voted down Obama's nominees whom she considered too cozy with Wall Street. She has championed issues like student loan reform and raising the minimum wage that Democrats believe will appeal to voters charmed by Trump, who has already endangered his populist reputation by filling his Cabinet with mega-rich Wall Street alumni.

What's strange about Warren is that both parties seem to agree that she should be in the spotlight. Democrats say they welcome Republicans' decision to elevate one of their most populist voices. Ultimately, they believe Republicans' strategy will backfire because Warren's reputation and message resonate across the country. "Elizabeth Warren was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts. "When you look at her first race here [for the Senate in 2012], she tapped into much of the sort of populist economic anxiety that a lot of people had here in Massachusetts. That's not going to go away."

And if red-state Democrats are afraid of Warren's progressive reputation, they don't show it. Warren has visited Republican-leaning states on behalf of Democratic candidates, from Kentucky (where she helped McConnell's challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in 2014) to Ohio (where she campaigned for Hillary Clinton last year).

One of the best examples is her work on behalf of Jason Kander, who ran a surprisingly close race last year for the US Senate in Missouri against incumbent Republican Roy Blunt. In 2018, Missouri's Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, is up for reelection, and the Warren-as-boogeyman strategy could be tested there. As early as 2015, Warren sent out emails on behalf of Kander. She held fundraisers and flew to Missouri for a last-minute rally. "Sen. Warren's profile being raised is not a bad thing for the party at all," says Abe Rakov, Kander's campaign manager. "I think she's a very, very good messenger for the party, and I think it showed in Missouri."

Of course, Kander lost, as did Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Clinton in Ohio. But Warren consistently drew some of the biggest crowds, and Rakov says her presence was only a benefit to the campaign. "After she was here, we saw our volunteer numbers go up, we saw our fundraising go up," he recalls. Over the course the election, he says, Kander's campaign had built up "a lot of evidence that it was sort of a Republican myth that she would cause us problems." (Her fundraising prowess was evident after McConnell kicked her off the Senate floor, when a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email about the incident helped the group shatter previous fundraising records.)

But if Republicans are able to cast her as a typical liberal zealot rather than a populist messenger, their strategy of running against her makes sense. "She has been very polarizing along party lines, even in Massachusetts," says Steve Koczela, a pollster in Boston. He agrees that Warren's message probably resonates with some Trump voters on a policy level but says that is unlikely to endear her to them. "Logic doesn't always apply when evaluating partisan actors these days," he says. "It's more, do people see you as with them or with the other team?"

Simply raising Warren's profile may not be enough to turn white working-class voters—whose support in Rust Belt states was key to Trump's electoral victory—against her and the Democratic Party. Roland "Butch" Taylor, a retired welder and pipefitter in northeast Ohio, supported Clinton in 2016, but many of his peers and fellow union members backed Trump. When asked about Warren, he immediately brought up the episode on the Senate floor. "When they gaveled her on the Senate floor, what did she do?" he said. "She didn't go back in the back and pout. She went right to the cameras and started her own speech in front of American people." Rather than show her as an out-of-touch liberal, Taylor said, the episode convinced him "that's the kind of leader you need." He thinks Clinton might have done better in the Ohio Rust Belt if Warren had been on the ticket with her. "She would make a great candidate for the party for 2020," he said.

That's exactly what Democrats are counting on—that Warren's persona and message will appeal beyond the party's progressive base and coastal and urban strongholds. But O'Connell says he isn't worried about Warren's populist message undercutting Republicans. Warren's support for environmental regulations, he believes, provides a wedge issue Republicans can use to hold onto working-class white voters who supported Trump in November. "What you're seeing here is a potential collision between environmentalists, which Warren loves, and big labor," he says. Taylor, whose livelihood depended on the oil and gas industries in Ohio, would be a good target of that strategy. He even qualified his praise for Warren by stressing that her appeal is contingent on her support for energy-sector jobs.

Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans simply disagree on the extent and geography of Warren's popularity. Democrats think she can attract support across the country and that her ability to fire up the base is an asset that Clinton lacked in 2016. Republicans believe her appeal is limited to her base. "The one thing I think that Republicans are betting on, should she actually become the Democratic presidential nominee," O'Connell says, "is that she isn't going to be able to come up with a message that is unifying for all 50 states."

