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A reporter says a Republican candidate “body slammed” him after asking about the GOP health care bill
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Here’s the audio.

Greg Gianforte, a Republican running for the open House seat in Montana, reportedly “body slammed” a journalist the day before the state’s special election, according to eyewitness accounts and audio posted by the reporter.

Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for the Guardian, a British newspaper, tweeted Wednesday evening about the incident.

The Guardian later posted audio of the incident, in which Jacobs appears to calmly ask Gianforte about the new Congressional Budget Office score of the House health care legislation. The incident quickly escalates from there, judging by the audio, which lasts for 45 seconds.

Gianforte responded in his own statement, portraying Jacobs as the aggressor who intruded on a private interview without permission.

Another reporter on the scene corroborated some of Jacobs’s account.

The Montana special election, in which Gianforte is facing Democratic folk singer Rob Quist, is Thursday. Gianforte is running to replace Republican Ryan Zinke, who was appointed to be President Trump’s interior secretary. Gianforte has been considered a slight favorite; Cook Political Report rates the race Lean Republican.

A few political analysts on Twitter noted that many ballots have already been cast, because Montanans can vote by mail.

Vox Sentences: CBOh that's another very bad health care score
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Vox Sentences is your daily digest for what's happening in the world, curated by Dylan Matthews and Dara Lind. Sign up for the Vox Sentences newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday, or view the Vox Sentences archive for past editions.

New health care bill, same as the old health care bill.


CBOh man

JANESVILLE, WI - AUGUST 09: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at his Primary Night press conference, August 9, 2016 in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan defeated Republican challenger, Paul Nehlen for the first district primary election. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
  • Nearly three weeks after the House voted to pass it, the Congressional Budget Office finally has estimates for how many people will lose insurance under the latest version of the American Health Care Act, and how much it will cut the deficit. [CBO]
  • Whereas the first version of the bill, which the CBO examined in March, would cost 24 million people health care, the new version only denies coverage to … 23 million people.
  • Since the first version, the bill has been changed to include a large ($117 billion over 10 years) subsidy so that states can set up “high-risk pools” that subsidize insurance for very sick people with very large medical bills. It also added an amendment allowing states to waive certain protections for people with preexisting conditions, and to allow insurance plans to cover fewer services now deemed essential. [Vox / Sarah Kliff]
  • Those two provisions combined to make the bill cost more (it now only cuts the deficit by $119 billion over 10 years, versus $337 billion in the first bill), but that dramatically higher cost doesn’t seem to translate into much more coverage. The changes cost about $20,800 per new person covered, per year. By contrast, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion costs about $6,365 per newly eligible adult. [Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services]
  • Rather than using Medicaid to cheaply expand access to health care, the bill cuts it dramatically, to the tune of $834 billion over 10 years. That’s a cut of nearly a quarter, and will deny 14 million people health insurance. [Vox / Dylan Scott]
  • So are Republicans going to back away? It doesn’t look likely. In a statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared, “This CBO report again confirms that the American Health Care Act achieves our mission: lowering premiums and lowering the deficit.” (It doesn't achieve this for everyone. The report finds that low-income 64-year-olds will see premiums go up by more than 800 percent.) [Paul Ryan​]
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, by contrast, disputed the score: "The CBO was wrong when they analyzed Obamacare's effect on cost and coverage, and they are wrong again." [Phil Mattingly]
  • That said, the ball is now in the Senate's court. And many Senate Republicans in states that expanded Medicaid appear to oppose the sweeping cuts in the AHCA. Then again, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee want even bigger cuts. So who knows which faction will win the internal fight. [Politico / Burgess Everett and Adam Cancryn]

A big win for the Taiwanese LGBTQ rights lobby

 SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Constitutional Court of Taiwan — the island’s highest court — ruled Wednesday that the federal law preventing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and must be changed. [Vox / Sarah Wildman]
  • The ruling gives the legislature two years to pass a bill providing for same-sex marriage; otherwise, same-sex couples will simply be allowed by default to marry in the same way heterosexual couples can.
  • Such a bill, as it happens, is waiting in the legislature, where it was debated last fall (though it stalled before Wednesday’s ruling) amid spirited protests both for and against it, featuring the occasional physical altercation between protesters. [CNA / Chen Chih-chung, Justin Su and Lilian Wu]
  • The dual strategy of legislation and litigation might sound familiar to Americans. And like the US — but unlike other countries in Asia — Taiwan has a relatively well-established and organized LGBTQ rights movement. [AP]
  • Indeed, to some in Taiwan the fight over marriage has become a symbol of the island’s leadership on democratization in the region. [The Economist]
  • But the push for same-sex marriage has also galvanized Taiwan’s Christians — only 5 percent of the population — into an organized political opposition force. [The Japan Times / Jeff Kingston]
  • Now the fight shifts back to the legislature — with LGBTQ rights advocates pushing for same-sex couples to simply be included in the existing civil code and Christian opponents pushing for a new, separate institution. [BBC / Cindy Sui​]

Principled dealism

President Trump Attends Summit With Arab Nations Photo by Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images
  • In Saudi Arabia over the weekend, President Trump outlined a policy of “principled realism” in the Middle East. Now, after he’s left, the dust is beginning to settle and we’re beginning to see what that means. [Washington Post / Quinn Mecham]
  • On one level, Trump was siding forcefully with the region’s Sunni powers (led by Saudi Arabia) over its Shiite ones (led by Iran). [Slate / Fred Kaplan]
  • The power struggle between the Saudi and Iranian governments (which is at least as geopolitical as it is religious) has been going on for decades, and has arguably served to destabilize the region (with, for example, both sides aiding factions in the current Yemeni civil war). [NYT / Max Fisher]
  • The US has traditionally sided with the Saudis — even Barack Obama, who made overtures to Iran, wasn’t quite neutral. But Trump appears to be pursuing a different strategy from his predecessor: giving Sunni countries victories first, and hoping they’re inspired to listen to the US later. [Washington Post / Marc Lynch]
  • Instead, some leaders are taking it as an endorsement of their current (often less-than-democratic) regimes. In Bahrain, for example, the government launched a raid on an opposition stronghold just days after Trump’s speech. [AP / Jon Grambell]
  • But it’s also emboldening some Sunni countries against other Sunni countries. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates started criticizing the government of Qatar over comments supposedly made by its emir — even after the Qatari government stated that the comments were fake news. [Reuters / William Maclean]
  • Qatar has had a hot-and-cold relationship with other Sunni countries for a few years, in part because it’s wary of going too hard against Iran — or Islamist groups other countries consider extremist. [FT / Simeon Kerr]
  • To some observers, this is a sign that Trump is doing good things for the region, and that by characterizing Sunni countries as bulwarks against extremism, he’s inspiring them to act the part. [Foreign Policy / John Hannah]
  • But it’s a slightly awkward characterization when Saudi Arabia has started lobbying the president for a change to a US law that allows American victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government for sponsoring terrorism. [McClatchy / Anita Kumar​]

Miscellaneous

  • Ivanka Trump wants to combat human trafficking, and is consulting countless lobbyists and sex work prohibitionists. But she isn't consulting any actual sex workers. That’s a problem. [Pacific Standard / Melissa Gira Grant]
  • Pittsburgh was promised free driverless car rides from Uber. Now it turns out they're not free, the project is not creating the jobs it promised, and Pittsburgh is souring on the whole idea. [NYT / Cecilia Kang]
  • Mexico’s deadliness has been greatly exaggerated. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not a war zone. [Washington Post / Brian Phillips]
  • What it's like to write AI software that puts your dad out of a job. [Snips / Rand Hindi]
  • Pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would be an elegant way to help tackle global warming. But many scientists believe it's impossible to make that strategy cost-effective. [Washington Post / Chelsea Harvey]

Verbatim

  • "'Say, Ted,' I smiled. 'I did a rewrite of Amy's joke, and I think it's a lot better. Want to hear it?' … Ted was still smiling. 'Sure!' 'Okay. Here it is: "When most people think of a cruise that's full of shit, they think of Carnival. But we think of Ted."' And there went Ted's smile. For once, he had no words." [Al Franken via Jonathan Tilove]
  • “Each vlogging channel is like a miniature Truman Show, filmed and edited by Truman himself.” [A.V. Club / Caroline Siede]
  • “It is no longer acceptable to have the mass media react to [terrorist attacks] again and again as if the killers were the shadow producers of a reprehensible reality show on TV.” [BuzzFeed / Zeynep Tufekci]
  • “At the checked bag line we told the ticketing agent that our cat was one of our carry-ons. We were charged the American Airlines one-time domestic carry-on pet travel fee of $125. We got a ticket for her, too, but it did not say ‘Reggie’ like I had hoped.” [The Billfold / Ali Kelley]
  • “Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are associated with signature outfits — a black, mock turtleneck for the former and a gray T-shirt and hoodie for the latter. Zuckerberg explained: ‘I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve [Facebook’s] community.’ So, fashion and formality are frivolous? That’s the same logic that killed off the lavish ensembles of the French court and made way for the post-Revolution sack suit, a change that set a standard for menswear for nearly two centuries.” [The Atlantic / Deirdre Clemente]

Watch this: Scientists really aren’t the best champions of climate change

Facts and data alone won’t inspire people to take action in the fight against global warming. So what will? [University of California, Vox]


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Rick Perry’s “review” of the energy grid is just what it looks like: a bid to save coal

The most devastating paragraph in the CBO report
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

This is the web version of VoxCare, a daily newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox here.

The Congressional Budget Office sent a clear message to Republican legislators Wednesday: Your bill does not do what you say it does.

CBO on Wednesday released a long-awaited analysis of the Republicans' American Health Care Act, which passed the House on May 4. It projects that:

  • 23 million fewer Americans would have health coverage should the bill become law.
  • The bill would reduce the deficit by $119 billion.

It would hit the poor and elderly especially hard; a low-income 64-year-old Obamacare enrollee would see her premiums rise between 700 and 800 percent.

We knew much of this from the last CBO report on the Republican bill, which had fairly similar estimates. We did get something new, however, in this particular report: a complete rebuke of Republicans' claim that the bill they voted for will protect Americans with preexisting conditions.

For weeks now, Republicans have claimed that their new bill will protect sicker Americans. "It will be every bit as good on pre-existing conditions as Obamacare," President Trump told Bloomberg earlier this month. House Speaker Paul Ryan has a website up, right now, where he declares "VERIFIED: MacArthur and Upton Amendments Strengthen AHCA, Protect People with Pre-Existing Conditions."

CBO says this isn't true — and is unequivocal on the point. There is this one paragraph in particular that is especially devastating for the Republican plan:

People who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all — despite the additional funding that would be available under H.R. 1628 to help reduce premiums. As a result, the nongroup markets in those states would become unstable for people with higher-than-average expected health care costs.

CBO estimates that about one in six Americans would live in states that apply for waivers from key Obamacare provisions, like the requirement to charge sick and healthy people the same prices or cover a set of essential health benefits.

Sick people in those places just would not have a lot of options. The market for them would look a lot like the market they faced before the Affordable Care Act passed: hospitable to the healthy and hostile to the sick. The money the Republican plan puts toward high-risk pools isn't nearly enough to prevent that situation.

Premiums would go down under the AHCA — about 10 to 30 percent in states that apply for waivers, CBO estimates — and Ryan quickly seized on this fact. He tweeted out a graphic lauding how the AHCA "achieves our mission: lower premiums and lowering the deficit."

But let's be clear: The Republican plan achieves lower premiums by breaking the promise to protect preexisting conditions. Premiums drop because sick people who need coverage more would drop out of the marketplace. This plan does not deliver on that promise in any way, shape, or form.

Let's pause on one other chart in the CBO report. There is a chart on the very last page of the CBO report that really lays bare the trade-offs of the Republican plan. It shows how premiums would change for Obamacare enrollees in different situations:

 Congressional Budget Office

I circled two numbers I think are especially important: how premiums would change for a low-income, elderly Obamacare enrollee. Under current law, a 64-year-old who earns $26,500 pays $1,700 annually in premiums for coverage. Under the AHCA, that would jump to either $16,100 or $13,600 depending on where that person lives. At a minimum, her premiums would increase 700 percent, eating up half her income.

There are winners in the AHCA: people who are younger and healthier. You can see in this chart, for example, that a 21-year-old who earns $68,200 would see her premiums decline from $5,100 to $1,250.

There isn't any magic to how the Republican bill cuts premiums. There is not a secret plan in here to lower the price of doctor visits or get people to use less health care. There is a plan to make health insurance so expensive for people who are sick and people who are old that they can no longer afford it.

Read more on the CBO score from Vox

  • Dylan Scott breaks down the CBO report in nitty-gritty, wonky detail.
  • German Lopez zooms in on how the AHCA would affect the elderly.

Chart of the Day

Blue KC will exit the Obamacare marketplaces, leaving 25 Missouri counties with no insurers in 2018. The insurance plan cited its financial losses in recent years, as well as the uncertainty over Obamacare's future, in explaining its decision. Read more in my story here.

Kliff’s Notes

Your daily top health care reads, with research help from Caitlin Davis

Today's top news

  • "Healthcare CEOs have their lips zipped on AHCA politics": "Insurer and provider executives are hiding behind industry lobbying groups, including America's Health Insurance Plans and the American Hospital Association, instead of using their power to influence lawmakers on the GOP's American Health Care Act. Their silence is a missed opportunity to serve their patients' best interests, some experts say." —Shelby Livingston, Modern Healthcare

Analysis and longer reads

  • "When the patient is a gold mine: the problem with rare-disease drugs": "Orphan drugs have also caused a seismic shift in treatment costs. The average U.S. patient on an orphan drug last year relied on a $136,000 therapy, a figure that’s climbed 38 percent since 2010. A fraction of a teaspoon of Soliris, administered in a single 35-minute treatment, costs more than $18,000, and patients might need 26 treatments a year for the rest of their lives." —Benjamin Elgin, Doni Bloomfield, and Caroline Chen, Bloomberg Businessweek

"Here's what Republicans would do if they were serious about pre-existing conditions": "If they want to make a credible promise to cover people with preexisting conditions, they shouldn't create a fixed-dollar fund that might run out. Instead they should define the benefit." —Josh Barro, Business Insider

Join the conversation

Are you an Obamacare enrollee interested in what happens next? Join our Facebook community for conversation and updates.

