Mother Jones Magazine

California Is Considering Ending Criminal Court Fees and Wiping Out Billions in Debt

Three years ago, during Brandon Greene’s first week working as a lawyer in a new clinic affiliated with the East Bay Community Law Center, he was handed a stack of cases to review. Each involved a client who was struggling to pay down the fines and fees that easily accumulate in California’s criminal justice system. It was his job to help. A handful of the cases were so old that he couldn’t find current contact information for the clients. He quickly realized that “some of those folks,” even if he did reach them, “could not get back on their feet at all”  because of their debt. “The folks who were being affected were mostly indigent,” he said. “Everything costs money. Every program costs money. And a lot of folks can’t afford to pay these things.”

Now, there’s a chance they won’t have to.

This year, state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced SB 144—the Families Over Fees Act—which would eliminate many administrative fees and discharge billions in debt, according to estimates from backers of the bill.

Stephanie Campos-Bui, a supervising attorney with the policy advocacy clinic at the University of California-Berkeley, joined forces with Greene to come up with policy solutions. First, she had to understand the problem. “You ask [a county], what’s your fee schedule? What can a person potentially be charged? And they can’t even tell you,” she said. For nearly two years, she’s tried to answer it herself.

The work was complex. Fees vary by county and are often byzantine. They can manifest as a $30-a-day charge for an ankle monitor in San Mateo, or more than $1,000 in Butte County for court-mandated reports, or $55 per court-mandated drug test in San Luis Obispo. The idea is that “using” a government service costs money. As Campos-Bui combed through statutes with her collaborators at Debt Free Justice California, they found “100 to 150 different sections of the code that allowed counties to charge fees.”

“From booking and arrests, to representation by a public defender, to supervision on probation: At every point, someone can be charged a fee for that particular service,” she said.

Campos-Bui, along with sponsors from Debt Free Justice California, has been using that data to show California officials the extent of the problem.

“The research has really been important,” Greene said. “These were things that impact the communities have known forever. But unfortunately, people just didn’t believe [it]…Then we had the data.”

They contributed to an analysis of San Francisco that found from 2012 to 2018, more than 20,000 people racked up more than $15 million in debt because of burdensome local fees, and at least $12 million in debt from just one fee—a $50 monthly probation charge—went uncollected. The 2016 collection rate for that probation fee was only 9 percent. In San Francisco alone, eliminating fees and lingering debt would cost the city $1 million in revenue, but it would also erase $32 million in debt for thousands of residents.

“It was really a lose-lose for government and the people,” said Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice in the Office of the Treasurer for San Francisco. “We don’t want to fund our books on the backs of the lowest income people in our city.”

Unlike fines, which include traffic tickets, fees are not meant to be punitive. But because they’re charged to a high proportion of low-income people who cannot afford to pay, “they end up being punitive,” Stuhldreher said. “The only job of a fee is to recoup costs.” A recent national report found two-thirds of people on probation make less than $20,000 per year and nearly 40 percent make less than $10,000 per year. A 2015 survey found that mothers pay nearly 50 percent of court costs. A respondent from Oakland said the costs amounted to “everything my mother had in savings,” and it meant she went “back to working paycheck to paycheck.” Greene put it simply: “We know the way that policing happens—you can map race, ethnicity, levels of poverty by it.”

A little over a year ago, San Francisco eliminated many local court fees and some fines after reviewing the coalition’s analysis. Neighboring Alameda County followed suit after similar lobbying. Both also discharged debt, eliminating more than $70 million across the two counties. SB 144 would do “at the state level what we did in San Francisco,” said Stuhldreher.

There’s precedent at the state level too. In 2018, California eliminated juvenile administrative fees, but it didn’t include debt elimination. Los Angeles County decided to eliminate juvenile debt independently, and thereby wiped out $89 million in debt.

The California Legislative Office calculated that debt from both fees and fines reached over $12 billion by the end of 2016 and, despite low collection rates, it accounted for $1.7 billion in state revenue for 2015 and 2016. Still, California officials consider the loss a drawback. A Senate Appropriations analysis found that state and county governments would lose out on revenue “minimally in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.” The California State Association of Counties opposes the change on these grounds. They wrote in a letter they were not against “the proposed restructuring or elimination of fines and fees,” but were concerned about “significant and permanent reduction of funding sources.” 

Particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, local governments tried to capitalize on any non-tax revenue they could find, said David Eichenthal, managing director of PFM, a consultancy that helps local governments solve financial problems. “There [was] a little bit of never meeting a revenue source you didn’t like,” Eichenthal said. “But the reality is that you could raise revenue in a way that may be penny-wise, but pound-foolish.” 

The problem lies in how that revenue is generated. The US Department of Justice’s report after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, showed 40 percent of the city budget’s revenue came from fines and fees, which led to a “focus on generating revenue” in the police department. It brought in money but harmed the city. 

San Francisco discovered the same issues. “We were handing people a bill for a few thousand bucks when they got out of jail,” Stuhldreher noted. “It just didn’t make sense. The math didn’t add up. The fees are charged to very low-income people who cannot pay them.”

But there could soon be a solution. PFM launched the Center for Justice and Safety Finance to help forge a national model for reducing revenue from criminal justice fines and fees. The group is working with three counties—Dallas in Texas, Davidson in Tennessee, and Ramsey in Minnesota—to develop plans. Funded by a $1.3 grant from the Arnold Foundation, it’s an explicit test run, said Eichenthal, to create a blueprint for local government to end reliance on the criminal justice system for revenue.

He says many local governments want to make the change but are not sure how to do it. “They’re just sort of frozen in their ability to move forward until they can answer the question of, can you do this in a fiscally responsible way?” he said.

Ronal Serpas, a former New Orleans police chief who is working with the group, said he saw the blowback firsthand. “The police are being essentially distracted from their mission of public safety” because they are turned into a de facto “debt collector” for the city.

It’s still unclear if SB 144 will pass; it has made its way through the Senate and awaits a hearing in the Assembly. But a recent court case, People vs. Dueñas, has already begun to upend the system and point out broad flaws in the criminalization of poverty. After Velia Dueñas, a homeless mother, was charged for being unable to pay traffic fees, her attorneys appealed; the courts decided prosecutors had to show Dueñas had an ability to pay. Defense attorneys are using the argument to overturn charges for their low-income clients.

“We know by the way that policing happens—you can map race, ethnicity, levels of poverty,” says Greene, who also worked on the Dueñas case. “Ability to pay is not enough—actual elimination is the thing that makes the most sense.”

The Price of Insulin Is a National Disgrace

Over on Twitter, my post about the soaring price of insulin provoked an argument over the cost of producing the stuff. Let’s run through that. For comparison, the aspirin you buy at your local drug store is priced at about 5-10x the cost of the raw material, depending on whether you buy name brand or generic. Here’s how things pencil out for insulin:

  • The cost of producing the raw active material for a fairly expensive type of analog insulin is $100,000 per kilogram.
  • That’s $0.0001 per microgram.
  • A typical daily dose is around 100 units, or 3,500 micrograms.
  • That comes to a production cost of 35 cents for an average single-day supply.
  • Or $10 per month.
  • Or $126 per year.

For old-school RHI (regular human insulin) the production cost is about a quarter of that. Call it $30 per year. The total cost of creating the final product and distributing it is higher, of course, but no more than double or triple the cost of manufacturing the dry powder.

And how much do ordinary people pay for insulin? Thousands of dollars per year. This is for drugs that have been on the market for decades and have long since paid back their R&D costs.

Two or three decades ago, insulin was priced at about 5-10x the production cost of the raw material. This is about how aspirin is priced. Today, pharmaceutical companies charge at least 20-30x their production cost for insulin and more likely around 100x. Nevertheless, every year the price keeps going up. Why? Because there’s nobody to stop them.

Israel’s Prime Minister Just Renamed a Controversial Settlement After Donald Trump

On Sunday, Israel officially named a settlement in the disputed Golan Heights after President Donald Trump.

At the ceremony to inaugurate the new settlement, standing on a carpet of AstroTurf and in front of a gold-trimmed sign that reads “Ramat Trump,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are proud to have the opportunity to establish a new community, and also to honor a big friend…Many years have passed since a new settlement was established in the Golan Heights. Today it is happening: We are making an important step toward the rise of Ramat Trump. It will proudly carry the name of a very great friend of the State of Israel, and I am also very proud to say a great friend of mine—President Donald Trump.”

The move wasn’t exactly unexpected. Trump’s largely uncritical stance towards Israel has pushed the two leaders closer together since Trump took office. In December 2017, Trump broke with decades of US policy and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol, to the outrage of much of the Arab world and international community. Then in May 2018, he doubled down by relocating the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And in March, Trump declared his support for Israel’s claim to the disputed Golan Heights in a tweet: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Afterwards, Netanyahu announced he would name a settlement after Trump.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and formally annexed it in 1981, eight years after Syria attempted to retake the territory in a 1973 surprise attack. While much of the international community considers Israel’s annexation illegal under international law, Trump has taken a more laissez-faire approach.