San Francisco Fashionistas vs. Ivanka Trump

March 27, 2017 - 5:00am

Modern Appealing Clothing, with its unremarkable front entrance cut into a drab tan building on San Francisco's Grove Street, is easy to ignore. But step inside, and you begin to discern the store's many treasures: dresses and coats with exotic patterns, neon-ball adorned pillows in the shape of abstract faces, free-form paintings of googly-eyed swans, bookshelves not with volumes of verse but glass heads, and hand-printed posters decorate the space. Enlarged artistic replicas of a honey-colored suit and a flowered sundress loom above the clothing, like ghostly disembodied giants.

Ben Ospital, his sister Chris Ospital, and their mother Jeri Ospital founded the "fashion-forward" boutique in 1980. In its two San Francisco stores, clothes by well-known designers such as Comme des Garcons and Dries Van Noten hang next to small, independent labels. Their reputation for cutting-edge style secure, the Ospitals are also known as staunch supporters of arts and social justice nonprofits in the city.

And on March 16, the Ospitals broadened their portfolio by suing Ivanka Trump's clothing line for what they say is its unfair competition with clothing boutiques around California. In a class action suit filed in San Francisco county, Modern Appealing Clothing (also referred to as MAC) claims that Ivanka Trump Marks LLC—which sells business casual attire, dresses, and accessories at department stores like Bloomingdale's and Dillard's nationally and in California—has gained an unfair advantage now that Ivanka's father, Donald Trump, is president. Since the election, the plaintiffs assert, Ivanka Trump's brand and its employees have exploited "the power and prestige of the White House for personal gain."

The complaint also claims that the president himself has used his power to help Ivanka's brand thrive, for example by publicly condemning Nordstrom after the retailer dropped the line. (A Nordstrom spokeswoman quickly clarified that the decision to drop Ivanka Trump's brand was "based on performance"). White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also endorsed Ivanka Trump's products in an interview on Fox News—from the White House briefing room, with the White House insignia visible behind her.

These promotional activities magnify the unfair advantage Ivanka Trump LLC gained when its founder—who has since left her post running the company and transferred its assets to a trust controlled by her relatives—started "working for the president of the United States," the plaintiffs state. As the Washington Post reports, Ivanka disputes the assertion that she technically works for her father, but she has both a security clearance and an office in the White House. Between January and February, from Trump's inauguration to his first months in office, the Ivanka Trump clothing line's sales shot up 346 percent. Since February, the brand has enjoyed "some of the best performing weeks" in its history, a spokeswoman said in mid-March. Some of those sales are unfair profits at the expense of other California boutiques, argue the MAC plaintiffs, who seek a court order that would stop the allegedly unlawful promotional behavior. A spokeswoman for the Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment.

It's not exactly clear why MAC's owners felt that they should be the ones to file the suit against Ivanka Trump; neither they nor their lawyers would comment about the subject for this story. But theirs is only the latest chapter in a long line of controversies surrounding the Trump family's business entanglements. Earlier this month, as my colleague Russ Choma reported, the owners of Cork Wine Bar in Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit alleging that the nearby Trump International Hotel has an unfair competitive advantage in its ability to attract lobbyists and interest groups hoping to curry favor with the president. "We feel the president of the United States owning restaurants, promoting restaurants, is unfair and to the detriment of other restaurants," one of the plaintiffs told Choma. The MAC lawsuit echoes this sentiment: "My clients just want an even playing field," R. Michael Lieberman, the Ospitals' attorney, told Courthouse News Service.

But the Ospitals aren't the most unlikely candidates to spearhead such a confrontation either. Located in San Francisco, they are business owners in a progressive city in a state that's increasingly establishing itself as an anti-Trump stronghold. Growing up in Stockton, "we all had a radical streak," Ben told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016. "At 12, I was making signs for United Farm Workers protests." After the Ospitals opened the boutique's first location in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, art collector Dodie Rosekrans and even Madonna paid visits (during her "Like a Virgin" tour, "she bought a bra out of patchwork fabric," Ben told the Chronicle). The director John Waters claims MAC as his favorite clothing store; the owners have this "status-free, age-free concept of fashion," notes journalist Cintra Wilson. The Ospitals have been involved with California College of the Arts, and have for many years displayed work by artists from Creativity Explored and Creative Growth, organizations that work with adults with developmental disabilities.