CBO: final House bill would still leave 23 million more Americans uninsured
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Now we know what the House health care bill does.

The American Health Care Act — the health care legislation that the House passed at the beginning of May — would lead to 23 million more Americans being uninsured in 10 years, versus what would be expected under Obamacare, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office.

The House bill would also cut taxes by $662 billion over the next decade, according to a separate analysis released Wednesday by the Joint Committee on Taxation, mostly by repealing Obamacare taxes on the wealthy and health care industries.

House leaders were criticized intensely for having their members vote on the bill without a full report on its possible effects on May 4. Three weeks later, the consequences of that vote, if the bill as written were to become law, are finally clear.

Central parts of the bill — such as its Medicaid overhaul, projected to cut spending by $834 billion over 10 years and reduce enrollment by 14 million — didn’t change much from the earlier versions. But some key compromises that proved politically essential to getting the bill through the House — letting states waive some of Obamacare’s insurance rules and a funding increase to cover people who could be at risk of losing coverage under those waivers — were analyzed for the first time in Wednesday’s CBO report.

The CBO score will define the House bill for political purposes — expect vulnerable Republicans who helped push the bill through to face withering attacks over the projected coverage losses. It also helps set the parameters for the health care debate in the Senate, where Republicans are using a complex budget procedure to pass their health care bill with a bare majority and avoid a Democratic filibuster.

The House bill as is will not pass the Senate or be signed by President Donald Trump. But the new report tells us a few important things.

23 million more Americans are projected to be uninsured

Trump promised universal coverage, and the initial versions of the American Health Care Act fell well short. The CBO's earlier findings — that 24 million more Americans would be uninsured in 2026, versus what would be expected under Obamacare — quickly became omnipresent in the debate.

The revised version of the AHCA that ultimately passed the House did little to change that projection, according to CBO. The office estimated that more people would be covered by employer-based coverage, because companies would see the individual market as less appealing under the GOP bill and choose to offer coverage, while there would be an uptick in people who would otherwise buy insurance in the private market being uninsured.

The math works out to about 1 million more people being covered in the final House bill than in early versions, a minimal difference. About 14 million more people would be uninsured in 2018, according to CBO, increasing to 23 million in 2026.

Sick people in states with AHCA waivers would be priced out of insurance

One question looming over the House bill was what the last-minute changes — allowing states to waive some Obamacare rules and a funding increase to help those who might be adversely affected — would actually do.

According to CBO, about half of Americans live in states that would not seek waivers from the Obamacare regulations prohibiting insurers from charging sick people more than healthy people and requiring certain services to be covered. About one-third of Americans live in states that would seek moderate relief from those rules.

One-sixth of Americans live in states that CBO expects to pursue broad waivers from those Obamacare rules. The analysts predict that the individual insurance markets in those states would start to destabilize after 2020, as insurance becomes unaffordable for people with high medical costs.

From the report:

CBO and JCT expect that, as a consequence, the waivers in those states would have another effect: Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all — despite the additional funding that would be available under H.R. 1628 to help reduce premiums.

“As a result, the nongroup markets in those states would become unstable for people with higher-than-average expected health care costs,” CBO’s analysts wrote. “That instability would cause some people who would have been insured in the nongroup market under current law to be uninsured.”

Those changes also have an important procedural test to pass now that the new CBO score is out.

Some budget experts are dubious that the AHCA state waivers pass muster under the Senate rules. Those rules are supposed to limit these bills to policies that directly affect government spending or revenue. Changing insurance regulations might not make the cut.

But, some experts have told me, if the CBO projects that the waivers do have a significant budget impact — more likely if the office expects a fair number of states would want them — then they become easier to justify under the Senate rules.

CBO estimated that the final House bill saved overall $32 billion less than previous iterations. The question for the Senate will be whether that is enough of an impact to justify keeping the waivers under its procedural restrictions.

Does it save enough money under Senate rules?

The bill does clear the first hurdle it needs to to comply with those Senate rules. It saves money, about $119 billion, over the next 10 years. It needed to save $2 billion, a nominal amount in the scope of the federal government’s budget.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Washington was sent into a tizzy last week when Bloomberg reported that House leaders had not actually sent the AHCA to the Senate because they were waiting for a CBO score. The implication was that the House might have to change its bill and pass it again — or even start over.

I broke down all the back-of-the-envelope math that fueled this speculation. Last week, there were two fears. The first was that the bill would not save any money at all, which CBO now says it does. But the second was that certain provisions within the bill wouldn’t save enough money.

The bill has to save $2 billion overall — but those savings must be divided evenly, $1 billion each, through provisions under the jurisdiction of two different Senate committees, the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

So does the new bill pass that test?

At first blush, no, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s Ed Lorenzen, who first flagged the issue to me last week. Repealing an Obamacare public health fund and other Obamacare subsidies saves $106.6 billion, according to CBO, but a new fund set up for states to stabilize their insurance markets costs $117 billion.

Some experts believe those are the only provisions that fall under the health committee’s jurisdiction — and so, by that math, the bill wouldn’t save the $1 billion it must for the health committee, the possibility that led to much of the speculation last week.

But there will be a debate in the Senate over the arithmetic and which committees are responsible for which provisions in the bill. The outcome of that debate will ultimately determine whether the final House bill meets the standards it must under the Senate rules, Lorenzen said.

The Senate now has a budget baseline for its own health care plan

Another important parameter has been set for Senate Republicans now that we have the CBO’s projections of what the House bill would do.

Under its procedural rules, the Senate is not allowed to save any less money in its health care bill than the House did. The previous CBO report said an earlier version of the House plan saved $150 billion, but the House added some provisions and funding at the last minute that changed that. Now the bill saves $119 billion.

The Senate is planning to spend more money — by beefing up the financial assistance for people to buy private insurance and by more slowly phasing out Obamacare's Medicaid expansion — and any of those new costs will have to be offset to match that $119 billion in savings that the House bill as passed achieved.

Trump promised to protect the sick and the poor. He lied.
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Trump’s health care plan and budget show the scandal hiding in plain sight.

Donald Trump’s budget, alongside the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the revised American Health Care Act, is a test of our capacity for outrage in American politics. Can we be as shocked about lies told in public, and revealed through appendix tables, as we are about lies told in private and revealed through shadowy leaks? Can we muster as much fury on behalf of the stark facts revealed by the Office of Management and Budget as for the titillating what-ifs being investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee? Will we care as much about Trump’s betrayal of the poor and the sick and the disabled as we do about his betrayal of James Comey and the Israeli intelligence services?

Because make no mistake: Trump lied in public about the most consequential policy decisions he is now making as president. He lied on the trail, and he is lying again now from the Oval Office. His budget, released on Tuesday, is an assault on the poor and the vulnerable, and a repudiation of the economic populism that sent him to the White House. The CBO analysis of the Republican health care bill — which Trump has fought to pass, and promised to sign — reveals the proposal would cost 23 million people their health insurance and force millions more onto the stingy, high-deductible insurance plans Trump promised to free them from.

None of this is interpretation or inference — these are the facts of the budget he put his name on and the health care bill he begged Congress to pass. We are not waiting for any whistleblowers to reveal their secrets or investigators to issue their subpoenas. We have the evidence right in front of us.

"I am going to take care of everybody," Trump told 60 Minutes before being elected. "I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now." According to the Congressional Budget Office, the AHCA would lead to 23 million fewer people with health insurance than if Trump simply left the system alone.

Trump warned that “there was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” But it is going to happen with him. The reason so many people lose health insurance under his plan is because they can’t afford it, and under Trumpcare, if you can’t afford it, you don’t get it.

Trump promised he would make sure everyone had health insurance plans with “much lower deductibles.” The AHCA removes regulations stopping insurers from offering yet higher deductibles than they do now, and then it shrinks and redesigns its tax credits to push people into the new, cheaper, plans. The results are so dystopic, CBO writes, that it expects millions of people to end up in “policies that would not cover major medical risks.”

As recently as April 30, Trump told the country that “preexisting conditions are in the bill — I mandate it.” He said the AHCA has “a clause that guarantees” protection for anyone with preexisting conditions. In fact, the crucial provision that permitted it to clear the House allows states to waive the Affordable Care Act’s protections for preexisting conditions.

The CBO predicts that about a sixth of states would use those waivers, and in those states, “less healthy individuals (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would be unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”

But it’s not just the health care bill. Trump’s budget also represents a breathtaking reversal on core campaign promises with the same result — harming vulnerable Americans.

“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump told the Daily Signal in May 2015. But his budget cuts Medicaid by $1.49 trillion — about half its expected budget — and slashes Social Security’s disability insurance program by $31.4 billion.

During the campaign, Trump said his tax plan was “going to cost me a fortune, which is actually true.” It is not actually true. He told Meet the Press that “for the wealthy, I think, frankly, [taxes are] going to go up. And you know what it? It should go up.” That also wasn’t true. His tax plan is a festival of cuts for the richest Americans in general, and for Trump in particular. The AHCA is also, at its heart, a massive tax cut for the rich — the redirection of $600 billion in health subsidies for the poor to tax cuts for the wealthy is the main cause of the bill’s coverage losses.

This isn’t splitting hairs. Trump ran as an economic populist. He was a Republican who was for you — the little guy. He was a Republican who was going to protect Social Security and Medicaid, cover everyone with better health insurance, and raise taxes on plutocrats like himself.

He lied. And yes, I use that word advisedly. While calling Trump a liar occasionally gives some in the media vapors, there’s no other word that fits. Trump is president now. His budget is a vetted document constructed by people appointed by Trump. The American Health Care Act and its likely effects have been exhaustively covered in the press. If at this point Trump doesn’t know that he’s breaking his promises, then it’s because he doesn’t want to know. If at this point Trump hasn’t bothered to discover he is betraying his supporters, and the people his policies will hurt, then that is the most damning fact of all.

Either way, this is a political scandal of massive proportions. Trump ran promising to protect the sick and the poor, and he is governing in ways that will grievously harm them. We should be outraged.

CBO: Republican health care bill raises premiums for older, poor Americans by as much as 850%
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The American Health Care Act would make a low-income 64-year-old in the individual market pay more than half his income for health insurance.

Republicans’ American Health Care Act would be devastating to older Americans who rely on the individual insurance market, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO found that the revised Republican bill does bring down overall premiums in the individual market by anywhere from 4 to 20 percent by 2026 compared with what they would be under current law.

The variation depends on whether a state accepts waivers under the American Health Care Act, which would allow insurers to offer much skimpier health plans at lower premiums. States that take up such waivers would see lower premiums, although the health plans would provide fewer benefits. States that don’t adopt such waivers would have higher premiums, but their health plans would offer more benefits — a trade-off.

But the CBO’s analysis includes a big caveat: Premiums would differ greatly based on age and income. In general, the older and poorer you are, the higher your premiums would be under the American Health Care Act compared with current law.

The CBO offers an example of a single individual with an annual income of $26,500.

If that person is 21 years old, he could benefit from the Republican health care bill. Under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), he would on average pay $1,700 in premiums for insurance. Under the Republican plan, he would pay $1,250 if he’s in a state that accepts regulatory waivers and makes moderate changes to market rules — although, again, this also means his health plan would likely be skimpier. If his state doesn’t take up a waiver, his premium would actually increase by $50 to $1,750.

But if that person is 64 years old, he would be hurt by the Republican bill. Under Obamacare, he would also pay $1,700 in premiums for insurance. But under the Republican bill, he would pay $16,100 (about 60 percent of his annual income) if he lives in a state that doesn’t accept regulatory waivers, and $13,600 — still more than half his annual income — if he lives in a state that does adopt waivers to make moderate rule changes. That amounts to as much as an 850 percent increase in premiums from Obamacare to the Republican bill.

A 64-year-old who’s making $68,200 a year could fare a bit better. Under Obamacare, he’s expected to pay $15,300 in premiums for insurance, because his income would be too high to receive the law’s tax credits. Under the Republican bill, the tax credit, which is now based on age instead of income, begins phasing out at $75,000. So his premium would drop to $13,600 — a bit below Obamacare levels — in a state that gets a regulatory waiver but would actually increase to $16,100 in a state that doesn’t get a waiver.

Here’s how all of that looks in chart form:

A CBO chart of the effects of the American Health Care Act on people’s premiums. Congressional Budget Office

Older people with an annual income of $75,000 or more would get fewer to no subsidies under the Republican bill. So they would likely face higher premiums than they did under Obamacare, much like the lower-income consumer.

The Republican bill accomplishes all of this in two ways.

First, it abandons Obamacare’s income-based tax credits (which give more money to people with lower incomes) to instead give anyone with an annual salary below $75,000 a tax credit based on age, with older people getting more money and a phaseout for higher incomes.

But it also peels back an Obamacare rule that protects older people from higher premiums. Under Obamacare, insurers are generally only allowed to charge an older person about three times what they would charge a younger person — under the theory that older people are often sicker and therefore need to use more insurance. But under the Republican bill, the limit of three times would go up to five times, effectively letting insurers charge older people 66 percent more than they would under Obamacare.

Republicans argue this is necessary because it would also let insurers charge younger people less, which would encourage younger and generally healthier people to come into the insurance pool — and therefore bring down the overall cost of health care by making it so more younger, healthier people are effectively subsidizing everyone’s care.

The CBO found that’s broadly true: It would bring insurance premiums down in general, and it would cost at least some young people less to get signed up for a health plan. But it would do all of that at a very high cost to older, particularly poorer Americans.

Trump: My bill protects people with preexisting conditions. CBO: No, it doesn’t.
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Before they voted to pass the American Health Care Act, House Republicans repeatedly promised the bill would not hurt Americans with preexisting health conditions — that those patients would not lose coverage or pay more for insurance, even though the bill allows states to waive federal regulations meant to protect them.

As House Speaker Paul Ryan put it in late April, “People will be better off with preexisting conditions under our plan.” A couple of days later, President Trump said the bill “guarantees” coverage for those patients. "Preexisting conditions are in the bill,” he told CBS. “And I mandate it.”

The Congressional Budget Office disagrees.

In its analysis of the AHCA published on Wednesday — which Ryan and other Republicans did not wait on before voting on the bill early this month — the CBO devotes a full paragraph to the question of how patients with preexisting conditions would fare in states that chose to opt out of federal regulations on “community rating,” which are the ones meant to protect those patients.