As for the settlement, the Associated Press reports that it has a population of 10 people and was in fact established 30 years ago. Netanyahu suggested on Sunday that the community may expand rapidly in the future. But that may be easier said than done. Ramat Trump, (Trump Heights in Hebrew), previously known as Bruchim, is a half-hour drive from the nearest Israeli town, but just 12 miles from the Syrian border, where the war occasionally spills over. It is also surrounded by high yellow grass and landmines, according to the AP.

David M. Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, noted in a Twitter post that this is the first settlement Israel has named after a sitting president since Harry Truman in 1949. Naturally, Trump called it a “great honor”.

Thank you PM @Netanyahu and the State of Israel for this great honor!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2019

Insulin and the Free Market: A Brief Inquiry

The Washington Post tells the story today of Lija Greenseid:

Her daughter, who is 13, has Type 1 diabetes and needs insulin. In the United States, it can cost hundreds of dollars per vial. In Canada, you can buy it without a prescription for a tenth of that price. So, Greenseid led a small caravan last month to the town of Fort Frances, Ontario, where she and five other Americans paid about $1,200 for drugs that would have cost them $12,000 in the United States.

The cost of insulin has been soaring for a long time. It’s doubled just since 2012:

That chart is from 2016, and the price of insulin has kept going up since then:

The pharmaceutical companies will tell you that this is all just list price and doesn’t represent the true price of insulin after discounts and rebates. Pay no attention to this special pleading. Here is the average out-of-pocket cost of insulin for Medicare patients:

And as the price of newer forms of analog insulin rose, guess what happened to old-school products that had been on the market for years?

U500 is a highly concentrated form of insulin for insulin-resistant patients. Between 2010-2014, it suddenly skyrocked in price from $12 to $59. That’s a 400 percent increase in five years.

There are multiple suppliers of insulin, but as you can see from the top chart, they all increased their prices in lockstep. There appears to be not a single pharmaceutical company with any interest in lowering their price in order to win a bigger market share. It is a mystery to me how these companies continue to avoid an antitrust action from the federal government.

Trump Campaign Purges Pollsters After Devastating Internal Polling Is Leaked

Just two days before Trump will kick off his reelection bid inside a 20,000-person arena in Orlando, Florida, NBC News and the New York Times reported on Sunday that his campaign has purged three of its five pollsters after some bleak internal polls were leaked.

The 17-state poll—which Trump first claimed didn’t exist, and after it became public, called “fake” and “put out by the corrupt media“—showed that he was trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in several crucial battleground states, including Florida, Texas, and some Midwestern states. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the poll showed him down by double digits.

Per the Times:

For days, aides to Mr. Trump have tried to figure out whom to point the finger at over the leak of the data, which jolted and infuriated the president. But in continuing to discuss it, aides violated a long-held unofficial rule of campaigns not to comment publicly on internal polling, even if the numbers leak.

The resulting furor led to an effort by the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, to tighten control. By removing several pollsters, the campaign hopes to shrink the circle of outside operatives who have access to information that could leak, according to the presidential adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

But the Trump campaign’s internal polls aren’t the only ones showing that Trump has a hill to climb. A Fox News poll released early Sunday showed him trailing Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) by 10 percent and 9 percent respectively, and with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) with small leads. Earlier this week, Quinnipiac University released results from its first national head-to-head match-ups between Trump and six of the leading Democratic presidential contenders. The poll has him losing to all of them, by between 5 and 13 points.

Meanwhile, around the time the Times story ran about his miserable poll numbers, Trump was tweeting about how six years into his presidency, “America has been made great again” and suggested that the voters will demand he stay on beyond the two-term limit. 

Trump Just Said He Wants a Poll on the “Dishonest” News Media. Polls Show People Trust Him Less.

On Sunday morning, President Trump tweeted about the New York Times and the Washington Post, calling them “dishonest” and “deceitful,” while parroting his typical line of attack that he believes them to be the “Enemy of the People.” “A poll should be done on which…is worse,” he wrote.

Indeed, trust in the media is still hovering around its 2016 historic low—perhaps in part because of Trump’s own incessant assaults on the news. Nevertheless, trust in the media among American voters is still higher than trust in Trump.

We have polled on whether people think the New York Times or Washington Post have more credibility or you, and you lose out 51-38 and 49-38 to them respectively

— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) June 16, 2019

“We have polled on whether people think the New York Times or Washington Post have more credibility or you, and you lose out 51-38 and 49-38 to them respectively,” the Public Policy Institute tweeted at Trump Sunday morning. Their findings have been backed up by several other polls in recent years. A Quinnipiac University poll from February 2017 showed that 52 percent of Americans said they trust the news media over Donald Trump to tell the truth about important issues, and only 37 percent reported that they trusted Trump more. Another Quinnipiac poll from September 2018 found that Trump’s numbers had dropped even lower: 54 percent of American voters trusted the media more than President Trump, and just 30 percent trusted Trump over the media.

Trump can trash the Times and the Post all he wants, but he’s only exposing himself when he does.

A Scientist Took Climate Change Deniers to Court and Wrested an Apology From Them

This story was originally published by National Observer and is shared here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

In 2011, renowned scientist Michael E. Mann sued a Canadian think tank that published an interview suggesting his work on climate change was fraud.

Eight years later, the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy—which often promotes climate change denial—apologized Friday and wiped the inflammatory interview from its website.

“(The apology) gives me faith in our legal system that truth can still win out, even in an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,'” Mann said in an email to National Observer.

In the fight against climate disinformation, experts like Mann, an atmospheric scientist at Pennsylvania State University, are turning to new arenas.

Mann is best known as the lead researcher on a landmark 1998 paper on climate change. He and three colleagues reconstructed global temperatures going back about 500 years, producing a now-infamous sideways-hockey-stick-like graph of global temperatures that showed a sharp upswing beginning in the 1900s.

Mann has spent the two decades since the paper’s publication defending it and his reputation against climate change deniers—sometimes in court. He settled with the Frontier Centre on Friday, but a related case in British Columbia and a similar one in the United States are ongoing.

In a message posted to its website, the Frontier Centre apologized for publishing “untrue and disparaging” comments about Mann.

“Although the Frontier Centre for Public Policy still does not see eye to eye with Mr. Mann on the subject of global warming and climate change, we now accept that it was wrong to publish allegations by others that Mr. Mann did not comply with ethical standards…” the think tank wrote in part.

I've settled my claims in BC Supreme Court against The Frontier Centre for Public Policy Inc. on a basis which includes the following retraction & apology. I have not settled my claims against Tim Ball, who remains a defendant in that lawsuit:

— Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) June 7, 2019

In an email to National Observer, Frontier president and CEO Peter Holle said the group is choosing to address the issue of climate change through its other activities instead of the courts.

“The organization had an opportunity to settle with Mann to avoid further expenditure of time and resources on the matter,” Holle wrote.

Though Mann said the Frontier Centre was smart to retract and apologize, he also pointed out that the case was about untrue allegations of misconduct, not the group’s stance on climate change, making it an outlier.

“Making false and malicious allegations about a scientist is illegal,” Mann said by email. “The law is the appropriate recourse, and often an effective one, as this latest episode demonstrates.”

Climate scientists should be challenging climate disinformation publicly more often, said University of Calgary climatologist Shawn Marshall, “but it is a matter of picking our battles.” Scientists aren’t marketers, Marshall added, but now find themselves in the business of convincing the public their findings are real—an especially difficult task in the polarized realm of social media.

One example played out in real-time Saturday when Milton MP and deputy Conservative party leader Lisa Raitt—who has a master’s degree in environmental biochemical toxicology—tweeted a link to a Financial Post opinion piece that falsely claimed, against scientific consensus and a report released by the federal government in April, that there’s “no solid connection between climate change and the major indicators of extreme weather.” The story was authored by an economist who does not believe in climate change.

Soon after, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe replied.

“Hi Lisa—I am a climate scientist,” tweeted Hayhoe, a Canadian working at Texas Tech University, linking to YouTube videos explaining the climate crisis. “The article you quote above is incorrect and dangerously misleading. For the sake of our shared country, please have the courage and the integrity to update your understanding.”

Hayhoe shared several more links and invited Raitt to reach out if she had questions. Raitt deleted the original tweet in short order and shared one of Hayhoe’s, saying it was “important to read this as well.”