A pillow made by an artist from Creative Growth, pictured at Modern Appealing Clothing.

The Ospitals say that since they filed the suit, they've received lots of support. But that won't tip the scales in court: California attorney and law blogger Kent Schmidt, who specializes in unfair business practices, wrote in his blog LeftCoastLaw that he is "doubtful that the lawsuit will survive a motion to dismiss." It will be tricky to prove that Ivanka Trump Marks LLC or its employees "engaged in this allegedly 'unfair' business practice as opposed to merely benefiting from ill-advised comments of others," he wrote.

University of California–Berkeley law professor Prasad Krishnamurthy sees a little more hope. California business code prohibits unfair competition under illegal, unfair, or fraudulent acts. Since the federal ethics code restricts government officials from making commercial endorsements, the MAC lawsuit could hinge its argument on the premise that Ivanka Trump's agents in the White House broke the law in promoting her products. Krishnamurthy adds that the remedy for the MAC lawsuit is fairly limited, which might mean a judge could interpret "unfair" pretty broadly in this case. Whatever the outcome, the suit is "symbolic in a way," Krishnamurthy says.

Shirley Juster, a tall woman in a leopard jacket and not a strand of hair out of place in her honey-colored bob, has been shopping at MAC for thirty years. The first thing she purchased was a "sculpted terrycloth bathrobe"; since then, she's tried to buy at least one or two pieces from the store every season. Upon learning of the Ospitals' lawsuit this week, "I felt I should come in and say hello and let them know I appreciate their efforts," she said and turned to examine a black wool sweater with fluttery sleeves on the racks.

Racks of jackets at Modern Appealing Clothing.

 

America's Number One Rabble-Rousing Pro-Trump Sheriff Is Under a Growing Cloud

March 27, 2017 - 5:00am

David Clarke, the controversial sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, rose to national prominence last year as a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke traversed the country speaking to pro-gun and religious rights groups, and he endorsed Trump in a fiery pro-police (and anti-Black Lives Matter) speech at the Republican National Convention. After the election, Clarke met with the president-elect at Trump Tower, reportedly under consideration to head the Department of Homeland Security.

But things haven't gone so smoothly for Clarke back home in Milwaukee County. Four people died last year in the county jail overseen by Clarke, and he has been sued three times since December over treatment of inmates. Clarke has faced calls for his resignation over the jail deaths and his absenteeism. And since January, he has clashed with other county leaders over immigration enforcement policy. Here's the latest on what's been happening on Clarke's turf:

Deaths in Clarke's jail
Clarke has faced two federal lawsuits since December, in the wake of four deaths that occurred last year in the Milwaukee County Jail. In mid-March, the family of a man who died of dehydration in April 2016 sued Clarke and the county, alleging that jail staff subjected the man to "torture" by denying him water as he pleaded for it over 10 days. County prosecutors are considering bringing felony charges against jail staff for neglect. Another lawsuit, filed last December, seeks damages for the death of a newborn in the jail last July, after jail staff ignored the infant's mother as she went into labor and for more than six hours thereafter, according to the suit.

A lawsuit filed earlier this month also alleges mistreatment of pregnant inmates. In that suit, a woman alleges that, during a seven-month stint at the jail in 2013, she was forcibly shackled with a "belly-chain" that tied her wrists and legs to her stomach during her hospitalization for pre-natal care, while she was in labor, and while she received treatment for post-partum depression after she gave birth. The restraints made giving birth more painful for the woman, left marks on her body, and made it more difficult for doctors—who insisted she be freed—to give her an epidural, the lawsuit says. The jail has a policy that inmates be shackled while receiving medical care that makes no exceptions for pregnancy, according to the lawsuit, which also states that more than 40 women were subjected to the same treatment.