The language is clear (emphasis added):

Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all—despite the additional funding that would be available under H.R. 1628 to help reduce premiums. As a result, the nongroup markets in those states would become unstable for people with higher-than-average expected health care costs. That instability would cause some people who would have been insured in the nongroup market under current law to be uninsured.

The report projects that within 10 years, 23 million fewer Americans would have health care under the bill than under current law. Some of those Americans would be people with preexisting conditions, priced out of their insurance under the new rules of the post-AHCA health landscape. Republicans can challenge that analysis, but they can’t ignore it. It’s not what they said the bill would do.

Calling Ivanka and Melania Trump Handmaids is a popular joke. It’s also a bad one.
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

On left-leaning Twitter right now, a reliable way to rack up some retweets is to call Ivanka Trump “Ofjared,” or Melania Trump “Ofdonald.” (Or, if you want to be really creepy, calling Ivanka “Ofdonald.”)

To explain that a popular Twitter joke is Bad, Actually, is to be a humorless scold, but the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke is so unpleasant that I’m just going to go for it here. There are a lot of levels on which this joke has some issues.

It’s a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Handmaids — fertile women forced to act as childbearing slaves to their owners, who ritually rape them once a month — take on their owner’s names with the suffix “of.” In the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, Elisabeth Moss’s character is called “Offred,” because she is the property of a man named Fred.

So the joke here is that the Trump women, via their involvement with and participation in Donald Trump’s administration, have become their husbands’ property. They are powerless, they have been reduced to belongings, they have no independent identities of their own, and this is funny.

On a purely technical level, it’s simply not a very good reference. Ivanka isn’t anything like an Offred, though she is a dead ringer for the Handmaid’s Tale character Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s owner who smooths over her husband’s brutality with her smiling, immaculately coiffed blondeness. But more seriously, the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke creates some troubling slippage between its apparent target and the source of its humor.

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy.

Ostensibly, the joke is supposed to critique Ivanka and Melania for their complicity with the Trump administration, for all the work that they did to make Donald Trump a palatable candidate during the election and the work they do now to advance his agenda. It’s supposed to say that we recognize them as free agents who made bad choices of their own free will and now have to face the consequences, the way SNL’s “complicit” sketch did.

But the punchline of the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke is that the Trump women are not free agents, that they are property. It says, essentially, “You made your own choices and I don’t like them, so now I’m going to laugh at you for being a man’s property who can’t make her own choices, you loser.” It’s a slightly more highbrow cousin of the right’s “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica” quip, in that it’s pretty sure that positioning a woman as a man’s sexual property is the absolute funniest way to make a joke about her. And that’s a dangerous and troubling characterization no matter your politics.

There are many, many things a reasonable person might want to criticize Melania and Ivanka Trump for, and many jokes to make about them. Why are we investing so much energy in the one about how they are sexual slaves?

Here’s everything we know about Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

"Salman showed me a face of hate."

Salman Abedi was short-tempered. He was a lonely child. He was respectful of elders. He was quiet. He was devout. And he grew up just a few miles from the Manchester arena where he detonated a suicide bomb during an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 people and injuring 59, many of them young girls.

As British authorities have started the slow, painstaking process of piecing together what happened on Monday night, disturbing details have begun to emerge about the 22-year-old British citizen of Libyan descent who carried out the vicious attack.

And they paint a troubling picture of a man whose behavior and recent movements seem to raise every red flag in the book, but who somehow still managed to slip through the security services’ net. Even more concerning, officials now believe he was not a lone actor but may have in fact been part of a much wider terrorist network.

“It’s very clear that this is a network we are investigating,” Greater Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins told reporters on Wednesday. So far, British police have taken at least four people into custody in connection with the attack, said Hopkins. A man believed to be the bomber’s younger brother, Hashem Abedi, has also been detained in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the Wall Street Journal reports.

So who was Salman Abedi? And what could have possibly led him to target a stadium full of innocent young girls in the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil since 2005?

Let’s take a closer look.

“Salman? I’m astonished by this.”

Abedi was born in the UK to Libyan parents on New Year’s Eve in 1994 and was the second of four children. His parents had fled Libya for the UK because they opposed the brutal rule of Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya with an iron fist for six decades until he was killed with US assistance in 2011. Today, Abedi’s father once again lives in Libya, while his mother is believed to still be in Manchester.

Abedi’s father, whose name was Ramadan Abedi but who was known as Abu Ismail (who was just arrested), was very well known in the community. He would take his sons, Salman and Ismail, to the local Didsbury mosque. It was there that Abu Ismail would sing the call to prayer and guide his sons through their spiritual journey. “His boys learned the Quran by heart,” a member of the Libyan community told the Guardian.

Manchester’s Libyan community is very close-knit. “All the Libyan lads in Manchester know each other,” said a family friend. Manchester is home to one of the largest Libyan communities in Britain.

Now that community is under scrutiny as police conduct raids in connection with Monday’s attack. But this isn’t the first time the community has been through this. According to British authorities, the area “was known to have been home to a number of Islamist extremists in recent years; some with links to Syria and Libya; some alive and some dead,” reports the BBC.

Abd al-Baset Azzouz used to live in that neighborhood. He left Manchester to run a terrorist network in Libya overseen by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda, reports the Telegraph. Azzouz is an expert bombmaker and has been accused of running an al-Qaeda network in eastern Libya.

But even though he grew up in that environment, Abedi seemed to be a normal kid. A former classmate of his told the BBC that "he was a very jokey lad" even if he was also "very short tempered.” He had shown respect for his elders and was very good at soccer. He even smoked cannabis.

“Salman? I’m astonished by this,” a community member told the Guardian when Abedi’s name was announced as the Manchester bombing terrorist.

“He was such a quiet boy, always very respectful towards me. ... Salman was very quiet. He is such an unlikely person to have done this,” that community member said.

“Salman showed me a face of hate”

One particular incident from 2015 stands out. Mohammed Saeed, an imam at the mosque Abedi attended, delivered a sermon denouncing terrorism, saying there was no room for murder on behalf of political causes.

Abedi was furious. “He scared some people,” a neighbor told the New York Times. “Salman showed me a face of hate after that sermon,” Saeed told the Guardian. “It’s not a surprise to me” that he was named as the terrorist, he said.

It was also around that time that Abedi dropped out of Manchester’s Salford University, where he had been studying business management. He had also begun to dress "Islamically," in a long robe, and was growing a beard, a family friend told CNN.

Instead of attending classes, Abedi started traveling more frequently to Libya, which has been mired in conflict since the Libyan civil war began in February 2011. The chaos there left a vacuum that allowed for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to establish a foothold and train terrorists.

Abedi’s behavior began to change noticeably. Lina Ahmed, a member of Manchester’s Libyan community, said that Abedi and certain members of his family had “been acting strangely.”

“A couple of months ago he [Abedi] was chanting the first kalma [Islamic prayer] really loudly in the street. He was chanting in Arabic. He was saying ‘There is only one God and the prophet Mohammed is his messenger,’” she claimed.

Eric Rosand, a former senior counterterrorism official in the State Department, said in an interview that Abedi “very much” fits the profile of a modern-day terrorist. He was young, was well educated, grew up in the area, and, of course, was clearly open to radicalization.

Authorities believe Abedi had only just returned from his most recent trip to Libya this week. "He went to Libya three weeks ago and came back recently, like days ago," a school friend said. US officials confirmed to CNN that Abedi had been in Libya for three weeks before the attack.

His behavior began to pique the interest of intelligence officials. His frequent trips to Libya raised some red flags among authorities — and rightfully so. His growing connections to Libya — a terrorist hot spot — and his change in behavior certainly put Abedi on the radar.

But even then, he was only known to British intelligence services “up to a point,” British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC.

It looks like Abedi may have been part of a bigger network

Rudd told reporters “it seems likely — possible — that he wasn’t doing this on his own,” but she didn’t specify with whom he might’ve been working. Still, that Abedi may have had help makes sense when looking at the details of the attack.

Unlike other recent attacks in Europe where vehicles were used to run over scores of people, such as in Nice, France, last year, the Manchester assault required planning. Abedi needed a bomb, he needed money, and he needed training.

It was no accident that he detonated the bomb in the foyer between the arena and busy Victoria Station, the subway stop next to the arena’s exit at the end of the concert. It’s where the blast would have maximum impact as concertgoers flooded out of the arena. It requires some knowhow to understand that that was the best place to set off the device.

Hopkins and his team are looking into Abedi’s possible connection to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and/or any other terrorist groups. After the attack, ISIS claimed Abedi as one of their own, saying he was a “soldier of the caliphate.” But the message was short and generic, didn’t mention Abedi, and got some details of the attack wrong, so it’s not clear whether ISIS actually had any involvement in directing, planning, or executing the attack or whether they’re just opportunistically taking credit for it.

Meanwhile, Abedi’s family members have been arrested — his two brothers and father — in connection to the attack. There are even some reports that Abedi’s younger brother, Hashem, told Libyan authorities who arrested him that he was an ISIS member. They suspect him of “planning to stage an attack” in Libya.

So while it looks likely that Abedi worked with others — as the recent arrests seem to indicate — it’s still a mystery how the attack wasn’t stopped.

Beyond tracking his travel patterns in and out of Libya, the only way authorities could really have known what Abedi was up to is if members of his community relayed that information to the authorities, Jeffrey Ringel, a 21-year veteran of the FBI, told me in an interview. And while community members have been very forthcoming to reporters since the attack, it’s unclear whether anyone reported their suspicions about Abedi to the authorities.

In addition, the bomb he used was fairly simple to keep under the radar. Abedi reportedly used a “homemade” bomb that can be made with over-the-counter materials. Those bombs “can go very well undetected,” Ringel said. After all, authorities aren’t going to investigate everyone who buys nails or other items that could be placed in one of those bombs.

As of now, intelligence officials believe Abedi may have been the “mule” for the bomb, the BBC reports. In other words, someone else made the device, but Abedi carried it on his person all the way to the detonation point. He was just the delivery system.

But in the end, it was a suicide bombing, and if someone wants to kill themselves, “that’s hard to stop,” notes Andy Liepman, a former longtime US counterterrorism official.

Regardless of what happened, the ultimate blame lies with Abedi, who felt the need to hurt innocent civilians when they were having a fun night out at a pop concert.

The “face of hate” indeed.

I read Trump's budget with an expert. His take: it's based on phony assumptions.
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

There are some decent ideas here, but the numbers don’t add up.

Donald Trump’s first comprehensive budget proposal has eight “pillars of reform,” which collectively promise to replace “our current economic stagnation with faster economic growth.”

These pillars represent the foundation of Trump’s budget. But what do they actually mean? Are they just aspirational declarations or are they the basis of a concrete plan?

I reached out to Marc Goldwein, the senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The CRFB is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group and an objective resource for policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Goldwein’s focus is on the federal budget, and he works regularly with members of Congress on budget-related issues.

He was kind (and patient) enough to walk through these pillars with me, one by one. I wanted to know if the specific plans outlined in the text align with the commitments Trump is making in this proposal.

Below, I juxtapose each pillar, exactly as it’s phrased in the document, alongside Goldwein’s assessment of what’s actually said in the corresponding section of the proposal.

It’s worth repeating that Goldwein is not a partisan. His criticisms are measured and he admits that there are a few promising ideas in this proposal. The problem, however, is that even when the budget hints at a good idea, it is not detailed enough to meaningfully analyze it.

But, vague though it is, this much is clear: As a moral document, this budget prioritizes the rich over the poor and tax cuts over social safety nets. Republican senators have already declared it “dead on arrival,” but if it were to become law, it would be utterly devastating to poor and working-class Americans.

Health reform

What Trumps budget promises

We need to enable Americans to buy the healthcare they need at a price they can afford. To this end, we must repeal Obamacare and its burdensome regulations and mandates, and replace it with a framework that restores choice and competition ... Additionally, Medicaid, which inadequately serves enrollees and taxpayers, must be reformed to allow States to manage their own programs, with continued financial support from the Federal Government.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

In health reform, as in a lot of these areas, what they're actually doing is punting on the details. In their defense, this is not totally uncommon, particularly in a first full budget, but what they're basically saying is, “We're doing something like the Congressional Health Care Plan, but we don't have all the details yet.”

I think the plan that passed the House replaces the existing subsidies with more of a flat tax credit. It scales back dramatically the Medicaid expansion ($880 billion in cuts) and has some further Medicaid reductions. It does have some health reforms that will reduce cost and save money, but by and large it's 1.3 trillion dollars of net spending cuts and a trillion dollars of less revenue, a good part of that being tax cuts by cutting the Affordable Care Act taxes and some of that being getting rid of the mandates and other things like that.

I think there's some reason to think that where they're headed we'll have cheaper prices for many Americans, particularly if we're just talking about premiums, as opposed to premiums and cost sharing. I don't think there's any evidence that their plan is going to give more people health care. I think it's going to be quite the opposite.

Tax reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reduce the tax burden on American workers and businesses, so that we can maximize incomes and economic growth. We must also simplify our tax system, so that individuals and businesses do not waste countless hours and resources simply paying their taxes.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

This is the same situation as with health care reform. The details are nowhere to be found. We've spent the past month talking about the administration's tax plan and yet it's pretty much nowhere to be found in this budget. There is a paragraph where it talks about the basic principles of tax reform at a very high level. Actually, there's less detail in their budget than there was in the one-pager that President Trump released a month or so ago.

From this budget alone, we really can't tell very much about what they're doing on tax reform. From the one pager, all we know so far is that they want to drastically reduce the tax rate. I think that their individual income tax plan actually looks pretty reasonable to me overall. It's missing a couple trillion dollars, but there's no reason to think that couldn't be made up with tax expenditure reform. Their business tax plans are incredibly aggressive reductions in corporate and business tax rates without any clear plan or even any clear way to pay for them.

The president's budget says there are no tax cuts from tax reform. The one-pager and the press coverage surrounding that told us that they're going to have the largest tax cuts for individuals and businesses in history. Then, rhetorically, we've heard that they want this to be a middle-class tax cut. But when you look at what they want to do with the estate tax and what they want to do with the corporate tax and what they want to do with the Obamacare taxes, these cuts are going mainly to the highest earners.