Well I’ve learned my lesson in tweeting anything about climate change. I’m going to be transparent & let you know I’m deleting the earlier tweets. I’m not the one to fight with on this because like most I believe that emissions cause climate change and we should reduce emissions

— Lisa Raitt (@lraitt) June 8, 2019

“Well I’ve learned my lesson in tweeting anything about climate change,” Raitt posted later the same day. “I’m not the one to fight with on this because like most I believe that emissions cause climate change and we should reduce emissions.”

Hayhoe replied with a thank you: “If all our politicians were like this, we would be in a much better place!” she tweeted.

Most people who deny climate change do so because they’ve received information that lines up with their beliefs from a source they trust, Hayhoe told National Observer.

“It’s not a case of people doing this largely for nefarious reasons, for selfish reasons, for greedy reasons, for evil reasons,” she said.

In an interview with National Observer Wednesday, Raitt said the original tweet wasn’t an attempt at a climate change-denying political statement—she was sharing an article she’d read, and wasn’t aware of the author’s background. Once Hayhoe and others pointed out the clash between the article and scientific consensus, she realized she “didn’t want to be a lightning rod on this topic” and deleted it, Raitt said.

“(Hayhoe’s) tweet spoke to me, because it was clearly somebody who was giving me the benefit of the doubt that I wasn’t trying to make a political statement,” Raitt said. The two later had a conversation in private messages and made plans to meet the next time Hayhoe is in Ontario.

The science of attributing extreme weather events to climate change is an emerging one, and Raitt said she’s just learning about it now. However, she said she “fundamentally” believes in climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—something she then took flack over from climate change deniers on Twitter.

“Me being caught in this crossfire between two different streams of thought on whether or not extreme weather is a result of climate change, that’s not an argument I am educated enough to have,” Raitt said. “I wasn’t going to win on either side of this.”

Earlier in his career, Marshall said, he used to engage more with online climate-change denial, something he’s since given up on. “I used to try to respond to it and give proper sources to support the truth and facts, but then they just came back with more rant and often it turned to harassment and bad language.”

Marshall also participated in two public debates with representatives of Friends of Science, a climate change-denying nonprofit, but said he worries it didn’t help—climate change deniers can confuse the facts with false information, while scientists must stick to research that might be difficult for non-scientists to fully understand.

“On the other side there’s no rules,” he said. “It’s hard to win against that.”

Instead of fighting with climate change deniers directly, Marshall said he now prefers to spend time arming his students with the information they need to combat climate myths.

“I’m feeling defeated,” Marshall said. “I feel like we have to fight this in a different way than having arguments with people who don’t want to have a discussion.”

Another climate change-related legal dispute happened in 2009, when scientist Andrew Weaver, who’s now a BC MLA and leader of the province’s Green party, sued the National Post over a series of four articles he said attacked his character. The articles also expressed skepticism about climate change.

In April 2017, a BC judge overturned a previous ruling, which was in Weaver’s favour, and ordered a new trial. Weaver’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for an update, and Weaver said in a phone interview that he couldn’t comment on the case.

A spokesperson for the Post‘s parent company, Postmedia, declined to comment as the matter is still before the courts. One of the reporters named in the suit, Kevin Libin, was promoted on Monday to become executive politics editor for the entire Postmedia chain, including local dailies like the Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen.

Climate change court cases remain rare—the best way to combat garden-variety denialism is to try to understand where the person is coming from on an individual basis, Weaver told National Observer. That can allow you to make arguments that appeal to the person’s values, rather than making them feel attacked.

“I don’t think it helps to belittle,” Weaver said. “People talk all over each other. Unless you know where someone’s coming from you don’t know how to address their arguments.”

Though public figures rarely, if ever, back down on climate change denial publicly, Hayhoe said she continues to try to have those conversations for the sake of others who are reading along and might be unsure what to believe.

“Every single one of us, what we do in areas that we don’t know too much about is we look to (thought leaders) to form our opinion,” she said.

“I do them more for other people who want to know what is the truth.”

Donald Trump Just Found Another Infuriating Way to Undermine Science

He has done it again. President Donald Trump just found a new way to undermine science—and benefit industry—from the federal level.  On Friday evening, when it was unlikely to receive much coverage, the president issued an executive order directing federal agencies to “evaluate the need” for and severely limit the number of expert panels that advise them. 

According to the executive order, Trump wants agencies to gut at least one-third of their advisory committees within a few months:

Each agency shall, by September 30, 2019, terminate at least one-third of its current committees established under section 9(a)(2) of FACA, including committees for which the:

(i)    stated objectives of the committee have been accomplished;

(ii)   subject matter or work of the committee has become obsolete;

(iii)  primary functions have been assumed by another entity; or

(iv)   agency determines that the cost of operation is excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government.

Agencies have turned to experts for guidance on “everything from air and water pollution to drug safety and foodborne illnesses,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are about 1,000 advisory committees governmentwide, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.

The Environmental Protection Agency will be further crippled by the executive order. An EPA spokesperson told The Hill that the agency will “will review its [Federal Advisory Committee Act] obligations in line with the President’s executive order.” Similarly, a spokesperson from the Interior Department, which has more than 100 federal advisory committees, told the publication that it “looks forward to another opportunity to review” their committees, in order to “improve the utility of these advisory committees.”

This move culminates a concerted effort by the Trump administration to remove science from the government that began almost immediately after he was sworn in. “For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees,” Gretchen Goldman, the research director with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, said in a statement. “Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice. It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.”

Meghan McCain Asked Twitter for Father’s Day Dad Stories. Thousands of People Replied.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Arizona Senator John McCain who died of brain cancer in August 2018, on Wednesday asked her Twitter followers in the “#DeadDadsClub” to share stories of their dead fathers on her timeline ahead of Father’s Day.

“Anyone else out there who is dreading Father’s Day this Sunday – I feel you, and have been trying to come up with something positive to do Sunday,” she wrote. “Maybe we will all feel less alone?” What the co-host of The View may not have expected, perhaps, is the outpouring of support and personal stories thousands of her followers shared in response to her tweet.

Anyone else out there who is dreading Father’s Day this Sunday – I feel you, and have been trying to come up with something positive to do Sunday. So, I want you to feel free to share #deaddadsclub stories on my timeline and I will share it. Maybe we will all feel less alone?

— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) June 12, 2019

McCain’s ask came a few days before President Donald Trump’s critics decided to dub Friday, June 14, #JohnMcCainDay, in an apparent effort to troll the president on his birthday. Started by Andy Lassner, the executive producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the hashtag went viral.

Honoring an American hero today.

Let’s celebrate @realDonaldTrump’s birthday today by having #JohnMcCainDay trend.

I’m sure this would mean a lot to patriot like Donald Trump. #JohnMcCainDay

— andy lassner (@andylassner) June 14, 2019

(It’s no secret that Trump wasn’t a fan of the senator when he was alive, a feud which continued past McCain’s death. In May, the president’s staff reportedly asked the Navy for the USS John S. McCain to be out of sight ahead of the president’s visit to Japan.)

The Census Bureau announced Saturday that more than 60 percent of the 121 million men in the United States are fathers, the Associated Press reports. In honor of fatherless children, and belatedly, #JohnMcCainDay, here are some of the moving and remarkable stories shared on Meghan McCain’s timeline:

My dad died unexpectedly 10 months before my wedding. 14 years later and I still can’t watch a father/daughter dance. I always leave the room and cry. Thinking of you this Sunday …. #deaddadsclub

— NurseNora78 (@DeglowNora) June 12, 2019

My father died the day before my wedding of emphysema after a long battle. I knew he would never walk me down the aisle as I sat by his bedside and addressed my wedding invitations. My wedding and my father’s death will always be intermingled. My marriage didn’t last either.

— Shannon Green (@Shannon99138495) June 12, 2019

My Dad 86, died from cancer 6.25.18. I was former Navy. Retired from 2nd career 10 days before he passed. He was the best Dad to his only child, me. I was blessed to have a Dad who loved me unconditionally. He loved his grandchildren, great grandkids and son in law. #deaddadsclub

— All Are Created Equal (@DesignerNails) June 12, 2019

My dad passed 5 years ago on June 18th a few days after Father’s Day. I spend the day as normal as I can but give myself one hour doing something my father enjoyed. This year, by complete coincidence, I am playing basketball – the sport he taught me as a young girl #deaddadsclub

— Maggie Mae Ramold (@mmramold) June 12, 2019

My dad, an Air Force fighter pilot, died in a plane crash 31 years ago. I was young so I barely knew him but have a few amazing memories. Even though I’ve been a member of #deaddadsclub for awhile, it’s still painful. My heart goes out to you, the McCain family, & all in the club

— Brittany Conklin (@BE_Conklin) June 13, 2019

I lost my dad to glioblastoma when I was 13 years old, on October 19th, 2004. I miss his voice and the feel of his scruffy cheeks on mine when he would give me a hug. He gave so much to his kids. Hardest part is knowing that my daughters never met him. #deaddadsclub

— Alex Kolster (@alexkolster) June 13, 2019

My dad died on 8/15/18 after a 3 1/2 year battle with cancer. I treasure my memories of him. He did not want us to mourn, but remember him in simple ways. He was a proud US Marine. My heart is broken.