County officials and relatives of the four people who died have called for independent investigations into the deaths, but Clarke has relinquished control of the investigation into only one of the cases. In December, the Department of Justice said it would "consider" launching a civil rights investigation into Clarke's office for the deaths, in response to a letter sent by Wisconsin Democratic congresswoman Gwen Moore. But it's unclear what action the department might take under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has said his department will "pull back" on investigating police abuse. Moore plans to reach out to the DOJ about an investigation into the jail, a spokesperson for her office told Mother Jones.

Calls for Clarke to resign
Clarke has been celebrated by the likes of NRA CEO Wayne La Pierre and Fox News host Sean Hannity, but he's less highly regarded in his overwhelmingly Democratic home county, despite running for sheriff as a Democrat in the last three election cycles. Multiple county and state officials have called in recent months for Clarke to resign his post. In December, three Democratic state lawmakers wrote a letter calling for Clarke's resignation, citing "gross mismanagement" of the county jail. At least one county supervisor and the county executive have also called for Clarke to resign over the jail deaths.

Clarke is also facing mounting scrutiny for his repeated absences from the job last year. Clarke visited 20 states in 2016, according to financial disclosure documents he filed with the county, often to give paid speeches in which he praised Donald Trump. He spent about 60 days out of state last year, the documents show. (Before he campaigned for Trump, Clarke took a trip to Moscow in December 2015 with a delegation from the NRA, during which they met with Russian officials.)

Lady came up, told me I should take this hat off. Told her she should go get her money back for her ugly haircut. That ended THAT! Mic drop! pic.twitter.com/SfQQDMNi9V

— David A. Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke) February 17, 2017

In January, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial calling for the sheriff to step down, citing the jail deaths, his habit of attacking his political opponents on social media—which he does on his department's official Facebook page—and the fact that Clarke seemed more focused on "pining for a job in the Trump administration" than on his responsibilities as county sheriff. County auditors have launched an investigation into whether Clarke abused his power following an airplane flight in January when he had six deputies and two K-9 units confront a passenger at the gate with whom Clarke had an unfriendly exchange on the plane.

Although Clarke's approval rating plummeted to 31 percent among county voters as of February, he has scoffed at calls for his resignation and been fundraising for a 2018 re-election bid. At least one Super PAC has also begun raising money to encourage Clarke to run for US Senate next year. (Clarke has said he has no intent to run for any public office besides Milwaukee County Sheriff.) At least one person has emerged as a likely challenger to Clarke in the Democratic primary next summer.

A showdown over immigration enforcement
In early March, Clarke sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement expressing interest in enrolling his department in the controversial federal immigration enforcement program known as 287(g). Through the program, sheriff's deputies would be trained to enforce federal immigration law in the county jail. The move put Clarke at odds with the county board of supervisors, which recently passed an "anti-discrimination" resolution that essentially sought to declare the county—home to the largest immigrant population in Wisconsin—a sanctuary county. Enrollment in the ICE program could also open the door for sheriff's deputies to make immigration arrests in other areas where the department holds jurisdiction, including county highways, parks, and the county courthouse—a location the board's resolution sought to declare a "sensitive location" where immigration arrests won't be carried out by enforcement officials.

Clarke's letter also pits him against the Milwaukee Police Department, which only shares information about a detainee's immigration status with federal officials when the person is suspected of committing a violent offense. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker urged Clarke and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn to come to an agreement on how to approach federal immigration law. But the two are unlikely to find common ground: Clarke has argued that the mayors of sanctuary cities should be prosecuted under a federal statute that prohibits harboring undocumented immigrants, and he vowed to prevent Milwaukee County from becoming a "sanctuary anything" in a post on his department's Facebook page in January.

Meanwhile, thousands of people protested at the Milwaukee County courthouse in February to denounce Trump's immigration crackdown and Clarke's plan to play a role in it. Others demonstrated at the state capitol in opposition to a bill—endorsed by Clarke, but expected to fail—that would fine sanctuary cities in Wisconsin up to $5,000 a day.