Immigration reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reform immigration policy so that it serves our national interest. We will adopt commonsense proposals that protect American workers, reduce burdens on taxpayers and public resources, and focus Federal funds on underserved and disadvantaged citizens.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I realize I’m repeating myself here, but the truth is that there just isn’t much detail here. I understand that these pillars are administration priorities, and that a first budget isn’t going to have all the details, but there's very little here. There is some significant money for border security, of course. There is a 6.8 percent increase in overall funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and something like $2.6 billion to help pay for a wall on the Southern border. There is also some discussion about how we need to enforce immigration rules.

But we're not seeing any kind of comprehensive immigration reform plan, even the kind of reform plan that I know many folks wouldn't like because it would be the opposite of the Senate plan, but we're not seeing that either. For all the rhetoric we hear, it’s just not clear what they plan to do here.

Reducing federal spending

What Trump’s budget promises

We must scrutinize every dollar the Federal Government spends. Just as families decide how to manage limited budgets, we must ensure the Federal Government spends precious taxpayer dollars only on our highest national priorities, and always in the most efficient, effective manner.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

This reduction in federal spending is so far the only one of these things that actually appears in great detail in their budget. They don't look at the three largest programs — Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending. I know people get mad when I say they don't touch Social Security, but they effectively don't.

The only cuts to the disability program that are actually cuts are less than 1 percent of the budget. They're $1 billion. There are practically zero cuts to the old age program. They don't touch Social Security effectively. They don't touch Medicare effectively. They increased defense spending (roughly $25 billion more a year). Those are the three largest spending programs that are basically off the table or very close to off the table.

They do provide pretty detailed cuts elsewhere. Some of them we saw in their skinny budget before where they wanted to cut money for the State Department and community development programs and block grants and you name it, but this goes a lot further in terms of cutting subsidies related to student loans and, in some cases, reforming them as well, cutting farm subsidies, cutting food stamp benefits, changing some rules around eligibility, increasing federal employee retirement contributions, and reducing federal employee retirement benefits.

There are all sorts of spending cuts in this plan. Folks might not like this, but some of them are actually smart, thoughtful changes and reforms, but when you look at them in their entirety, they're disproportionately going to children, to people that are low-income, and to federal investment. Again, that doesn't mean that some of these aren't smart, thoughtful cuts. The inevitable consequence of taking the three largest spending programs off the table, two of which go mainly to the middle class and upper middle class, is that's what you're left with is spending cuts that are mostly cuts to education, investment, children, and low-income Americans.

And there’s no doubt: That’s who would be impacted the most by this budget.

Rolling back regulations

What Trump’s budget promises

We must eliminate every outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective Federal regulation, and move aggressively to build regulatory frameworks that stimulate — rather than stagnate — job creation. Even for those regulations we must leave in place, we must strike every provision that is counterproductive, ineffective, or outdated.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I'm all for regulatory reforms, but, again, show me the specifics. The budget is pretty vague. They give us a process for how they want to get to regulatory reform. It rolls back Dodd-Frank, but other than that there's very little in terms of actual regulatory proposals here. When we see some regulatory proposals, then we can figure out whether they're growing the economy, shrinking the economy, or simply moving stuff in the economy around. We can't know because they haven't given us their regulatory proposals.

The one thing they talk about is a regulatory freeze and a regulatory review. I don't think the freeze is a good idea, but I'm all for regulatory review. I actually think there's a lot of regulations that aren't written very well that are benefiting monopolies rather than the full economy. They try to do a good thing, but their cost is too high.

I think that there is opportunity here to review some regulations, but before I started counting on faster economic growth, I would probably want to at least identify what those regulations are that I'm getting rid of or reforming rather than just have some kind of generic regulatory review. And that’s all we really have so far.

American energy development

What Trump’s budget promises

We must increase development of America’s energy resources, strengthening our national security, lowering the price of electricity and transportation fuels, and driving down the cost of consumer goods so that every American individual and business has more money to save and invest. A consistent, long-term supply of lower-cost American energy brings with it a much larger economy, more jobs, and greater security for the American people.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

To be honest, this is the one section I’m just not very familiar with. I think a smart energy policy can help a bit with economic growth, but, like so many other things this budget proposes, we’re talking about a minimal impact, decimal points, not percentage points.

Welfare reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We must reform our welfare system so that it does not discourage able-bodied adults from working, which takes away scarce resources from those in real need. Work must be the center of our social policy.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

I know they're getting a lot of flak for it, but I think they do some pretty interesting stuff with Social Security disability insurance. I think re-instating the second reconsideration within disability, giving some of the offsets of worker's comp and unemployment insurance, and testing out some models to encourage people to go back to work and to give them some types of support isn’t a terrible idea. Nor is having people go to physical therapy before going on SSDI. We actually did a book called SSDI Solutions a couple years ago where many of the recommendations they've put forward are not so different from what we've put forward.

I’m not against welfare reform. I think we should try to get people back to work, for economic and social reasons. But the cuts this budget proposes are very deep. The one that sticks out to me is TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is vital to a lot of people, and they’re looking to cut over $21 billion — that’s incredibly deep.

We reformed this program in the ‘90s by putting it into a block grant that doesn’t even grow with inflation, which means it’s frozen. Whatever you think about the block framework of our reform, which is meant to encourage more work and more temporary welfare benefits, you have to understand that if you have a block grant that doesn't grow, even with inflation over time, it's value is going to erode. And their budget cuts it even more. So these are massive cuts.

Education reform

What Trump’s budget promises

We need to return decisions regarding education back to the State and local levels, while advancing opportunities for parents and students to choose, from all available options, the school that best fits their needs to learn and succeed.

What it actually does, according to Marc Goldwein

Basically they cut the K through 12 education and then they start moving down the path toward vouchers, and they do it in a number of ways. Will that save the government some money? Yes, probably. Is it a good idea? That’s outside my area of expertise. I’m sure there are reasons not to do it, but it’s not really budget-related.

The other thing they do on education is student loan reform and, again, in some ways these are deep cuts that I think people are going to have trouble with. On the other hand, I think the framework is a reasonable one. The two main places they go to reduce student loan subsidies are, one, they get rid of subsidized loans, which really means they're getting rid of the in school interest subsidy.

So right now, if you take out a student loan, you don't pay anything of that loan when you're in college, which makes total sense, but you also don't accrue any interest. In turns out that almost nobody is motivated to go to college because of this. For whatever reason, it’s just a not a good incentive. There are much better ways to incentivize people to go to college. And in any case, it's not very well-targeted because it ends up going ultimately to high earners mostly. I haven't looked at all the details of exactly how the proposal would work, but I think something like this is reasonable.

They also call for reforms to income-based repayment, which is similar to something the Obama administration called for. Again, the devil is in the details. These reforms save money, which means they’re cuts, so one obvious question is how deep will those cuts ultimately be? But I think that the basic framework behind some of their higher ed changes is reasonable. People will disagree about what to do with the saved money. Some will want to take that money and throw all of it at the Pell grant, which I think would be a good idea.

The bottom line: The Trump administration says this budget is revenue-neutral. Is it?

Marc Goldwein

The budget itself assumes a trillion dollars of tax cuts that come not from tax reform, but from repealing the Obamacare taxes, and it pays for those by repealing Obamacare spending. In that sense, the budget is not revenue neutral, it's revenue negative.

Of course, most people would say, “Ok, but that Obamacare policy. Let’s just talk about tax policy other than that.” Well, other than that, on paper at least, the budget is revenue neutral. But the reason is that they don't incorporate their tax reform plan. They've been talking about this tax reform for a month, but there's actually less detail about tax reform in this budget than there was in their one pager they released a month ago.

When you say you're going to have one of the biggest tax cuts in history and then you don't include that within your budget, it makes it a lot easier to achieve revenue neutrality.

Budgets reflect values. Based on this budget, what does the Trump administration value?

Marc Goldwein

They value trying to have it all, frankly. The president, during the campaign, promised that he was going to cut taxes, that he was going to balance the budget, and that he wasn't going to touch social security or Medicare. This budget basically does it all and it does it by ignoring the cost of tax reform, assuming magic levels of growth, assuming ridiculous and unspecified levels of non-defense discretionary spending cuts.

I know that most people are going to complain about how painful this budget is to certain groups that rely on the government, and that's certainly true. But to me that's not the underlying message when you look at where the money is coming from. The underlying message is that the administration still thinks they can have it all, and it doesn't matter how many phony assumptions they have to make to get there.

Nobody likes the border adjustment tax — except the House Republicans who won't let it go
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The border adjustment tax seemed as good as dead. Big retailers like Walmart and Target had been lobbying hard against it. The National Retail Federation launched an aggressive campaign to kill it. The Senate didn’t seem to want it. And the White House doesn’t like it.

But the provision, which would essentially add a 20 percent tax on imported goods while exempting US exports, was the key solution House Republicans had come up with to raise enough revenue to offset corporate tax cuts. They don’t seem to have an alternative plan — which is why they refuse to let the border adjustment die.

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee staged a revival effort, in the form of a congressional hearing. Its name reflected a new public relations strategy: Increasing US Competitiveness and Preventing American Jobs From Moving Overseas.

Committee Chair Kevin Brady made a hard sell for the tax, describing a nation ravaged by competition from abroad and manufacturers finding it more profitable to operate overseas. He talked about the need to fix the tax code to help American businesses that are struggling to stay ahead.

He pointed out that most developed countries in the world have a similar value-added tax on imports, and compared the United States to countries like Cuba and North Korea, which don’t.

“No more special tax breaks for foreign products,” Brady said. “For the first time, we will level the playing field for American workers, farmers, and manufacturers.”

Meanwhile, GOP leaders have ramped up a new marketing campaign to sell the provision, including to their own members. They even handed out a “communications document” describing how to talk about the merits of the provision (which Politico published on Monday).

In the document, House Republicans outlined their communications strategy, which included three steps to selling the BAT. Step 1: Link the broken tax code to job losses in manufacturing. Step 2: Personalize the message. (“To make the case, highlight someone in your district who has been hurt by an American business moving its jobs and headquarters overseas.”) Step 3: Get the word out through blog posts, op-eds, and social media.

The message does not appear to be winning converts. In Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican from Minnesota, said he could not “support the border adjustability provisions as introduced last year in the blueprint.”

It’s implausible that House Republicans could get enough support for the tax, particularly in its current form, says Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for Economics. Its only chance of survival is to scale back the tax significantly — maybe a 3 to 6 percent tax that is phased in over a number of years.

“But then it doesn’t raise the kind of revenue that Brady or [House Speaker Paul] Ryan would want to make it fiscally neutral,” Freund says. “This is the conflict.”

The countermessage

The GOP leadership message appears to be swamped by well-funded groups that oppose the provision.

Retailers were not happy that House Republicans were reviving the border-adjustment tax. Americans for Affordable Products, which represents 500 retailers that despise the tax, responded with its own aggressive messaging strategy — one that focused on the damage it would inflict on small businesses and consumers. Within a matter of minutes, the organization flooded reporters’ email inboxes with quotes from worried small-businesses owners.

The National Retail Federation also responded in full force, hitting up social media and news outlets with details about the impact on consumers. According to the industry group, the tax could cost the average family $1,700 a year as a result of price increases on food, gas, clothing, and prescription medicine.

On Wednesday, the association sent an army of CEOs to Washington, DC, to dissuade members of Congress from pursuing this tax. The 20 executives and business leaders include representatives from Ikea, QVC, and Dillard’s.

The executives headed to Capitol Hill to “urge lawmakers to say ‘yes’ to tax reform but ‘no’ to doing it on the backs of consumers through a new import tax,” said federation president Matthew Shay in a statement.

The executives and business owners also planned to meet with White House officials — who are raising their own doubts on the provision.

The White House is skeptical

The Trump administration has been wishy-washy about whether the president would sign a tax reform bill that included a border adjustment tax. President Trump initially said he didn’t like it. Then Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in April that the White House is open to revising the plan.

“We just don’t think it works in the current form,” he said, without giving details about how they would fix it.

Mnuchin is a key player in the tax reform process, meeting often with Speaker Ryan and House Ways and Means Chair Brady. On Tuesday, he was more forceful in his criticism of the tax, according to Bloomberg.

“One of the problems with the border-adjusted tax is that it doesn’t create a level playing field,” Mnuchin said at an event in Washington. “It has very different impacts on different companies, it has the potential to pass on significant costs to the consumer, it has the potential of moving the currencies.”

The problem for the White House and congressional Republicans is that the administration hasn’t offered a competing plan to pay for the trillions of dollars in tax cuts Trump wants. It is instead relying on overly optimistic assumption about economic growth to offset the lost revenue. But that won't fly in Congress.

The border adjustment tax is supposed to raise more than $1 trillion over 10 years, and would help keep the tax reform bill revenue neutral. That is key to getting the bill through the Senate via budget reconciliation, which allows Republicans to pass a bill with a simple majority vote, as long as it doesn’t add to the deficit after 10 years. If members don’t want to use the border adjustment to achieve revenue neutrality, they’ll need another idea — and fast.

Why you shouldn’t trust the calorie estimates on your fitness tracker
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

You may be underestimating or overestimating the calories burned by as much as 20 percent.

Welcome to Dear Julia, a weekly column where readers can submit everyday health questions. Which over-the-counter painkillers work best? Is it better to run or walk for exercise? How much harm does frequent flying do to your body? Julia Belluz will sift through the research and consult with experts in the field to figure out how science can help us live happier and healthier lives.

Have a question? Use our submission form or ask @juliaoftoronto on Twitter.

Dear Julia: Is there any way to reliably know how many calories you burn during exercise? I'm skeptical of what my fitness tracker says.

Dear reader: You should be skeptical. Estimates of how many calories you burn for a given activity can vary widely. Two different fitness trackers can show very different results for the exact same exercise. These numbers are best viewed as rough guesses, not precise scientific calculations.

I reached out to a few experts; they all said measuring energy expenditure during exercise with precision is extremely difficult, and requires the tools of a physiology lab. One scientist even laughed at the notion that people would take their calorie burn estimates seriously. So — assuming you don't want to spend $30,000 on a wearable calorimeter, or millions on a metabolic chamber — here are some ideas about how to navigate the more accessible tools out there.

Free online trackers are the least trustworthy

The free online trackers — the ones that let you put in a few details like age or weight, then estimate that you'll sweat off 700 calories in a hot yoga class — are probably the least trustworthy. That's because these aren't very individualized. They tend to make all kinds of assumptions about things like your resting metabolic rate and muscle mass based on broader averages. And because online trackers don't measure movement, they can't make subtle distinctions between, say, a 30-minute walk on a flat street and a 30-minute walk up a hill.