— Penny Davis (@pennyedavis) June 12, 2019

It’s been 16 years since my dad passed. I struggle to recall the detail of my fondest memories. I don’t have a good answer re Father’s Day. I still break down on occasion. But I try to be like him for my kids and now my two grandkids and it makes me feel like I’m honoring him.

— Brett L. Tolman (@tolmanbrett) June 12, 2019

This is my father, Jack Bernard Gaines. Losing both parents to cancer by the time I was 26, I empathize and admire your courage in sharing. They both taught me to find my “Safety in Self” and “… finish what’s begun; before our days are done. We must be true.” #deaddadsclub

— Jeffrey Gaines (@jeffreygmusic) June 13, 2019

My dad passed away last September, a few weeks before his 92nd birthday. I was able to spend some time with him in the days before he passed, and I will always treasure that.

Try not to dread Father’s Day though. Bask in the memories of your shared experiences. #deaddadsclub

— Cam Edwards (@CamEdwards) June 12, 2019

This handsome gentleman is my dad, Gary Lukatch. He very unexpectedly died on April 1, 2019 while on holiday in Beruit, Lebanon. He was 75 years old, and Lebanon was the 75th country he had visited. I am still in shock and miss him every minute.

— DemoTeachers (@DemoTeachers) June 15, 2019

He would always call me peanut. Even in my 30s. #deaddadsclub

— Carolyn Schamberger, APR (@cschamz) June 12, 2019

This is a photo of me and my father at my Bar Mitzvah. He passed away suddenly last March in 2018. He was only 67. I was only 24. Not a minute goes by where I’m not missing nor thinking of him

— (((Oren Glickman))) (@GlickmanOren) June 13, 2019

I lost my Dad on March 14th this year. He was 90 years old. He loved the @Raptors and it breaks my heart knowing he isn’t here to watch them play in the finals. He had the best sense of humour even making us laugh a few days before he died. I miss him so much. #deaddadsclub

— Theresa (@T_4an) June 13, 2019

Join Me On a Dive Down the Rabbit Hole of Health Care Admin Costs

I went down a rabbit hole last night, so today I’m going to torture you by telling you all about it. It started on Twitter, where I learned that various versions of the chart below are extremely widespread:

Two things immediately struck me. First, the number of administrators suddenly skyrocketed between 1993-96. I can’t think of any good reason for this. Second, it shows the number of physicians growing by only 150 percent, and I know that’s not right. In reality the number has more than tripled. So that got me curious: where did this chart come from?

The number of physicians is pretty easy to get. Right now there are a little more than 1 million physicians and surgeons in the US. It’s also pretty easy to get numbers for the entire health care sector: about 16 million. The hard part is figuring out how many administrators there are. Of the sources cited in the chart, neither the BLS nor the NCHS is going to help with this, so I went searching for Himmelstein and Woolhandler. They are prolific writers, but the closest I found to this chart was this one that goes up to 1987:

This matches the orginal chart through 1987, though it’s worth noting that H&W are forced to make a lot of assumptions to get here.¹ The reason is simple: there is no remotely reliable measure of the number of health care administrators in America. In fact, I can’t figure out where H&W got theirs. It’s allegedly sourced to the 1989 Statistical Abstract of the United States, but I sure can’t find it there and I have no reason to think the federal government has ever tracked this. But let’s plow ahead anyway.

In 2003, H&W estimated that health care administration costs (not personnel) had increased from $450 in 1987 to $1059 by 1999—and this is a very broad number since they include things like the time doctors spend on admin chores. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, that’s an increase of about 80 percent. But the chart that kicked off this post shows an increase of around 4x during that period. The H&W number is far more believable. I suspect that the 4x increase is an artifact of some kind, perhaps due to a reclassification of job functions. Or maybe it was just a mistake. In any case, it’s been carried over in every chart since.

This takes us to 1999. But what about now? Here’s a page from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2018:

Everyone here is a practitioner or a medical assistant, not an administrator. It adds up to 13 million. With a total of 16 million people in health care, that leaves 3 million unaccounted for. Those are the administrators, receptionists, billing clerks, etc. Insurance adjusters and other outsiders add about 2 million to the total, all of them administration, which gets us to roughly 5 million administrators out of 18 million total, or 28 percent. H&W estimated that administration and clerical workers made up 27 percent of the health care labor force in 1999, increasing at a rate that would get us to 30 percent by today. So the right number is probably between 28-30 percent. Let’s call it 29 percent.

Put that all together and it suggests that the number of administrators has increased about 30-40 percent since 1999.

So what should our chart really look like? I have three different suggestions. The first just puts together the data points that I’ve outlined so far:

The second comes from the federal government, and it’s their estimate of government admin costs plus private insurance admin costs. This does not include hospital billing clerks, IT departments, and so forth, but it still ought to provide us with a benchmark of sorts for the growth rate of administration:

Finally, here’s a chart based directly on figures from Himmelstein and Woolhandler (Table 2 here):

This is nowhere near the 3000 percent growth on the original chart, but it’s still pretty high. It’s probably safe to say that health care administration has grown somewhere on the order of 1000 percent over the past 50 years. But why?

This is what brings us to the final, most correct chart. Here’s the thing: fifty years ago we didn’t have MRI techs or transplant hospitals or routine ultrasounds or proton beams for cancer patients. Four years ago I spent a couple of weeks at City of Hope to treat my cancer; the treatment I got—not to mention the entire campus in its current form—didn’t even exist in 1970.

In other words, the main reason that administration has gotten bigger is because medical care has gotten bigger. Since 1970, adjusted for inflation, health care spending has gone up about 600 percent and the number of health care workers has gone up about 500 percent. It’s only natural that the number of administrators would go up at least that much as well.

So the real question is: how much has administration gone up above and beyond the overall growth in health care? Here’s the answer based on two of the estimates above:

Once you take into account the growth in health care generally, the share devoted to administration has gone up by 50-100 percent. That’s a lot! But it’s also not that surprising. In 1970, the health care industry spent approximately $0 on IT management. Today they spend a bundle, and all of that is admin overhead. Purchasing has exploded too, since there are far more things to purchase these days. Regulations have grown along with technology, so compliance offices have grown. Doctors and hospitals have always spent hours on the phone arguing with insurance companies, but that’s probably grown too.

I don’t mean for any of this to excuse the growth rate of administration, which might be higher than it should be. And there’s certainly no question that our absolute level of administrative overhead is insanely high. H&W estimate, for example, that the share of workers dedicated to administration is about a third higher in the US than in Canada. Needless to say, this is largely because Canada doesn’t waste boatloads of money on private insurance and all the overhead that implies.

Bottom line: the health care system has grown tremendously over the past 50 years, but that’s mostly not because we have a lot more doctors. It’s because we have MRI techs and ultrasound specialists and more kinds of nurses and more kinds of pills and enormous proton beams to cure cancer. (Those proton beams are massively expensive and require large staffs, but that doesn’t mean you need any more oncologists per patient.) To manage all this new stuff, we need bigger admin and support staffs. As a result, admin and support have grown about 50-100 percent on a relative basis. That’s the real number.

¹Note that their estimate include a huge jump between 1984-87. However, this makes some sense since the Reagan administration changed the Medicare payment system in 1983 in a way that might plausibly have led to a big increase in administration costs.

Remember When Trump Waved a Paper at Reporters and Said It Was a Secret Deal with Mexico? Here It Is.

Earlier this month, after his trip to Europe, President Donald Trump announced he had cut an immigration deal, including secret provisions, with Mexico that would stop, for now, his proposed and widely-criticized tariffs.

I am pleased to inform you that The United States of America has reached a signed agreement with Mexico. The Tariffs scheduled to be implemented by the U.S. on Monday, against Mexico, are hereby indefinitely suspended. Mexico, in turn, has agreed to take strong measures to….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 8, 2019

The president did not disclose those details, but did flash what he said was the agreement at reporters, and promised to reveal its contents in the future. On Friday, the Mexican government released the text. It turns out, the “deal” Trump heralded was a whole lot of nothing. In fact, it is more of an arrangement to continue discussions.

“The United States and Mexico,” the agreement reads, “will immediately begin discussions to establish definitive terms for a binding bilateral agreement to further address burden-sharing and the assignment of responsibility for processing refugee claims of migrants.”

Politico described the back and forth as a classic example of how Trump creates a crisis, exacerbates the crisis, “[a]nd finally, cut a vague, imperfect or constitutionally questionable deal at the last minute, claiming victory and savaging the critics.” 