Earlier this month, a local immigrants' rights group lost a key legal battle against Clarke over his department's past compliance with requests from ICE that the department hold individuals suspected of immigration offenses. The group had sought to force Clarke to release those requests. But the court ruled that the requests were exempt from disclosure under the state's public records law, potentially jeopardizing the public's ability to get information about detentions made under 287(g). "Before this decision we were getting at least redacted information," Christine Neumann-Ortiz, president of the local group Voces de la Frontera, told Mother Jones. "Now we get nothing."

Peggy West, a board supervisor who co-sponsored the anti-discrimination resolution, cited the multiple deaths in the county jail last year as another reason to oppose Clarke's moves against immigrants. "You probably shouldn't want to put anyone in our jail at this point," West said.

James Mattis Wants to Increase America's Role in Yemen

March 26, 2017 - 11:46pm

Oh goody:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to senior Trump administration officials.

....Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there....It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies.

The Yemen civil war is one of the dirtiest little wars around. It's yet another proxy Sunni-Shia conflict, and it's not helped by the fact that the Saudi Arabians are fairly incompetent at prosecuting it. We're not going to be willing to endlessly fund an incompetent war, so if we get more heavily involved there's no telling where it ends. I hope somebody is asking James Mattis exactly what he thinks the long-term game plan is here.

Dinnertime Photo

March 26, 2017 - 8:14pm

I'm sure you're all waiting eagerly for the results of the Irvine Reaching for the Cure Half Marathon today. Sadly, MoJo's stringer, who happens to live right on the course, fell down on the job. The first-place man ran by him while he was dicking around doing something else, and the first place woman was hopelessly out of focus.

The good news is that we got a fine photo of the second-place woman. Here is Arizona Cardinals fan Natasha Gunaratne, who took second place—and first in the 25-29 age category—with a time of 1:31:00:

BREAKING: Donald Trump Played Golf This Weekend

March 26, 2017 - 7:26pm

The sad thing about this tweet is that it really would be news if Donald Trump was at the White House working this weekend:

News Alert: @POTUS spending weekend working at the White House. pic.twitter.com/kAtZVQE2Mr

— Fox News (@FoxNews) March 26, 2017

But no: Trump played golf at his club in Virginia this weekend, so it's not clear what Fox was up to here. Perhaps they meant to say that by 5:26 pm on Sunday, Trump was back in the White House.

Normally, I'd suggest that everyone cool it with the golf snark. We've now had four consecutive presidents who have taken endless grief every time they hit the links, and it's pretty stupid. Let 'em golf if they want to. But there are two differences with Trump. First, the guy really does play a ton of golf. You'd think the first few months of a new presidency would be a busy time, but Trump has played 12 rounds of golf, mostly at Mar-a-Lago, in only ten weekends. That's more than he played before he was president. Second, like an embarrassed drunk, he's now trying to hide his golf addiction. This weekend marked the second in a row in which his press office tried to pretend that Trump was "meeting with people" at the club, only to have Trump's golfing exposed, as they must have known it would be, by someone with a cell phone tweeting out pictures. Why do they bother with such flimsy and easily exposed lies?

And while we're on the subject of Trump, I'd like to note that he's hit the quadfecta I predicted on Thursday. He has now blamed all four of the following for the failure of Trumpcare:

  • Paul Ryan, for insisting on doing health care before tax reform and then being unable to shepherd the bill through the House.
  • The Freedom Caucus, for voting against his bill.
  • Democrats, for...being the opposition party, I guess.
  • Obama, for deliberately designing Obamacare to fail in 2017.

Apparently Reince Priebus is also taking some heat from within the White House, because he's pals with Ryan and was supposed to know about all this congressional hoo ha. But it's not clear if Trump himself blames Priebus for anything.

Did Donald Trump Really Hand Angela Merkel a "Bill" For NATO Services?

March 26, 2017 - 2:11pm

This story from the Sunday Times leaves me in a quandary:

Donald Trump handed the German chancellor Angela Merkel a bill — thought to be for more than £300bn — for money her country “owed” NATO for defending it when they met last weekend, German government sources have revealed.

The bill — handed over during private talks in Washington — was described as “outrageous” by one German minister. “The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said.

What to think? On the one hand, reporting on items like this from the British press is notoriously unreliable. On the other hand, it's moronic beyond belief, which makes it perfectly plausible that Trump might have done this. Hmmm.

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