More fundamentally, online trackers can't measure what's actually going on inside your body during exercise, like your heart rate or breathing. That's a major limitation, since two people will expend energy differently doing the exact same exercise based on their existing levels of fitness. Usually, picking up on these variations requires more detailed heart-rate data, for starters.

"A highly trained runner who is 120 pounds likely burns less calories than a newbie who is 120 pounds and running the same distance and pace," explains Sherry Pagoto, co-founder of the UMass Center for mHealth and Social Media. "This will bear out in their heart rate data — the more conditioned one gets, the lower the heart rate during the same activity, and the fewer calories burned."

By the way, the same limitations apply to machines at the gym. Even when you’ve entered a few variables — sex, weight, age — they're not always calibrated correctly and they often lack accurate heart-rate monitors. So they'll end up spitting out an estimate for the "average person" — which is not likely to be you. At best, you’ll get a broad guess from these machines.

Wearables are a little more accurate — but still far from perfect

Estherpoon/Shutterstock

The more sophisticated wearable devices — JawBones, Fitbits — fare a bit better than online trackers, since they can measure things like movement and heart rate.

Even so, the calorie estimates on these trackers are far from perfect, and can vary pretty significantly from device to device. It's telling that if you strap on two kinds of fitness trackers and do an exercise, you're likely to get two different calorie estimates. (See this excellent Wired article for a demonstration of that.)

Each of these devices take some data from your body and feeds it through a proprietary algorithm particular to that device. "Step counters multiply distance covered by body weight to get work performed," explained sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald. "Bicycle power meters use a similar method, substituting power for distance covered. Heart rate monitors use heart rate to estimate the amount of oxygen consumed during exercise."

But these algorithms necessarily have to make assumptions and over-simplifications. And there's no way to tell how well they apply to your particular situation. "All of these devices have formulas that work better for some people and not so well for others," said Dan Heil, an exercise physiology professor at Montana State University. "You simply never know which group you fall into."

With more than 165,000 mobile health apps on the market, only a tiny fraction have been studied scientifically — that is, measured against more sophisticated calorie counters in laboratories. Worse still, most of that research is a few years out of date because of lag time in publishing. But researchers have found that tracking devices can have a pretty big margin of error, underestimating or overestimating calories used by as much as 20 percent. A related study, led by researchers at Stanford, compared seven popular wrist-worn fitness trackers and found no device had an error rate that was less than 20 percent (and the worst performing device was wrong 93 percent of the time).

Fitness trackers may not be accurate — but they're not totally useless

Operating in this imperfect world, the researchers I spoke with suggested using a few different tracking tools and averaging out their counts to see where you stand. This sounds super-tedious, but if you do the same exercises every week — and you’re a stickler for accuracy — it may be worth your time.

"Its almost impossible to tell which [tracking tools] are better than others," Heil advised. "But if there are two to three different devices that are giving similar predictions, then there is a good chance that these devices are giving reasonable calorie calculations for you...but not necessarily for everyone else."

For people who are trying to lose weight, the investment in cross-checking is even more worthwhile. Pagoto suggested starting by assuming a device is overestimating calorie burn — or, if you’ve cross-referenced, going with the most conservative number. "Even though the lowest estimate may not necessarily be the most accurate, the direction of the error will be such that you will lose weight more quickly [than you expect to] rather than more slowly," she said.

If all else fails, the most out-of-date tracking device you're likely to own — your scale — won’t lie. "If your device is telling you that you are burning thousands of calories and the food you enter is under your calorie goal," Pagoto said, "yet you are still not losing weight, the information is not likely accurate."

Whatever your goal, managing expectations is probably important, says Kevin Hall, the National Institute of Health researcher who devised this science-based body-weight planner. Since there's no way to ensure accuracy, Hall suggested using the devices as a way to measure your levels of physical activity over a long period: whether you're doing more or less exercise from one month to the next.

"I laugh when I see people taking a careful look at the calorie counts from those devices because they’re really not intended for that," he said. He puts his study participants in a multi-million-dollar metabolic chamber to see how much energy they burn while exercising. Anything less, he suggested, might give you an accurate count — if, that is, you add or subtract 20 percent for a "conservative" margin of error.

Send your questions to Julia via the submission form or @juliaoftoronto on Twitter. Read more about Dear Julia here.

This is how Donald Trump’s budget cuts could actually become law
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Donald Trump’s budget contains truly shocking cuts to the social safety net: a near-halving of funding for Medicaid, a 25 percent cut to food stamps, and substantial hits to cash welfare and disability benefits as well.

But the general assumption in DC is that most of these proposals are going nowhere. Much of the Medicaid cuts come in the form of an Obamacare repeal and replacement package, and indications are that Senate Republicans want fewer cuts to the program, not more. And with Congress’s time and attention filled up with health care and tax reform efforts, they hardly have time to focus on gutting the social safety net.

This is still my best prediction. But people who care about these programs should think through how these cuts could take effect. If they take effect, they will take effect through the budget reconciliation process, which enables Congress to pass laws without facing a filibuster in the Senate. The process can only be used once per budget resolution, and Republicans’ longstanding plan was to use the fiscal year 2017 budget to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the 2018 budget to do tax reform.

Both of those bills can, and in the former case almost certainly will, include major cuts to social safety net programs.

Any health bill Congress passes will cut Medicaid

This is perhaps an obvious point, but it’s important. The American Health Care Act, as passed the US House, contained about $880 billion in cuts to Medicaid, both through rolling back Medicaid expansion in states that have chosen to expand access through Obamacare and by imposing additional cuts by using a “per capita cap” or a block grant.

That’s about a 25 percent cut to the program — a truly massive amount, and about half the total Medicaid cuts in Trump’s budget. If that passes and makes it to Trump’s desk, then a big chunk of his proposed anti-poverty cuts will have been achieved.

The good news for Medicaid recipients is that Republican senators in states that expanded Medicaid — people like Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — are recoiling from the scale of Medicaid cuts included in the House bill. That could force the Senate bill to include more modest changes, or, best of all for Medicaid recipients, it could kill the Obamacare repeal effort altogether.

But if a repeal bill does make it to Trump’s desk, it’s inevitable that it will cut Medicaid at least somewhat. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), one of the Republicans working on the Senate bill, has told reporters there's broad consensus that the Medicaid expansion has to be rolled back; it's just a matter of providing a "longer phaseout, a smoother glide path."

Rolling back the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act would be a large cut, no matter how long the phaseout is and no matter whether or not it’s accompanied by other cuts. In 2015, the CBO estimated that simply repealing the Medicaid expansion overnight resulted in a $824 billion cut over 10 years. Simply slowing down the repeal and doing it gradually doesn’t change the fact that ending the expansion will dramatically reduce spending on health care for poor people. At some date, whether it’s 2018 or 2020 or 2025 or whenever, the federal government will be spending hundreds of billions less every year to help poor people who get sick.

Republicans have made it clear that health care is, for now, their main legislative priority. They might fail; plenty of health care reform efforts before have. But the House unexpectedly came around to the AHCA on May 4, and there’s a real chance the Senate will come around too. If they do, that will clear the way for a large chunk of Trump’s proposed anti-poverty program cuts to take effect.

Tax reform is another opportunity to make big safety net cuts

House Rules Committee Meet On Formulating American Health Care Act Drew Angerer/Getty Images
House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady (left).

The public line on tax reform is that Congressional Republicans and the White House want a bill that’s deficit-neutral and pays for itself, at least after you assume that the bill will cause a big spike in economic growth.

But the fact of the matter is that putting together a deficit-neutral tax package is very tough, and it’s very, very tough if you want to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent, to let companies deduct the full cost of all their investments immediately, to eliminate the estate and alternative minimum taxes, to cut the top income rate, and to protect popular tax breaks like the health care exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, and the charitable deduction. It only gets tougher if Obamacare repeal fails and you have to repeal all of its associated taxes through a tax reform bill instead.

The options that Republicans have proposed to raise money to pay for all these cuts are politically contentious at best, and politically toxic at worst. There’s border adjustment, which doesn’t really raise money except in a budget gimmick way and which is massively controversial within the Republican party and among businesses. There’s ending the deductibility of interest on loans that companies take out, which would force many banks and financial companies to totally overhaul their business models and is sure to garner vociferous opposition from Wall Street. And there’s getting rid of the state and local tax deduction, which punishes rich people in blue states with high taxes, rich people like … Donald Trump.

Worst of all, deficit-neutrality isn’t really optional. If you want to do permanent tax changes, not temporary ones that can be substantially reversed upon their expiration as the Bush tax cuts were, and you want to use budget reconciliation to avoid a Democratic filibuster, Senate rules require that the legislation not increase the deficit after 10 years in the future. Republicans want permanent cuts, and they cannot pass anything if they face a filibuster, so they need to pay for these changes in the long run.

This is where spending cuts come in. Why pay for rate cuts with tax increases that Republicans hate when you can just, say, gut food stamps? Why piss off Wall Street by changing the treatment of interest when you can slash Supplemental Security Income instead?

To be clear, Republicans are not publicly proposing paying for tax cuts with spending cuts on programs for the poor. The Trump administration is still laboring under the delusion that their tax cuts will not just be deficit-neutral but actually raise money to pay for deficit reduction. Including cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance would be impossible; reconciliation can’t be used to cut Social Security.

And there are political difficulties with many of these cuts as well. Farm state senators may be reluctant to cut food stamps due to pressure from agricultural companies who benefit from the program.

But this is sure to be an extremely tempting option if Republicans are desperate to get tax cuts done. It allows them to cut taxes in absolute terms without paying for it with increased revenue elsewhere. If a Paul Ryan-esque agenda of dramatic cuts to programs for the poor and big tax cuts is to actually becomes law, this is how it will likely happen.

In a first for Asia, Taiwan moves to legalize same-sex marriage
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

In Taipei, Taiwan, this morning there was jubilation in the streets.

The island’s highest court had just struck down Taiwan’s anti–gay marriage laws as unconstitutional, paving the way for the first system of legalized same-sex marriage anywhere in Asia. "The judges have today said yes to marriage equality," Amnesty International's Lisa Tassi told NPR. "This is a huge step forward for LGBTI rights in Taiwan and will resonate across Asia."

The big winners are people like Chi Chai-Wei, a Taiwanese LGBTQ rights activist who has been fighting to marry his partner for more than 30 years.

“I’m leaping with joy like a bird,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s been a long fight, and I’m in need of a good sleep.”

The Taiwanese high court’s ruling was blunt. “The provisions” of Taiwan’s current civil code on marriage, the legal ruling read, “do not allow two persons of the same sex to create a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the committed purpose of managing a life together.”

The court ruled that those provisions privileged heterosexual Taiwanese over their same-sex counterparts — and made some more equal before the law than others.

The court then went further, dictating that within two years a new law needed to be on the books that would allow full freedom to marry. If no specific law appears before that time, same-sex couples will, by default, simply be allowed to register in the same manner as their straight friends.

The issue, the court underscored, was one of “human dignity.”

Now legislators will be tasked with coming up with a law specifically allowing same-sex marriage, or they will need to amend the current civil code to include gay men and lesbians. LGBTQ activists hope for the latter, the BBC reported today, as there is concern about half-measures that would still institutionalize inequality (like approving same-sex unions but barring gay and lesbian couples from adopting children).

Today, at least, logistics seemed far from the minds of many of those captured celebrating in Taiwan earlier today:

LGBTQ rights in Asia are still sharply limited

But while most media showed rapturous images from Taipei’s streets, the issue of same-sex marriage has roiled Taiwan for many months now. In November, massive protests broke out over the issue that eventually drew crowds of more than 12,000 from the two sides. The competing protesters were divided by a large contingent of police officers.

And anti–marriage equality protesters appeared out in some force today as well. Taiwan News reported a group called Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation protested outside the court. “Some requested the invalidation of the interpretation and the president to step down,” the paper wrote.

LGBTQ rights in Asia are by no means assured. In the Indonesian province of Aceh this week, two men were caned 83 times each for engaging in gay sex, the BBC reports. The two men, who were not identified, are 20 and 23 years old.

And in South Korea Wednesday, a military officer was sentenced to jail time for sex with men. “The conviction raises fears that dozens of other military personnel will face a similar fate,” Amnesty International said in a statement, and this sentencing was part of a “bigoted hunt to root out gay personnel.”

Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine is my happy place in a world of chaos, may it reign forever
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The comedy has become one of TV’s most reliable shots of earnest fun.

There’s no other TV show that I hoard on my DVR for the pure joy of mainlining it like I do with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

In a world that can change completely in the second it takes to glance at the news of the hour, the Fox comedy hit such a comfortable groove in its fourth season — which wrapped on May 23 — that each new episode reliably offered 20 minutes of uncomplicated fun. When I need it most, I always know that Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be as silly and earnest as a fluffy pupper running in circles before collapsing to take a blissed-out nap in a sun patch. And because the show hails from some of the minds behind Parks and Recreation and The Office, it’s also an incredibly sharp comedy, letting everyone from Andy Samberg at his goofiest to Andre Braugher at his most deadpan shine.

So now that the fourth season is over and you have all summer to watch it, here are five reasons why you should.

1) It’s comfortable making a “will they/won’t they” couple into a zero-drama partnership

 Fox
Jake and Amy, partners in work and in life. Aw.

For the first couple of seasons, detectives Jake Peralta (Samberg) and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) circled each other like their obvious sitcom ancestors, Sam and Diane. He’s a slob with sharp instincts; she’s a stickler with more weird streaks than she lets on.

But after Brooklyn Nine-Nine gave in and let them get together for real at the beginning of season three, the show made a surprising choice by allowing Jake and Amy’s relationship to be ... stable. Their becoming a couple didn’t give way to petty hijinks; instead, it deepened both their characters.

In season four, that was truer than ever. The only real conflict they had was the question of whose apartment they were going to move into together, and it was resolved in classic Brooklyn Nine-Nine fashion: with a fierce(ly silly) competition and an inevitably loving compromise.

2) Season four finally confronted latent racism within law enforcement head on

Since Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered in 2013, I’d wondered if it would ever bring up the fact that cops can have a reputation for taking controversial and downright disturbing actions. But as more and more stories of police brutality and racism became topics of national conversation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine remained steadfastly optimistic. The show rarely let crimes spiral out of control, opting instead to tell slapstick stories about Jake saving the day or bored precinct receptionist Gina (Chelsea Peretti) pulling a solution out of thin air as Captain Holt (Braugher) nodded with taciturn approval.