The document, shared on Twitter via Bloomberg’s Mexico bureau chief Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, indicates that a future agreement between Mexico and the United States would be part of a “regional approach to burden-sharing” in processing migrant claims. Mexico also commits to “immediately begin examining” its laws and regulations to identify “any changes that may be necessary” to accommodate a future agreement.

As Rachel Withers at Vox explains:

“The release of the letter doesn’t reveal any new commitments from Mexico, and more or less lines up with the joint statement released on June 7. In the declaration, Mexico agreed to take ‘unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration,’ including deploying its National Guard throughout the country and giving priority to its southern border. It also declared that ‘those crossing the US Southern Border to seek asylum will be rapidly returned to Mexico where they may await the adjudication of their asylum claims.’

The agreement doesn’t mention anything about not imposing the tariff on Mexican goods that Trump was threatening, and is, at most, an agreement to have discussions about a potential future deal.”

Read it here:

Well, Mexico just released the full page that @realDonaldTrump carried when he said there was a secret agreement

— Carlos Manuel Rodríguez (@carlos_rgz) June 14, 2019

America Is Targeting the Russian Electric Grid — But Don’t Tell the President

The New York Times reports that we have been aggressively installing malware in Russia’s electric grid:

Since at least 2012, current and former officials say, the United States has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid. But now the American strategy has shifted more toward offense, officials say, with the placement of potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before. It is intended partly as a warning, and partly to be poised to conduct cyberstrikes if a major conflict broke out between Washington and Moscow.

….Officials at the National Security Council also declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting about the targeting of the Russian grid, perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians.

This was obviously an “official leak.” But why? To make sure that Russia knows how vulnerable they are? Or to send Russia into a tizzy looking for malware? Hard to say. But here’s the best part of the story:

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

I appreciate the sentiment here, but it makes so sense. If the intelligence community is willing to talk to the Times, they obviously aren’t concerned about Trump’s blabbing. Nor are they concerned about the fact that he might cancel the operation.

My amateur guess is a little different: this is really a way of making sure the American public knows about the cyberwar program. Trump could still stop it, but he now knows that his cancellation would be leaked and he’d look like a Putin stooge—not something he can afford more of right now. This is not a subtle form of bureaucratic battle, it’s hardball of the most explicit kind. The intelligence community—including Trump’s own NSC—pretty obviously wants to make sure there’s no chance of Trump not getting the message.

HuffPost Just Published a Bombshell Story About the EPA

This story was originally published by HuffPost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A top Environmental Protection Agency official gave a presentation last year at a gathering of some of the most zealous deniers of climate science, highlighting the influence a small, fringe movement hawking crank theories now wields in Washington.  

Emails HuffPost reviewed reveal Bill Wehrum, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, gave a presentation in early February 2018 at an event organized by the Cooler Heads Coalition, an umbrella group of tax-exempt charities and right-wing nonprofits that includes some of the most ardent proponents of climate change denial.

Three other EPA officials―associate administrator Tate Bennett, senior counsel David Harlow and then-spokeswoman Liz Bowman―attended the confab with Wehrum, the emails show.

In an email dated Feb. 6, 2018, Myron Ebell, who has led the Cooler Heads Coalition for more than two decades, offered gratitude for the EPA officials’ attendance at the previous day’s event, and invited the group to the next meeting a month later.   

“Thanks Bill, David, Liz, and Tate, for coming to Cooler Heads and for your presentation and taking questions, Bill. It was most useful,” Ebell, who led the Trump administration’s EPA transition team, wrote. “We look forward to seeing any or all of you at future meetings.”

The EPA declined to comment on the nature of Wehrum’s presentation and whether any officials attended other events with the Cooler Heads Coalition.

“EPA takes time to meet with stakeholders on a variety of regulatory issues, this is no different,” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud.

Ebell did not respond to calls and text messages requesting comment.

The revelation is not surprising from an administration that’s attempting to eliminate or delay, by The New York Times’ estimate, at least 83 environmental regulations, particularly rules to curb climate pollution. The EPA is expected to announce a proposal next week to replace Obama-era power plants rules with a regulation that would, by the agency’s own estimates, allow for enough pollution to cause up to additional 1,400 premature deaths per year by 2030. 

“The fact that Bill went to talk to a group like this is the cherry on top of a toxic sundae,” Joseph Goffman, a former senior counsel and associate administrator for climate who served in the Obama-era EPA, said by phone. “It’s the toxicity of the sundae that’s really going to have the damaging impact on people’s lives.”

But the emails show the degree to which top officials at the nation’s leading public health agency have cultivated chummy ties with “fringe conspiracy theorists,” the Sierra Club, which released the records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, said in a statement, calling the relationship “despicable.” 

“It removes any illusion that the EPA is acting in good faith to ensure the public trust.”

“It removes any illusion that the EPA is acting in good faith to ensure the public trust,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University. 

The Cooler Heads Coalition formed in the late 1990s as mounting evidence of global warming began to fracture the industrial alliance that mobilized a decade earlier to downplay the threat of unfettered greenhouse gas emissions. A year before its merger with oil giant Mobil, Exxon gave $95,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the right-wing think tank where Ebell works, in a grant titled “Global Climate Change Program and other support,” according to documents published by the Climate Investigations Center.

Yet as the oil industry started distancing itself from widely debunked scientific contrarians, far-right philanthropists and dark-money groups stepped in to fund the Cooler Heads Coalition’s members. The financiers include the Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, and the foundations of the oil industrialist Scaife family, the manufacturing scion Bradley family and the Mercers, the Long Island hedge funders who backed President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

That marked a shift from climate denial as a practical means of protecting carbon-polluting industries toward a new ideological fervor, enshrining opposition to climate science as a key part of anti-government dogma, said Riley Dunlap, a researcher and professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University who tracks climate denial groups.

“The Cooler Heads Coalition grew out of the frustration that industry was no longer opposing climate change as much as they thought,” Dunlap said. It’s “really a radical group of climate change deniers.”

The realities of climate change were clear to scientists even before rising seas started to inundate coastal cities like Miami on sunny days and extreme hurricanes and wildfires devastated Puerto Rico, California and Texas in recent years. At least 97% of peer-reviewed research concludes that emissions from burning fossil fuels, industrial farming and deforestation blanket the planet in gases that trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere. A 2015 paper, meanwhile, found significant flaws in the methodologies, assumptions and analyses used by the 3% of scientists who concluded otherwise.  

At 70%, the vast majority of Americans understand climate change is happening, and 57% recognize humans are the primary driver, according to polling data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In October, the United Nations released a dire report warning that, unless world governments slash emissions by nearly half over the next decade, the planet is projected to warm beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, causing about $54 trillion in damages and killing millions. A month later, the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report by scientists at 13 federal agencies, confirmed the findings.

That’s done little to sway Wehrum.

In January, he said he was still on the fence about climate change, telling E&E News, “I’m trying to figure that out.”  

“I’ve had a series of briefings with climate change experts to help me better understand this,” Wehrum told Reuters that same month. “Everybody is still exploring the science of climate change.”

A former corporate lawyer who lobbied on behalf of clients to weaken air pollution rules, Wehrum has ramped up those efforts since joining the EPA, becoming a chief architect of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. He remains in close touch with his former law firm, according to The Washington Post.

“It’s not surprising that Wherum would have been featured at a Cooler Heads Coalition event,” Kert Davies, director of Climate Investigations Center, said by email. “He fits right in with the roster of climate deniers and other charlatans that Cooler Heads has hosted at events over the past two decades.”

The White House Sent the Weirdest Flag Day Tweet—and the Internet Can’t Stop Laughing

June 14 was Flag Day, a minor holiday that was established by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to celebrate the day in 1777 that the Continental Congress made the stars and stripes the official American flag. In honor of the event, the White House Twitter account posted this celebratory tweet:

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 14, 2019

The photo, highlighting the moment President Donald Trump hugged the American flag at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, triggered a cascade of outrage and hilarity from politicians, commentators, and professional comedians on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and TBS’ Full Frontal, some describing the tweet as “weird” and “not what Betsy Ross intended.” 

Remember when @WhiteHouse wasn't a parody account?

— Rep. Mark Pocan (@repmarkpocan) June 14, 2019

We, too, celebrated #FlagDay with a ceremonial flag hugging here at the Trump Presidential Twitter Library in D.C.! #DailyShowLibrary

— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) June 14, 2019

This is not what Betsy Ross intended #FlagDay2019

— Full Frontal (@FullFrontalSamB) June 14, 2019

In which the official @WhiteHouse Twitter account celebrates #FlagDay by tweeting a picture of Trump giving a flag a #MeToo moment.

— Miranda Yaver (@mirandayaver) June 14, 2019

Michael Cohen just wrote that flag a check for $130K.

— Chris Jackson (@ChrisCJackson) March 4, 2019

The almost universally critical responses apparently didn’t deter the president from invoking Flag Day again on Saturday, when he tweeted support for a proposed bill from Sen. Steve Daines’ (R-Mont.)—who introduced similar legislation in in 2017 and 2018—  that would prevent the “physical desecration” of the American flag. This is a cherished issue for Trump, who has called for punishment for burning the American symbol. Shortly after the 2016 election, he tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” 

All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2019


Trump didn’t respond, much less acknowledge, to the avalanche of criticism for having his aggressive embrace of the flag as the official White House acknowledgment of the holiday. But the criticism just kept coming:

This is real real weird.

— Chris Howie (@MrChrisHowie) June 14, 2019

This isn't some idiotic campaign or RNC account. It's the official White House account. How far toward the Third World we've sunk.

— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) June 14, 2019

I prefer American Presidents who don't hug adversarial foreign powers and accept campaign assistance from foreign countries.#FlagDay

— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) June 14, 2019

There's some sort of orange shit stain on the flag.

— Brandon Bird (@Brandon_Bird) June 14, 2019

Yes. The official White House post for Flag Day is the Imbecile-in-Chief humping it at CPAC. This really is like living in a Third World dictatorship…except less competent.

— Fred Wellman (@FPWellman) June 14, 2019

From the official US Flag Code:

"The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way….The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. "

— Jay Bookman (@jaysbookman) June 14, 2019

There’s So Much Plastic in the Environment That Bees Are Making Nests Out of It

This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last summer, scientists in South America were studying the impact agricultural practices have on the surrounding ecosystems, and specifically how natural areas and fields are pollinated as a result of their proximity to one another. In the midst of this analysis in San Juan, Argentina, the team of researchers made a totally unexpected discovery: a bee’s nest made completely from plastic.

San Juan is a region with a desert climate abutting the Andes that is nonetheless known for wine production, among other crops. Most growing operations there are family run, which provides a lot of data for those studying the relationships between human activity and nature. In this case, that means human-made materials finding their way into an unexpected place.

“The nest was found in a chicory field for seed production in San Juan, Argentina,” says Mariana Laura Allasino of the National Agricultural Technology Institute, who coauthored a report on the find in the journal Apidologie. The nest belonged to a bee from the family Megachilidae, which are solitary bees that often build nest cells from material they collect, such as soil, bits of leaves, and even animal fur. In this case, the nest cells were made of “light blue plastic, of shopping bag consistency,” and “white plastic, thicker than the previous one,” Allasino says.

“Due to our activities, human beings are contributing to the ecosystem’s degradation and biodiversity loss,” says Allasino, via email. “The most fascinating thing about this finding is that it suggests the adaptive flexibility that certain bee species would have in the face of changes in environmental conditions.” It’s almost a positive message. While we can’t tell yet if the plastic was harming the bee or its ability to reproduce, she says, it is a demonstration of just how adaptable nature can be.

Birds and other animals have long been known to incorporate pieces of plastic and other artificial materials into their nests, but it is quite rare to see among insects. In fact, the only other recorded case was when Canadian researchers discovered natural bee nests partially constructed with plastic (alongside natural materials) in 2013. The nest found by Allasino and her team is the first ever documented made entirely of plastic. “The replacement of natural materials by plastic could be due to a limitation in the availability of vegetation in the fields or an overabundance of waste, which could be directly related to the management of agricultural activity,” she says. “Plastic waste is something usual we can find in an agricultural field that comes from neighbors who throw waste in the fields or from the inputs of agricultural practices.”

The researchers in Argentina plan to analyze DNA from the dead larvae found in the plastic nest to confirm the exact species. (It’s not known whether the nest material had anything to do with the fate of the larvae.) “We will continue to set trap-nests for solitary bees to know the species that are present in the fields,” Allasino says, “and to increase the probability of finding another nest with the same characteristics as the one we already found.”

A Nasty Swine Flu in China Means Big Trouble for US Farmers

A relentlessly rainy spring and President Donald Trump’s trade war with China aren’t the only forces haunting the Midwest’s corn and soybean farmers. A deadly, highly contagious disease called African swine fever—thankfully, harmless to humans—is sweeping through China’s hog farms, literally killing demand for feed.  

African swine fever has already wiped out at least 20 percent of the nation’s hog herd this year, according to the Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank. That amounts to about 90 million pigs—more than the entire US hog population, the globe’s second-largest behind China. That’s bad news for American farmers, because China imports large quantities of our soybeans. China houses nearly 60 percent of the entire globe’s pig herd—and fattening nearly half a billion pigs for slaughter every year requires it to import two-thirds of all globally traded soybeans.

African swine fever has already wiped out at least 20 percent of the nation’s hog herd this year.

The problem will likely linger. “We hold the view that it will take over five years for China’s pork production to recover fully from ASF,” Rabobank notes. That’s because there’s no cure or vaccine for it—the only way to stop ASF is to kill all exposed pigs and impose draconian sanitation measures. The virus moves easily among pigs, and can travel great distances in contaminated feed and equipment, workers’ clothing and shoes, feral swine, and ticks. It has already spread to Mongolia, Cambodia, North Korea, South Korea, and Vietnam; and west to parts of Europe.

The United States has so far managed to avoid this plague, but the United States Department of Agriculture is on high alert. In recent months, it has rolled out a surveillance system and is “actively preparing to respond if ASF were ever detected in the US,” the agency reported in May. In April, a US pork trade group canceled its annual World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, citing an “abundance of caution” and fear that attendees from “ASF-positive regions” might carry the disease to the United States. 

But China’s struggle with the infection is already roiling the US farm belt. Fewer pigs to fatten in China translates to less need for feed. The US agricultural lender CoBank estimates that the swine-fever crisis means China will import about 15 percent less soybeans over the next year than it would have with the swine fever crisis. Soybean demand would be lower still, if Chinese authorities weren’t responding to the pig shortage by ramping up production of other soy-eating meat sources, mainly chicken, CoBank notes.

ASF represents yet another setback for US soybean farmers, but it’s a potential boon to the our meat industry. China will have to import more meat, including chicken, to make up for the domestic pork shortfall.

US-based meat giant Tyson Foods—a massive producer of pork, chicken, and beef—is licking its chops: China’s ASF woes offers “significant upside to our pork business, while also lifting the chicken and beef businesses as substitutes,” CEO Noel White wrote in a May 2014 note. The industry is already cashing in. Even though China maintains a 62 percent tariff on US pork as part the trade war, it bought 143 thousand metric tons of it in the first three months of 2019—almost five times as much as it imported in the entire year of 2018. The stock prices of Tyson and chicken giants Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms have all surged upwards of 40 percent in 2019, driven in part by speculation that US meat producers will benefit from the spread of ASF. 

If the US meat industry does get a major export boost from ASF in Asia and Europe, that will ultimately be good news for the Midwest’s farmers, who will be well-positioned to supply the feed. But the impact on soybean and corn prices will likely be muted, CoBank says. The ASF crisis appears to be accelerating a trend among Chinese consumers to eat less pork and more chicken—and chicken is more feed-efficient, meaning it requires less soybeans and corn per pound than pork.

Of course, if ASF does manage to jump the ocean and take root on US hog farms, corn and soybean prices would tumble anew. So in addition to the climate chaos that’s soaking their fields at planting time and the political chaos that’s pinching their foreign markets, the Midwest’s farmers are feeling the squeeze from a virulent animal disease spreading on the other side of the world. 

The Trump Administration Is Trying to Use the Scott Warren Case to Scare Activists. It’s Not Working.

The highly publicized federal case against humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren, who was accused of helping migrants at the US-Mexico border, ended in a mistrial on Tuesday. Warren, a volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, was charged with one count of conspiracy to transport and two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants following a 2018 arrest. He was facing up to 20 years in prison.

Since 2004, volunteers with No More Deaths have left food, water, and other supplies for people crossing over the harsh desert of the US-Mexico borderlands. In January 2018, two Central American migrants—Jose Sacaria-Goday and Kristian Perez-Villanueva—showed up at No More Death’s aid camp, The Barn, in Ajo, Arizona. According to The Intercept, Warren found the men shortly after and gave them food, water, clean clothes, and shelter. Border Patrol agents spotted the group outside of The Barn several days later, and say they saw Warren pointing north while speaking to the men. They accused him of instructing the migrants on how to bypass a nearby Border Patrol checkpoint.

Last month, Amnesty International released a statement urging the US government to drop all charges in the case. “The US government is legally required to prevent the arbitrary deaths of migrants and asylum seekers in border areas,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. The group also created a campaign online where people can email US attorney Michael Bailey urging him to drop the charges. Nearly 19,000 emails have been sent so far. 