But in “Moo Moo” — season four’s 16th episode — Terry (Terry Crews) experienced firsthand how his fellow officers’ instincts could go against public interest. The episode sees Terry run into another cop while Terry is off duty, trying to find his daughter’s favorite “moo moo” stuffed animal out in his neighborhood — and the cop assumes he’s up to no good and arrests him for nothing.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t often get serious, but when it does, it makes it count. In the case of “Moo Moo,” the show turned to the 99th Precinct’s previously established fierce family dynamic to rally behind Terry in a way that immediately read as sincere. And when Terry asks Holt if he should report the incident, the episode can rely on Crews and Braugher to bring subtlety to the unusually frank discussion — especially when it turns out they are at odds.

As Pilot Viruet points out at Vice, the storyline is effective both because it’s so unexpected from this usually lighthearted sitcom and because the show has done such a good job shading in Terry and Holt’s characters that their individual reactions don’t come off like convenient story complications but rather the real, conflicted feelings of police officers hurt by others not doing their jobs, and assuming the worst of them besides.

3) Andre Braugher forever and ever, amen

Here comes the requisite part of any Brooklyn Nine-Nine article I write: the part where I talk about how great Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt is, because oh, man, he is great. And while the show’s treatment of Holt — a gay black man who’s had to fight preconceptions about himself for decades — and Braugher’s laconic delivery have always been a treat, Holt consistently became looser, stranger, and more delightful with every episode of season four.

The season kicked off with Jake and Holt holing up in Florida with new identities under the Witness Protection Program, which led to Holt unexpectedly flourishing in his undercover persona as a speed-walking ladies’ man. Later, once the pair returned to Brooklyn, Holt struggled to keep the 99th Precinct together against possible budget cuts, but still made time to complete his mentorship of Amy in a single afternoon and even visit a thermometer museum (Holt lives large). I’ve always liked Captain Holt, but in Brooklyn Nine-Nine season four, he became one of my favorite characters on TV for good.

4) Season four loved a cliffhanger, but didn’t depend on it

One of this season’s most jarring moments came right before the show took a break for a few months, when January 1’s “Fugitive — Part 2” ended with a bus full-on hitting Gina, Regina George style (a comparison that Gina herself would no doubt love). For the next few months, fans waited to see what the hell that was going to mean. Was Peretti — pregnant at the time — taking a break from the show? Would Gina be in some kind of coma? Or, horror of all horrors, was she going to die and leave the show for good?!

As it turns out, the answer to all of the above was, thankfully, no.

Gina came back with everyone else in the cast in April 11’s “The Audit,” wearing a neck brace so big she could barely move. And while the prohibitive costume might’ve held back other performers, Peretti’s physical comedy is second to none, so for her, it was kind of the best.

5) Season four’s guest stars were [chef kissing fingers meme]

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has always been stacked with entertaining, well-cast guest stars, from Kyra Sedgwick cropping up as Holt’s longtime nemesis to Bill Hader as a terrible temporary replacement captain for the 99th Precinct. Thankfully, season four made room for even more — and used them wisely.

Maya Rudolph appeared early in the season as Jake and Holt’s Witness Protection contact; the incomparably funny Andy Daly (Review) showed up as yet another Holt nemesis (the man loves a rivalry); and L. Scott Caldwell (Lost) even dropped by to play Holt’s perfectly straight-faced mother.

The season then ended with a pair of wildly differing guest star turns. Ryan Philippe showed up as the father of Gina’s baby (surprise!), while Gina Gershon played Sergeant Hawkins, a dirty cop trying to pin all her misdeeds on Jake and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), her smirking confidence tearing holes in their every line of defense. In the final minute of the season, Jake and Rosa were found guilty of the serious crimes Hawkins actually committed. But if Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows its own pattern, that cliffhanger will last maybe 10 minutes into season five before the 99th Precinct family comes through and sets them loose for another season of ridiculous, joyous fun.

Another Obamacare insurer just quit, leaving 25 Missouri counties with no options
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Another health insurer will quit the Obamacare marketplace next year, leaving 19,000 Obamacare enrollees with no options in 2018.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City announced Wednesday that it will not sell coverage on the Obamacare marketplaces next year. The plan has experienced significant losses in recent years and is scared off by the current uncertainty over the health law’s future.

“Like many other health insurers across the country, we have been faced with challenges in this market,” Blue KC chief executive Danette Wilson said in a statement. “Through 2016, we have lost more than $100 million. This is unsustainable for our company. We have a responsibility to our members and the greater community to remain stable and secure, and the uncertain direction of this market is a barrier to our continued participation.”

Blue KC currently sells coverage in 32 counties in both Kansas and Missouri. Its exit will hit Missouri hardest, however, because it will leave 25 counties in the Western part of the state with no Obamacare insurers.

Cynthia Cox with the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the area has about 19,000 Obamacare enrollees.

The Affordable Care Act doesn’t have a back-up plan for this situation. There is nothing in the law that compels health insurance plans to participate in the marketplaces. States can take action to increase participation. Nevada, for example, requires health insurers who want to bid on Medicaid contracts to sell marketplace coverage, too.

It’s possible that another health plan could sign up to sell coverage in the area. This scenario recently played out in Tennessee: After Humana’s exit from Obamacare left 16 counties surrounding Knoxville with no health plans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee decided it would cover that area.

But it’s also possible that no insurer will show up. The nonprofit Blue plans have, so far, been the marketplaces’ backbone. They tend to be the insurers who turn up to sell coverage in the areas no for-profit insurer wants. The fact that it’s the Blue Cross plan quitting the Missouri market and leaving parts of it bare is a worrisome sign for the state, suggesting there are fewer health plans left to save the day.

Read more

  • Why are some places facing a future with zero Obamacare insurers? I did a deep dive into the situation in Tennessee, and much of that analysis applies to Missouri, too.
  • Insurers might be lured into these empty areas with the promise of a monopoly market. But so far, that hasn’t been a big draw — and I wrote a bit more about that here.
  • Want to see what Obamacare would look like if other big insurers quit? Sarah Frostenson and I built an interactive that does just that.
Cannes 2017: Sofia Coppola triumphs with The Beguiled, a suspenseful Civil War revenge comedy
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

You’d best not mess with the ladies.

The Beguiled masquerades as a Southern Gothic tale, with all the requisite grotesquerie. But beneath its frilly, corseted bodice, it’s a stone-cold revenge fantasy, laced with a potent cocktail of toxic comedy and pungent desire.

The film’s fixation on revenge means it feels considerably tighter and simpler than its marketing might have led you to believe. This isn’t the wild, extravagant romp of director Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, nor does it lean so plainly on the hormonal teenage angst of The Virgin Suicides. Simple, irresistible desire is what drives revenge movies — desire for retribution, inexorably enacted. And The Beguiled is set at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a hotbed of sublimated desire and good breeding.

In her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s Civil War-set 1961 novel — on which a 1971 Don Siegel film, starring Clint Eastwood, was also based — Coppola turns Miss Martha’s Seminary into a secluded, mist-heavy wood between the worlds, populated by women rendered helpless by the Civil War and scarce resources to do anything but pray and wait it out.

In The Beguiled, women are frustrated at being left to flap in the wind like a lacy frock on a clothesline, while the boys go out to fight the real war. But society requires them to remain civilized, embroidering in the drawing room to the sound of booming cannon fire on the battlefield beyond the seminary’s gates. They’re reduced to praying for the soldiers, hiding their cow so nobody steals it, and trying to keep away from the gaze of the men who march by, lest they be tempted.

Years of that kind of thing can make you crazy, or it can be a clarifying force. In The Beguiled, much of the fun (and suspense) comes from trying to guess which is the case.

The Beguiled takes place late in the Civil War, when ennui has set in

The sister to The Beguiled in Coppola’s oeuvre is certainly The Virgin Suicides, another film about a house full of young women held captive for their own good (and in which Kirsten Dunst also starred). In that film, the girls are hungry for male interaction, partly because they want to have sex and partly because they’re just desperate for an outlet and an escape from their intense loneliness.

Those elements are in The Beguiled, for sure. But they’re best taken with the historical context in mind, and what the characters are experiencing from their secluded vantage point: the dismay of knowing their social order is disappearing, and the dreariness of living from day to day with nothing to do but keep at the embroidery, practice conjugating French verbs, maybe practice the violin.

The story picks up three years after the secession, when pigtailed Amy (Oona Laurence), gathering mushrooms in the Virginia woods, stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She brings him back to the sprawling house that’s home to the seminary and its headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, in her fourth role at Cannes this year).

Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled Focus Features
Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled.

Most of the seminary’s students have gone home because of the war, but Edwina Morrow (a subdued Dunst) has stayed on as a teacher, and a cadre of other girls remains, stranded by the dangerous situation in their own hometowns across the war-torn South. The oldest of these girls is Alicia (Elle Fanning), a 19th-century version of Virgin Suicides’ Lux Lisbon (played by Dunst in that film), all flirtation and seduction.

The residents of the seminary first consider turning Cpl. McBurney over to soldiers — either his own or theirs — but appealing to “Christian charity,” they elect instead to bring him inside and tend to his wounded leg. Miss Martha puts him under with chloroform, then cleans the wound and stitches it up. And then, while he’s still out, she strips him down to his knickers and washes him off, pausing to take more than a few deep breaths.

All the women and girls are worried about him in the house, but when he wakes up, relations slowly improve between the affable McBurney and the women, particularly the oldest three: strong-willed, mature Miss Martha, quiet and dutiful Edwina, and precociously tantalizing Alicia, who all but winks at him the moment he sets eyes on her.

But it gradually becomes clear that McBurney (an Irishman fresh off the boat from Dublin who took a man’s place in the army for $300) fancies himself a charmer, and that he’s found himself in a rather ideal situation: surrounded by beautiful women and charming girls of all ages and personalities. And he’d rather not go back to the army anyway.

Naturally, he plays the field. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

In The Beguiled, Coppola plays with the look of the film to add to the story

Coppola again wields her talent for stylizing films to set up our expectations for The Beguiled. The Spanish moss and mist hangs heavily over the trees, as in a twisted fairy tale, the colors are a little washed out, and the edges of the frame are darkened slightly, all signifying a decaying Confederacy and its carefully tended social niceties, which Miss Martha is still trying so desperately to preserve.

Sofia Coppola with the cast of The Beguiled Focus Features
Sofia Coppola with the cast of The Beguiled.

But this is a comedy — a dark one, but a comedy nonetheless, in which a candlelit dinner table becomes a minefield of dramatic irony. So lest we take things too seriously, Coppola employs a pink cursive script for the title card, embellished with flourishes and compressed slightly from both ends. It calls to mind a trashy and inconsequential romance novel, which, when punctuated with the film’s moments of violence, wounds, and blood, feels more hilarious than horrifying.

In fact, it’s the mashed up stylistic markers of The Beguiled that make it so effective, especially as they skitter across the revenge plot humming along beneath the surface. As a film, The Beguiled is thrilling, delicious, wicked fun. But there’s also something purely pleasurable — and no less cathartic in the 21st century than it might have been in the 19th — to see a cowardly man with far too much self-regard and far too few scruples get what he deserves.

The Beguiled premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24 and opens in theater in the US on June 30.

The bonkers Seth Rich conspiracy theory, explained
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

How a young Democrat's murder became the right's favorite fake news.

The life of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer, ended nearly a year ago when he was shot to death near his house in Washington, DC. Then came the tragic and bizarre afterlife: Since July, Rich has been the focus of intense right-wing conspiracy theories that have only escalated as the Trump administration’s scandals have deepened.

As the police have repeatedly stated, there is no evidence that Rich’s death was anything other than the consequence of a botched robbery. But some people, especially on the right, believe Rich was murdered by the Clintons for knowing too much about something. The most recent theories claim that Rich, not the Russians, was responsible for leaking the emails, published in WikiLeaks, that revealed Democratic party leaders had talked disparagingly about Bernie Sanders.

Thanks to an erroneous Fox News story last week, which was finally retracted on Tuesday, Rich recently became the focus of an intense media blitz from conservative outlets — many of which were eager for something to talk about besides the scandals swirling around Donald Trump.

Fox News’s Sean Hannity was one of the most enthusiastic rumormongers, devoting segments on three separate occasions last week to Rich. Even after Fox News retracted its story, Hannity promised he would continue to investigate. “I retracted nothing,” he said defiantly on his radio show Tuesday.

Rich’s family has been begging right-wing news outlets to stop spreading unfounded rumors about him, but by now the situation seems to have gotten out of control.

In death, Rich has become a martyr to the right, buoyed by a host of characters each with their own ulterior motives: There is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who wants to downplay the connections between WikiLeaks and the Russians; there are the Clinton haters, who want to spread the idea that the Clintons are murderers; there are the Trump supporters, who want to minimize the idea that Russian hackers helped deliver the election to their candidate; and there are the talking heads on Fox News, who last week needed something other than negative Trump stories to make conversation about.

We might not know who killed Seth Rich, but we do know who turned his legacy into a textbook study of where fake news comes from, how it spreads, and the victims it creates.

Seth Rich was murdered in a senseless act of violence

Seth Rich worked in Democratic politics for most of his career. He grew up and went to college in Omaha, Nebraska, where as a student he volunteered on two Democratic Senate campaigns. After graduating, he moved to Washington, DC, for a job at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a progressive opinion research and consulting firm. He was later hired by the Democratic National Committee, where he worked on a project to help people find where to vote.

On Sunday, July 10, Rich was shot to death about a block from where he lived in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC. Gunshot detection microphones place the time of the shooting at around 4:20 am. Rich had last been seen at around 1:30 am leaving Lou’s City Bar in Columbia Heights, about a 40-minute walk from where he lived.

It is unclear exactly what happened during those three intervening hours. The Washington Post reported that, according to his parents, cellphone records show that Rich called his girlfriend at 2:05 am and talked to her for more than two hours. He hung up just minutes before he was shot.

The police found Rich on the sidewalk with multiple gunshot wounds, at least two in the back. He still had his watch, his cellphone, and his wallet. There were signs of a struggle: bruises on his hands, knees, and face, and a torn wristwatch strap. According to the police report, he was still “conscious and breathing.” Family members say they were told that Rich was “very talkative,” though it is not publicly known if he was able to describe his assailant or assailants. Rich died a few hours later in the hospital.