The jury was tasked with deciding whether Warren’s intent was to aid Goday and Villanueva further into the US by shielding them from law enforcement or if it was to simply provide humanitarian help. After three days of deliberations, it failed to reach a unanimous decision—eight jurors sided with Warren, while four thought he was guilty. While the hung jury is a win for Warren, the victory may be temporary. A status hearing is set for July 2 to determine whether or not the government will seek a new trial.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post last month, Warren warned that his case “may set a dangerous precedent, as the government expands its definitions of ‘transportation’ and ‘harboring.'” He said these have “always been applied selectively: with aggressive prosecutions of ‘criminal’ networks, but worries that “now, the law may be applied to not only humanitarian aid workers but also to the millions of mixed-status families in the United States.” According to Warren’s attorney, Greg Kuykendall, the only thing Warren is guilty of is providing the men with “basic human kindness.” 

According to Warren’s attorney, Greg Kuykendall, the only thing Warren is guilty of is providing the men with “basic human kindness.”

“This is a microcosm of this much bigger issue that’s at play right now,” says Jason De León, a professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. De León also runs the Undocumented Migration Project, a nonprofit that researches undocumented migration between Latin America and the US. I talked to him about the significance of Warren’s case and the impact it could have on future humanitarian aid efforts at the border.

Mother Jones: Why do you think Warren’s case specifically has become so high profile?

De León: The severity of the charges was one of the things that really made this case more public. The prosecution is being incredibly aggressive—much more so than we have seen in previous cases. You had folks doing a lot of the same things that Scott Warren and [No More Deaths] were doing getting arrested for littering. Whereas now, rather than just go for this lower charge, they advanced it up to be issues of human trafficking. You hadn’t really seen that before.

Both sides are pushing for this case to be more public for different reasons. There was an interest in making an example out of Scott Warren. And at the same time, you’ve got all of these pissed off people who support migrant rights. Who don’t think humanitarian aid is a crime. Who also recognize that this is an important battlefield right now. And so this has to be high-profile so that people can understand that this is what the federal government is doing.

MJ: NPR recently reported that there’s been an increase in charges like Scott Warren’s where people are being federally charged with bringing in and harboring migrants, especially after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors to prioritize these cases in 2017. Can you talk more about the spike in these arrests under the Trump administration?

DL: Even before Trump, the antagonism between the Border Patrol and humanitarian groups like Tucson Samaritans and No More Deaths has really been ramping up with agents being very aggressive in terms of their harassment of humanitarian workers. Under Trump, you’ve seen folks who were already doing these aggressive things towards humanitarian groups now feeling emboldened. In a lot of ways, the anti-immigrant and racist sentiments we have seen amplified under the Trump administration are exactly the same things we’re seeing with the border patrol, except now there’s nobody keeping them in check. Now we’re seeing a much more concerted effort by the federal government to put an end to humanitarian work that’s been going on for close to two decades. It’s open season now on these humanitarian groups.

MJ: What messaging do you think this case sends to other humanitarian aid groups and just everyday people? What cultural and symbolic impacts do you see this case having?

DL: The federal government is trying to make people afraid to help folks. These are scare tactics. But I don’t think it’s working. If anything else, the Trump administration is emboldening activists and people who are fed up of dealing with this to be more public and be more vocal. There are a lot of Scott Warrens in the world—people who are willing to go to jail for their beliefs in human rights.

MJ: What legal precedent would be set if the federal government convicts Scott Warren?

DL: If they can make the charges stick, that would just embolden them to just keep doing it. But they’ve been trying to do that with migrants for a long time, charging them with felony reentry to slow them down and stop them from coming. We’ve seen that throwing the book at them hasn’t worked. Killing migrants in the desert has not stopped this flow of people.  Even if a legal precedent is set to start really coming after these humanitarian groups, I’m not totally convinced it’s going to work. We saw this with the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when they were charging pastors with harboring migrants because they knew these people were going to die if they were sent back to their home countries. No matter what the federal government throws at folks, they know that human life and caring for another individual is more important than any change in a federal law that they know is morally wrong.

We don’t live in a moment where being cautious about this issue is going to be helpful.

MJ: How has the US government’s Prevention Through Deterrence policy historically been applied to humanitarian aid groups?

DL: Migrants have been dying in the Arizona desert in high numbers since the mid-90s. As soon as locals started noticing this spike in death counts, they immediately started mobilizing trying to do whatever they could to help alleviate some of the sufferings. That involved leaving water for migrants, giving first aid. Of course, Border Patrol doesn’t like that because it undermines the primary goal of Prevention Through Deterrence, which is to slow migrants—whether that be through death or through physical suffering. Someone giving water and bandages to folks lies against the core mission of Prevention Through Deterrence.

I think Border Patrol has always thought of humanitarians as this sort of thorn in their side. Except now, they just feel like legally they’ve got a firmer footing to stand on because they’ve got the support of the White House to really come at these folks. You could not have done this under the Obama administration. Even though Obama was doing horrible things to migrants—deporting people and detaining them and doing all kinds of stuff—they were still, at least superficially, pretending to care about migrant human rights. Whereas now, you can put babies in cages, you can have kids die in custody, and nobody is blinking. 

MJ: Is there anything that you feel has gotten lost in the coverage of Scott Warren’s case?

DL: A lot of people don’t understand that Prevention Through Deterrence is a border enforcement strategy purposefully designed to force migrants out into places like the Sonoran Desert where there’s a high likelihood of death. We’ve known that for a long time. It’s been publicly stated. We knowingly put people in harm’s way through this policy. We have killed thousands of people with the Arizona desert and the south Texas backwood, and yet no one seems to think that that is a crime. No one seems to think that that is something we should be prosecuting. 

People have to understand that Scott Warren and others like him are reacting to a federal [policy] that has knowingly put people in harm’s way. At some point, there’s going to have to be a legal reckoning for the American government. The law, hopefully, will cut both ways and the people who have designed these policies and who continue to keep them in practice will eventually be held legally accountable for this loss of life.

I Got Yer Exploding Bullets Right Here

Here is Kevin Williamson over at National Review:

I Was Promised Exploding Bullets!

You know, Charlie, I have been looking all over for some of those “exploding bullets” I keep reading about, but I am unable to find any for sale. The reason for that is that — cool as “exploding bullets” sounds! — they do not really quite exist.

(This would not come as news to people who understand how bullets work, but never mind that.)

The “exploding bullets” thing is an eternal myth, spread by, among other sources, shoddy public-radio journalism (shout out to KERA in Dallas!). Firearms are, for some strange reason, a subject to which America’s editors are all too content — proud, even — to assign reporters who are utterly ignorant.

The Washington Post published Adam Weinstein’s hilarious defense of this ignorance under the headline “The NRA and its allies use jargon to bully gun-control supporters.”

This is a very peculiar post. First off, it links to an earlier post about a report on KERA that “contained a preposterous invention: Chicago’s criminals, the report said, covet something called ‘R.I.P.’ bullets, which are, in the report’s words, ‘designed to explode inside the body.’ ” But this is not at all preposterous. For starters, teenage gangbangers probably believe lots of stuff. So what? And in this case, the R.I.P bullet does indeed exist and it took me only 10 seconds to find it: it’s the “Radically Invasive Projectile” from G2 Research, a bullet with eight copper petals that separate upon impact. Or, in vernacular, it explodes into nine separate pieces when it hits you.

Then Williamson goes after Adam Weinstein for his “hilarious defense of this ignorance.” But Weinstein’s piece, which ran over a year ago, says nothing about exploding bullets. It’s about the way gun folks try to pretend you can’t have an opinion about gun control if you don’t know what AR stands for¹ or get confused about the difference between a magazine and a clip.² Or the difference between automatic and semi-automatic.³

I dunno. It’s a slow day over at National Review, I guess.

¹You don’t really need to know this, but the answer is Armalite, the name of the original manufacturer of the AR-15.

²You don’t really need to know this either, but the answer for most of the guns you see on TV is “magazine.”

³This you actually should know:

  • Automatic: you pull the trigger and a hail of bullets flies out of the muzzle as long as you keep pressure on the trigger. This is what you see in war movies or on TV shows about drug lords. It’s illegal for a civilian to own an automatic rifle manufactured after 1986. Ownership of pre-1986 automatic rifles is legal but very rare. They’re quite expensive and require an extensive application process to register with the ATF.
  • Machine gun: another name for an automatic rifle.
  • Submachine gun: This is the gun you associate with Al Capone. It’s an automatic that’s nearly the size of a machine gun but uses smaller handgun rounds.
  • Semi-automatic: you pull the trigger and a single bullet is fired. Pull it again, and another bullet is fired. You have to pull the trigger for every round you fire.
  • Manual load: a gun that requires you to manually load a new round after every shot. Virtually all rifles prior to the 20th century required manual loading: flintlocks (think Revolutionary War), lever action rifles (think old-time Westerns), pump-action rifles (think skeet shooting), bolt-action rifles (think deer hunting), and so forth.

In real life, nearly all rifles you’re likely to see are semi-automatics or manual loads, and all handguns are either semi-automatics or revolvers.

Hey, Taylor Swift, LGBTQ People Don’t Need an Ally. We Need an Accomplice.

This week: “You Need To Calm Down” by Taylor Swift (Republic Records, 2019)

Why we’re into it: This is a great pop song, even if we can’t excuse the weak allyship.

From the moment the first beat hits, it’s clear this is a Taylor Swift song. In what’s become a signature of hers, the song comes in hot, wasting no time sinking its Swifty pop hooks into your ears. She arrives within the first few seconds on a bouncy synth beat, flipping iambs into trochees (“Patrón” is rendered “PUH-trone”). It’s catchy and fun, an earworm of a pop song, and it revives a bit of hope that her next album Lover won’t be the mess that “ME!” was. It is also, yet again, her take on trying to “own” the haters. In this case? Homophobes.

Under all the rainbows and catchy hooks, “You Need to Calm Down” is allyship misunderstood.

Earlier this month Swift posted a much-circulated letter addressed to her Republican senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. In it she asked Hunt to support the House Equality Act, a sweeping bill that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in our workplaces, our schools, and in other public accommodations. It was a bold and unexpected move from the apolitical pop star. But that old, apolitical Taylor is dead. From old Taylor’s ashes has risen a new outspoken pop star who hopes she’ll release a more blatant political pop song.

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HAPPY PRIDE MONTH!!! While we have so much to celebrate, we also have a great distance to go before everyone in this country is truly treated equally. In excellent recent news, the House has passed the Equality Act, which would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in their places of work, homes, schools, and other public accommodations. The next step is that the bill will go before the Senate. I’ve decided to kick off Pride Month by writing a letter to one of my senators to explain how strongly I feel that the Equality Act should be passed. I urge you to write to your senators too. I’ll be looking for your letters by searching the hashtag #lettertomysenator. While there’s no information yet as to when the Equality Act will go before the Senate for a vote, we do know this: Politicians need votes to stay in office. Votes come from the people. Pressure from massive amounts of people is a major way to push politicians towards positive change. That’s why I’ve created a petition at to urge the Senate to support the Equality Act. Our country’s lack of protection for its own citizens ensures that LGBTQ people must live in fear that their lives could be turned upside down by an employer or landlord who is homophobic or transphobic. The fact that, legally, some people are completely at the mercy of the hatred and bigotry of others is disgusting and unacceptable. Let’s show our pride by demanding that, on a national level, our laws truly treat all of our citizens equally. Click the link in my bio to sign the petition for Senate support of the Equality Act.

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on May 31, 2019 at 9:05pm PDT

Swift has a lot of experience in dealing with haters and that experience shines when she’s singing about that. “Say it in the street, that’s a knock-out. But you say it in a tweet, that’s a cop-out.” It’s when she tries to include this idea that homophobes need to “calm down” that she falters and stumbles into the tropes that many queer people struggle with in their allies.

“You need to calm down, you’re being too loud,” she directs the homophobes and haters. “You need to just stop, you need to just stop, like can you just not step on his gown? You need to calm down.”

This “can you just stop?” attitude is where many allies fall short, not just Swift. LGBTQ people are still facing hatred, barriers, and violence, at astonishing levels. Governments around the world and here in the US are attacking us. We’re still fighting every day for our humanity to be recognized. The idea that we can just ask oppressors to stop stems from the same assumption that homophobia is nothing more than a character flaw; it’s right around the corner from the idea that “all sides” deserve respect. 

It’s time for allies to evolve. LGBTQ people need accomplices now. An accomplice is someone who is putting as much on the line, maybe even more, than the other. An accomplice ends up in jail with you. An ally is someone you hope will answer your one phone call.

While “You Need to Calm Down” features a shoutout to the LGBTQ organization GLAAD and an allusion to those infamous homophobic protest signs, its message of allyship is half baked and loaded with the sentiment that queer people need to accept any handout of humanity allies provide. 

“I ain’t tryna mess with your self-expression,” she sings. But homophobia isn’t “self-expression”; it’s violence.

Taylor is at her best when she’s her exaggerated self. That’s what’s always made her so fun. Within all the nonsense, there was a sliver of self-awareness. But “You Need To Calm Down” has no semblance of that. Instead it comes off like another #Pride campaign tailored to make money off of queer people.

Taylor’s not ill-intentioned at all; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Allies aren’t bad people, no, no, no. It’s just that right now LGBTQ people don’t need allies. We need accomplices.

Trump’s Immigration Id Is Coming to the White House

On Friday morning, while celebrating his birthday by calling into Fox & Friends, President Donald Trump began rattling off the “fantastic people” enforcing his immigration agenda. One name caught the show’s hosts off guard. Trump unexpectedly announced that Thomas Homan, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was returning to the his administration.

“What is he doing?” Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade asked. “What is Tom Homan doing?” After initially ignoring the questions and leaving Kilmeade dumbfounded, Trump finally got around to saying that Homan will be his new White House “border czar,” a vague but likely influential role that doesn’t currently exist.

The real surprise is that it took Trump this long to bring Homan back. Since retiring as ICE’s acting director last June, Homan has used his new incarnation as a Fox contributor to ceaselessly praise Trump and attack Democrats. The appearances have furthered Homan’s shift from a loyal bureaucrat under Barack Obama to Trump’s immigration id. After winning the government’s highest award for civil servants under Obama, Homan has become a knee-jerk Trumpian whom many of his former colleagues struggle to recognize. Trump’s announcement on Friday completes Homan’s transformation.

Homan will now have more access to the president than ever, as Trump contemplates ever harsher ways to make a dent in the record numbers of families crossing the border. In a number of recent TV hits, Homan has made clear what one of those policies should be: massive ICE operations to arrest families who received deportation orders but did not comply with them. Such has plan existed for months, Homan recently said. ICE just needs to go out and make it happen—negative press be damned.    

Unlike ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen or her acting replacement Kevin McAleenan, Homan, a ruddy-faced barrel of a man, will never be accused of being overly polished. And that is just how Trump likes it. Standing before a wall of police officers at a 2017 speech, Trump mused that someone who saw Homan on television thought he looked “very nasty” and “very mean.”

“I said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for,’” Trump recalled. “’That’s exactly what I was looking for.’” As Mother Jones wrote in a profile last year, Homan, who began his career as a Border Patrol agent in 1984, lived up to that image as ICE’s acting director:

He has appeared on Fox News to say that politicians who limit cooperation with ICE should be charged with crimes and has staged retaliatory operations against their cities in the meantime. ICE arrests were up 41 percent last year and 171 percent among people without criminal records. ICE is now pursuing even the most sympathetic undocumented immigrants. That is part of Homan’s goal. Testifying before Congress last year, he warned, “If you’re in this country illegally…you should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”

It was a striking change in tone for a man who was well liked by the immigrant advocates who joined the Obama administration. Cecilia Muñoz, who ran the White House Domestic Policy Council and worked closely with Homan, told me last year, “I find the Tom Homan that I see on TV now unrecognizable compared to the one that I saw in the Situation Room.” But others were less surprised. A former DHS colleague explained, “Tom doesn’t do nuance. Tom is brute force.”

Homan is returning to a dramatically different situation at the border. When Homan announced he was leaving government, roughly 10,000 parents and children traveling together were crossing the border each month. Last month, more than 80,000 did—a number that would have been all but unimaginable just a year ago. Homan places essentially all the blame on Democrats who have refused to pass a law that would allow the Trump administration to deter families by detaining them indefinitely. (The Obama administration enacted that very policy, only to have it blocked by a judge in 2015, in a ruling that requires families to be released after about 20 days.)

When Trump first picked Homan to lead ICE on a permanent basis in November 2017, his nomination went nowhere. The Senate didn’t even get the paperwork. It was unclear why. Trump obviously liked him, and Homan was already doing his part on Fox News. Homan announced last April that he was retiring while his nomination was still pending.

As border numbers have surged in recent months, Homan’s encomiums to Trump have reached new heights. Earlier this week, on the Fox Business Network show hosted by informal Trump adviser Lou Dobbs, Homan was sycophantic even by his standards. “Look,” Homan said with a smile, “President Trump is just a great president.” There were so many obstacles—Democrats, a meddling appeals court in California—yet Trump had accomplished more on the border in two years than any of the five other presidents he served, Homan said at a time when border crossings are the highest level in more than a dozen years. 

“He’s a great president. He’s keeping his word,” Homan continued, jabbing his fingers at the camera with enthusiasm. “He’s defending America. I’m proud that he’s my president.” Three days later, Trump couldn’t contain his excitement and announced that Homan will soon be reporting directly to him.