The police suspected Rich had been the victim of an attempted robbery. Bloomingdale is a gentrifying part of Washington that still suffers from violent crime. In 2016, there were 24 reported robberies with a gun that occurred within a quarter-mile of the street corner where Rich was shot.

The first conspiracy theories grew out of the “Clinton body count” rumor

Almost immediately after news of Rich’s death, conspiracy theories began circulating on social media. A few factors helped make Rich a target of speculation:

  • The murderers left behind Rich’s valuables. (Though, by that same paranoid logic, wouldn’t a professional hitman have taken Rich’s wallet and phone in order to make it look like a regular mugging?)
  • Rich worked at the DNC, where in December there had been a minor scandal involving a software glitch that allowed the Bernie Sanders campaign to access private voter data collected by the Clinton campaign.
  • Hillary Clinton had just clinched the nomination after a surprisingly bruising primary, and there were still sore feelings in the air.
  • There’s a long-running conspiracy theory that the Clintons have assassinated dozens of their political enemies.

If those facts don’t seem to add up to a coherent story, well, you’re thinking too hard. Conspiracy theories don’t operate logically. They start from an assumption — for instance, “the Clintons are shady” — and spiral outward in search of corroboration.

On Reddit, for instance, one user wrote a 1,400-word post listing things that he found “suspicious.” Here were some of the stray facts the redditor claimed were evidence of a hit job by the DNC or the Clintons:

  • Rich’s former employer, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, once did some consulting work for British Petroleum. (“Is it possible that Mr. Rich was aware of the public's disdain for oil industry/fracking?”)
  • Rich once worked on Ben Nelson’s campaign for senator. (“[Nelson] contributed a crucial vote to help pass Obamacare back in 2009.”)
  • The political conventions were coming up. (“The TIMING of this tragedy seems too 'coincidental’”)

It’s unclear what any of these facts have to do with the Clintons, but somehow the Reddit user concluded: “given his position & timing in politics, I believe Seth Rich was murdered by corrupt politicians for knowing too much information on election fraud.”

Others on Twitter and the trolling website 4chan also speculated that Rich might have crossed the Clintons in some way. Rich’s death seemed to fit in with the “Clinton body count” theory, which dates to the 1990s and claims that the Clintons are so vindictive that they hire hitmen to murder people they don’t like.

People who believe the Clintons are murderers often point to deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who suffered from clinical depression and died of a gunshot wound to the mouth in 1993. Several investigations all ruled Foster’s death a suicide, but some conservatives insisted there must have been foul play. They claimed that Foster, who was looking into the Clintons’ taxes, may have uncovered evidence of corruption in connection to the Whitewater controversy, a guilt-by-association scandal involving friends of the Clintons’.

The “Clinton body count” theory has endured over the years simply because people don’t live forever. Any time someone dies who was connected to the Clintons — and since Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, literally thousands of people were in his orbit — this theory is dredged up again by the tinfoil hat crowd. And then it slowly fades.

At first it seemed the speculation about Seth Rich would die down quickly as well. But then 12 days later, on July 22, WikiLeaks published thousands of private emails from the DNC, and Rich became a politically useful distraction.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks supercharged the Seth Rich rumors

A month before Rich was murdered, the DNC admitted that Russian hackers had broken into its computer network, gaining access to all of the DNC’s emails. The thought of Russian interference in American politics was infuriating to Rich, according to one person “who was very close” to him, the Washington Post reported: “It was crazy. Especially for Seth. He said, ‘Oh, my God. We have a foreign entity trying to get involved in our elections?’ That made him so angry.”

When WikiLeaks released its dump of DNC emails on July 22, the obvious explanation was that it had obtained those emails from the Russian hackers. This connection was later confirmed by top US intelligence agencies, who concluded “with high confidence” that DNC servers were hacked by top Russian government hackers, who had then given the emails to WikiLeaks. “Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity,” the US intelligence report explained, as well as for its connection to the Russian propaganda outlet Russia Today.

But WikiLeaks has repeatedly denied its ties to Russia, and ever since last summer it has used Seth Rich as a way to distract from claims that it abetted Russian interference in the US election. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had his own reasons to fear a Clinton presidency — as secretary of state, Clinton wanted to indict Assange for his involvement in releasing the millions of US diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning.

On Dutch television in August 2016, Assange hinted that Rich, not Russia, may have been the source for the WikiLeaks emails. "Whistleblowers go to significant efforts to get us material, and often very significant risks,” he said. “As a 27-year-old, works for the DNC, was shot in the back, murdered just a few weeks ago for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington."

“Was he one of your sources then?” the anchor asked.

“We don’t comment on who our sources are,” Assange replied.

“Then why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?” the anchor replied.

Pressed repeatedly for clarification, Assange concluded that “others, others have suggested that. We’re investigating to understand what happened in that situation with Seth Rich. I think it’s a concerning situation; there’s not a conclusion yet.”

As part of its “investigation,” WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 prize in August for information about Rich’s murder.

This is the point where Seth Rich became a prop in a game of international espionage.

Trump supporters and the alt-right amplified the theory that Rich was some kind of Democratic whistleblower or leaker, even though the facts didn’t really fit this pattern. He didn’t have access to the DNC emails, and he had never shown any prowess at hacking — being a data analyst involves a very different set of skills. Besides, the DNC wasn’t the only organization that was hacked: Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s personal emails, for instance, were stolen separately, as were the emails at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Nevertheless, many on the right were inspired by the WikiLeaks insinuations and started to concoct their own conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder. In August, former House speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a conservative talk show host that Rich’s death was suspicious. “First of all, of course it’s worth talking about,” he said. “And if Assange says he is the source, Assange may know. That’s not complicated.”

That same month, Trump adviser Roger Stone claimed, without evidence, that Rich was murdered “on his way to meet with the FBI to discuss election fraud.”

To Trump supporters, the claim that Rich had been murdered by the Clintons had twofold appeal: It reinforced the rumor that the Clintons were shady operatives, and it distracted from the mounting evidence that Russia had interfered with the US election — possibly in collusion with the Trump campaign.

In the presidential debate on September 26, Trump famously suggested that it could have been a lone hacker who was responsible for the stolen DNC emails. "It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds," he said.

Thanks to a weird miscommunication, the conspiracy theory comes back in May

After the election, the conspiracy theories about Seth Rich faded from public consciousness, as the focus turned instead to the FBI’s investigation of connections between Trump staffers and Russian agents. Suspicions still bubbled in right-wing corners of Reddit and on alt-right websites like Gateway Pundit, and Assange continued to claim that it wasn’t the Russians who provided the hacked emails — but most of America had moved on.

But Rich returned to the news last week, when the local TV station FOX 5 DC aired an interview with private investigator Rod Wheeler, who claimed that sources in the FBI told him there was evidence of a connection between Rich and WikiLeaks:

FOX 5 DC: You have sources at the FBI saying that there is information...

WHEELER: For sure...

FOX 5 DC: ...that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?

WHEELER: Absolutely. Yeah. That's confirmed.

Conservative media outlets jumped on the story, which aired the night of Monday, May 15. By Tuesday morning, conservative outlets like Breitbart, the Blaze, and the Daily Caller all had their own pieces relaying Wheeler’s claims.

On Tuesday, Fox News added its own revelation: It claimed that an unnamed “federal investigator” had confirmed that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks. “I have seen and read the emails between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” the source said, according to Fox News. Fox News additionally claimed this source had evidence that Rich had given thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

This was a two-source story: The report also said that Wheeler had independently corroborated what the anonymous “federal investigator” had told Fox News.

But here’s where it gets confusing. By Tuesday afternoon, Wheeler told CNN that he had misspoken. It turns out he didn’t have any evidence of his own.

What had happened, apparently, was that earlier in the week, Fox News had contacted Wheeler for its own story on Rich. That was when Wheeler learned that Fox News had a source alleging there was contact between Rich and WikiLeaks. When Wheeler went on local TV on Monday night to talk about Rich, he believed he was giving viewers a “preview” of the Fox News story set to run on Tuesday.

That, at least, is how Wheeler explained the situation to CNN last Tuesday. Somehow, through miscommunication or sloppy reporting, the Fox News report used Wheeler to back up its claims about the Rich-WikiLeaks connection. This was incorrect, Wheeler said. He had no independent knowledge.

"I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News," he told CNN.

Yesterday, after leaving it up for a week, Fox News finally retracted its Seth Rich story, which was down to one anonymous source. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” an editor’s note explained. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”

Conservative media has a field day

It’s unlikely that any of this would have been a big deal had there not been a stunning series of damaging reports about Donald Trump last week.

Among other things, it was revealed that Trump had shared state secrets with the Russians, that he had pressured FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation into ties between Trump affiliates and Russia, and that the Russia probe had reached a current high-level White House official, who many suspect is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

One way the conservative media minimized all the bad news was to focus on other stories. The latest Seth Rich allegations became a welcome distraction from the constant revelations coming out of the Washington Post and the New York Times.

For instance, while most outlets were covering the revelation that Trump had volunteered classified information to Russians, the alt-right website Breitbart devoted its front page to the Seth Rich conspiracy. Breitbart even slammed the mainstream media for ignoring the rumors about Rich: “Silence from Establishment Media over Seth Rich WikiLeaks Report” was the title of one story.

Fox News in particular devoted outsize attention to the Rich story, repeatedly rehashing the conspiracy theory. On his 10 pm show, Fox pundit Sean Hannity devoted segments to Rich on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday last week. “I'm not backing off asking questions even though there is an effort that nobody talk about Seth Rich,” he said on Friday night.

On Tuesday, even after Fox News retracted the story that ignited the latest round of speculation, Hannity remained convinced that the Seth Rich conspiracy theory had legs. “I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com,” he said on his radio show. “I retracted nothing.”

Later that evening, on his television show, Hannity said that for now, he would stop talking about Rich “out of respect for the family's wishes.” On Twitter, though, he was defiant, claiming that “liberal fascism” was trying to silence his voice.

“Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever,” he tweeted. “Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder.”

“Please retweet,” he added.

Rich was an unlucky victim of the conservative media

The recent attention has reignited the old Seth Rich conspiracy theories, bringing forth even more unsubstantiated claims.

On Fox News’s Sunday morning talk show, Newt Gingrich repeated his belief that Rich, not Russia, was responsible for the DNC hack. “It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians,” he said. “It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee.”

On Monday, Assange issued a cryptic tweet using the hashtag “#SethRich” which fanned the flames even further: “WikiLeaks has never disclosed a source. Sources sometimes talk to other parties but identities never emerge from WikiLeaks. #SethRich.”

And on Tuesday, New Zealand file-sharing entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who is wanted by the US government for copyright infringement and racketeering, claimed that Rich had personally contacted him in 2014, and that the two had talked about “a number of topics including corruption and the influence of corporate money in politics.”

“I know that Seth Rich was involved in the DNC leak,” Dotcom wrote in a statement.

Rich’s family has repeatedly asked news outlets to stop publicizing these rumors. “Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel,” Mary and Joel Rich wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday evening.

“Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death,” they wrote. “That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.”

The Riches also pushed back on some of the rumors themselves, stating that the FBI had found no evidence of communication between their son and WikiLeaks, and that Seth had no access to any of the DNC emails that were leaked:

Despite these facts, our family’s nightmare persists. Seth’s death has been turned into a political football. Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy. It just won’t stop. The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.

But to conspiracy theorists, the facts have never mattered. Fake news always has ulterior motives, and everybody who amplified the Seth Rich conspiracy theories had their own stake in keeping the lies alive.

Mar-a-Lago has a sinkhole. They’re a serious problem in Florida.
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Sinkholes, explained.

There’s a 4-foot-wide sinkhole outside President Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, apparently caused by a recently installed water main, according to a Palm Beach traffic alert issue Monday.

The news prompted an inevitable flurry of wisecracks, from Vox’s own Matt Yglesias among others.

But sinkholes aren’t all that funny when they happen in your backyard. The US Geological Service estimates that sinkhole damages average at least $300 million a year. And Florida leads the nation in sinkhole damage, reporting some of the most shocking incidents in recent years.

There was the sinkhole in 2013 near Tampa that swallowed an entire bedroom in a house, killing one of the residents. And later that same year there was a 60-foot-wide sinkhole outside Walt Disney World amusement park in Orlando that destroyed a resort (luckily none of the guests were injured).

Guests had only 10 to 15 minutes to escape the collapsing buildings at the Summer Bay Resort on U.S. Highway 192 in the Four Corners area, see Monday, August 12, 2013, located about 7 miles east of Walt Disney World resort, where a large sinkhole - about Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel / MCT
The wreckage from a sinkhole collapse at Summer Bay Resort outside of Walt Disney World.

We’re still really bad at predicting when sinkholes might occur, as there are few warning signs. As a result, sinkholes can often be catastrophic.

What’s more, we could be seeing more sinkholes as our population grows and climate change triggers more extreme events like tropical storms and flooding (although the science here is tenuous and more research is needed).

Sinkholes happen when water erodes the soil, making deep, unstable holes under ground

A sinkhole is formed when water pools underground because it doesn’t have a way to drain naturally and instead slowly erodes the underlying rock. Over time, this process weakens the subterranean structure and creates a cavernous hole that eventually causes the ground to collapse.

Generally speaking, sinkholes are most prevalent where the bedrock is made up of rock like limestone, dolomite, and gypsum that dissolve over time from water — particularly acidic water, or most rainwater in the US. This type of soil structure is referred to as “karst” and can be thought of as a block of Swiss cheese — with holes beneath the earth’s surface formed by groundwater eroding the rock.

Below is a map of regions in the US where this type of soil structure is most common. The USGS estimates that anywhere from 35 to 40 percent of soil in the US is composed of karst.

 USGS

And as you can see, large swaths of Florida are at risk of sinkholes:

 Florida Center for Instructional Technology

In Florida, nearly all sinkholes are the result of rocks beneath the surface gradually dissolving from rainfall and groundwater.

 USGS
Most Florida sinkholes are formed from dissolution or the gradual erosion of underlying rock.

There are two other sinkhole types. One is known as “cover subsidence” and is most common in sandier soils. The process of soil leaching into a hole below ground is usually very slow — taking years or even hundreds of thousands of years — and is most common in areas like the Shenandoah Valley where there are many naturally occurring caves.

 USGS
Diagram of a cover-subsidence sinkhole, which is most common in sandier soils.

And then there are “cover-collapse” sinkholes, which can happen in a matter of hours and are far more dramatic and headline-grabbing. They usually occur in areas with large amounts of clay in the soil; as soil is deposited into a hole below, an arched cavity is created just beneath the surface that moves upward as more soil is eroded.

 USGS
Diagram of a cover-collapse sinkhole, which is most common in soils with large amounts of clay. These sinkholes can occur in a matter of hours.

According to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, reported claims from sinkhole damages nearly tripled over four years, from 2,300 in 2006 to 6,700 in 2010, and cost Florida insurers $1.4 billion in damages over this time period. The office also found an increase in reported sinkholes in parts of South Florida where they traditionally had not been an issue.

(State insurance officials told Weather.com there’s no geological explanation driving this spike and it’s instead a reflection of better reporting practices and, in some instances, dubious claims.)

Climate change might make sinkholes happen more frequently, but remote sensing could let us detect them sooner

Sinkholes occur naturally, but can also be triggered by extreme weather events like flooding and tropical storms, and other kinds of human activity. (It’s thought that the installation of a new water main on South Boulevard triggered the sinkhole in front of Mar-a-Lago.)

Now some scientists are trying to better understand the relationship between sinkholes and climate change. It’s a relatively new question in climate science, and at this stage, researchers haven’t definitively established a relationship. But Harley Means, a geologist at the Florida Geological Survey (FGS), told New Scientist in 2013 that studies that examined periods of high sinkhole activity with corresponding climatic conditions could potentially provide evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship.

The USGS doesn’t currently collect national data on sinkholes, which makes it incredibly difficult for scientists to determine if sinkholes are increasing in frequency or severity — let alone what is driving these changes.

But there is hope that a new remote sensing technology that NASA developed might make detecting sinkholes earlier. It's called interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR), and it works through having satellites and drones capture changes in ground elevation. The thought is that because sinkholes often show signs of gradually caving downward (though not always), InSAR can be used to detect when a sinkhole has reached a critical point and collapse is imminent.

Ronald Blom, a geologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cautioned the Atlantic that “InSAR is not a magic bullet” and won’t capture every sinkhole, but it could be useful for detecting sinkholes earlier.

Watch: the first full trailer for Game of Thrones season 7
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Winter is still coming, but war is here.

Game of Thrones returns for its seventh season on July 16, and per its newest trailer — one with actual new footage, no less! — the fight for Westeros is going to be messier than ever.

With Cersei Lannister now holding a determined grip on the Iron Throne, the series’ clashes between families and long-simmering blood feuds have come to a head. In the trailer, Cersei intones that the Lannisters have “enemies to the East, enemies to the West, enemies to the South, [and] enemies to the North — whatever stands in our way, we will defeat it.”

Cersei is, as she’s proven over six seasons, one of Game of Thrones’ most indomitable forces of snarling nature. But she’s got her work cut out with her. Jon Snow is firming up his grip as “King of the North,” as Littlefinger encourages Jon’s half-sister Sansa to look for opportunities now that she is — somewhat improbably, after all she’s been through — one of the last Starks still standing. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen is marching her army towards Kings Landing — and as the trailer shows us, paying a visit to a what looks to be a formidable new castle (perhaps Storm’s End?). We also see glimpses of everyone from Unsullied soldier Grey Worm, staring into the sun, to Melisandre, staring out onto the ocean, to Theon — or is it Reek? — staring into a fire.

As with most trailers, and Game of Thrones’ trailers in particular, this newest one serves to set the scene more than anything else, and so season seven sure looks like it is beating a steady drumbeat of war.

Game of Thrones returns for season seven on July 16 at 9 pm on HBO.

The opioid epidemic keeps forcing an Ohio coroner to rent extra room for dead bodies
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

For the second time this year, the coroner ran out of room for dead bodies due to the opioid epidemic.

A coroner in Ohio keeps running out of room for dead bodies as more and more people die in the opioid epidemic.

According to CBS News, the coroner’s office in Montgomery County ran out of space for the second time this year after it received 13 bodies on Monday, 12 of which were for overdoses. And that came after the office expanded its cooler to hold 42 bodies, up from 36, after facing similar issues last year.

“If this pace continues, I'm not really sure what we’re going to do,” Kent Harshbarger, the coroner, told the Tribune-Review. “It’s full every night.”

According to Harshbarger, he’s looking at 2,900 autopsies this year, 2,000 of which are for drug overdoses. Last year, he reportedly handled fewer than 2,000 autopsies total. His office handles autopsies for Montgomery County and the surrounding rural areas in southwest Ohio.

To deal with the spikes in death, Harshbarger has reportedly rented space at a funeral home and refrigerated trailers. But that, apparently, may not be enough at the current pace.

Harshbarger’s struggles drive home just how deadly the opioid epidemic has become: Even the people equipped to deal with death can’t keep up with the pace.

In 2015, the opioid epidemic led to more than 33,000 opioid overdose deaths and more than 52,000 total drug overdose deaths nationwide. In Ohio, overdose deaths climbed by 21.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since that data was collected, there are signs that the epidemic has gotten worse with the introduction of the potent fentanyl and its analogs to the illicit opioid market. The deadliest drug overdose crisis in US history, then, is likely getting deadlier.

The opioid epidemic, explained

In 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than any other year on record — more than 52,000 deaths in just one year. That’s higher than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died from gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995.

This latest drug epidemic, however, is not solely about illegal drugs. It began, in fact, with a legal drug.

Back in the 1990s, doctors were persuaded to treat pain as a serious medical issue. There’s a good reason for that: About one in three Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine.

Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this concern. Through a big marketing campaign, they got doctors to prescribe products like OxyContin and Percocet in droves — even though the evidence for opioids treating long-term, chronic pain is very weak (despite their effectiveness for short-term, acute pain), while the evidence that opioids cause harm in the long term is very strong.

So painkillers proliferated, landing in the hands of not just patients but also teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, other family members and friends of patients, and the black market.

As a result, opioid overdose deaths trended upward — sometimes involving opioids alone, other times involving drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines (typically prescribed to relieve anxiety). By 2015, opioid overdose deaths totaled more than 33,000 — close to two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths.

Seeing the rise in opioid misuse and deaths, officials have cracked down on prescriptions painkillers. Law enforcement, for instance, threatened doctors with incarceration and the loss of their medical licenses if they prescribed the drugs unscrupulously.

Ideally, doctors should still be able to get painkillers to patients who truly need them — after, for example, evaluating whether the patient has a history of drug addiction. But doctors, who weren’t conducting even such basic checks, are now being told to give more thought to their prescriptions.

Yet many people who lost access to painkillers are still addicted. So some who could no longer obtain prescribed painkillers turned to cheaper, more potent opioids: heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s often manufactured illegally for nonmedical uses.

Not all painkiller users went this way, and not all opioid users started with painkillers. But statistics suggest many did: A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found many painkiller users were moving on to heroin, and a 2015 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

So other types of opioid overdoses, excluding painkillers, also rose.

That doesn’t mean cracking down on painkillers was a mistake. It appeared to slow the rise in painkiller deaths, and it may have prevented doctors from prescribing the drugs to new generations of people with drug use disorders.

But the likely solution is to get opioid users into treatment. According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who met the definition for a drug use disorder didn’t get treatment. Patients with drug use disorders also often complain of weeks- or months-long waiting periods for care.

So federal and state officials have pushed for more treatment funding, including medication-assisted treatment like methadone and buprenorphine.

Some states, like Louisiana and Indiana, have taken a "tough on crime" approach that focuses on incarcerating drug traffickers. But the incarceration approach has been around for decades — and it hasn’t stopped massive drug epidemics like the current crisis.

Trump’s defense budget looks a lot like Obama’s defense budget
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild.”

It’s never a good sign when one of the most conservative and pro-military Republicans on Capitol Hill says that President Trump’s defense budget is “basically the Obama approach with a little bit more, but not much."

But that was the response from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, when he digested Trump’s first defense budget — and how different it is from what candidate Trump had promised.

During the campaign, Trump promised to “build a navy of 350 surface ships and submarines” — but the budget only has enough money to build one more ship. Yes, one.

Trump’s defense budget is $575 billion, according to an official Pentagon document. But while that sounds like a really big number, it won’t actually help Trump do the things he said he would do.

Trump promised to rebuild the military — this budget won’t do that. And he promised he would be nothing like Obama — this budget definitely won’t do that.

Basically, the defense budget Trump released is a repudiation of everything he campaigned on relating to defense and the military — at least for now.

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “make our military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us,” and in February he said he was pursuing a "historic" increase in defense spending.

But his budget is only the ninth-largest defense budget increase in the past 40 years, according to Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Trump’s budget only increases spending by $19 billion over Obama’s 2016 request, whereas Trump promised an increase of $54 billion.

Harrison’s chart below shows just how underwhelming Trump’s defense request is compared with Obama’s last request. Obama’s last budget is the light bluish-teal color; Trump’s is in red.

So if the budget doesn’t rebuild the military, what does it do?

“This budget is a repair; it is not a rebuild,” Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute told me in an interview. In other words, this budget is about filling gaps in the military’s ability to do its job.

In this, Trump was clearly influenced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. On January 31, Mattis authored a memo that said the defense budget should focus first on “readiness” — basically, ensuring that US troops are prepared and trained well enough for a war — and later focus on a buildup.

But Trump didn’t campaign on readiness. He campaigned on a rebuild. This budget woefully underdelivers on that promise.

Trump’s defense budget looks a lot like Obama’s defense budget

Trump’s budget is more “muscular” than Obama’s defense request, Eaglen says. There’s more funding for nuclear weapons and precision weapons, for example.

Yet in most other areas, Trump basically played copycat. He ordered around the same number of planes and same number of ships as Obama had already planned for. And because Trump didn’t put out a five-year plan for defense spending (which Obama did not do, either, in his first year), it is hard to tell if the buildup is actually being planned for down the line or not.

It could be that after Congress weighs in, the defense budget will grow enough that Trump will get his buildup. But for now, he’ll have to settle for ordering just the ninth-largest defense increase in 40 years.

That’s historic, in a way.

Vermont’s governor just vetoed marijuana legalization
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The state was set to become the ninth (excluding DC) to allow cannabis for recreational purposes.

Vermont was set to become the ninth state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. But on Wednesday, the Republican governor, Phil Scott, vetoed the bill.

The bill, approved by the state legislature, would have eliminated all penalties for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and possession of up to six marijuana plants. It would not have allowed marijuana sales, but it would have created a commission to study how to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana sales — potentially as soon as 2018.

Scott, however, didn’t approve. He sent the bill back to the legislature recommending amendments that would impose tougher penalties for selling or giving cannabis to minors, more aggressive penalties for driving under the influence or using pot in front of minors, and more stakeholders represented in the new commission.

“We must get this right,” Scott said. “I think we need to move a little bit slower.”

In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first two to legally allow pot for recreational purposes. Since then, six other states, from Massachusetts to California, and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana — although DC, like Vermont’s bill and unlike the other states to legalize so far, does not allow recreational pot sales.

Vermont would have become the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature instead of a ballot initiative.

Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could lead to far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

On Wednesday, the opponents won in Vermont.

For more on the debate over marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.


Correction: This article originally said Vermont would become the 10th state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. It would become the ninth.

Trump’s budget sneakily asks for new weapon against sanctuary cities
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Trump couldn’t defund sanctuary cities on his own. So he’s asking Congress to help.

Tucked into President Trump’s 2018 budget request, in the form of language rewriting a 1996 law governing local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, is a new front in the Trump administration’s war on “sanctuary cities” — jurisdictions that don’t help federal immigration agents scoop up unauthorized immigrants (and that happen, generally, to be under Democratic control).

The Trump administration is asking Congress to make it illegal for any law enforcement officer not to comply “with any lawful request” from federal immigration agents — including requests to hold immigrants after they’d normally be released from jail, so that federal agents can pick them up.

If the budget passed, it would put hundreds of cities that limit local help with federal agents — that say that, for example, local jails won’t hold immigrants booked on traffic offenses for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pick up and deport — on the wrong side of the law.

The budget is extremely unlikely to pass. But it shows the White House is looking to Congress to intercede in a fight the Trump administration is currently losing.

After months of threats, the Trump administration finally admitted that it doesn’t currently have the ability to strip funds from cities like San Francisco and New York just because those cities don’t do everything they can to help the federal government round up unauthorized immigrants. But instead of surrendering, the administration wants Congress to change the law — and give it sweeping new powers to use against unauthorized immigrants, and against any city police department that tries to get in its way.

The law stands in the way of Trump’s agenda, so the administration wants to change the law

The Trump administration — especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions — has made a lot of noise about defunding “sanctuary cities” that don’t help the federal government enforce immigration law. But so far, its bark has been much worse than its bite.

That’s because of the ambiguity in what it really means to be a “sanctuary city.”

The Trump administration clearly wants to punish cities that don’t honor federal detainer requests — requests from federal agents to hold immigrants booked into local jails for 48 hours after they’d normally be released, to give the feds a chance to come pick them up and put them in deportation proceedings. That’s the sense in which it uses “sanctuary city” in its rhetoric, when it accuses cities like San Francisco and Chicago of abetting violent crime by shielding immigrants.

But right now it’s not illegal, under federal law, to decline a detainer request. So the only actions the Trump administration has taken so far target a definition of “sanctuary city” that’s so narrow that it’s not clear any city in America actually is one.

Federal law prohibits local and state governments from having policies that ban employees from sharing information with the federal government. The Trump administration has announced that it’s going to start withholding federal law enforcement grants from cities that violate the law by having such a policy.

Some cities do have policies on the books discouraging employees from sharing residents’ immigration status. And the Trump administration (following a report written under the Obama administration) has targeted a handful of them, asking them to certify they comply with the law. But the city governments maintain that they do — that they deliberately wrote their policies to comply with the federal law on information sharing.

The Trump administration clearly knows the information-sharing law isn’t broad enough to defund all the cities it wants to defund. It’s hinted that it’s going to define “sanctuary cities” more broadly in future — in other words, that it’s going to find a way to defund local governments for refusing to help federal agents pick up immigrants.

But even just hinting at that possibility was enough for a federal judge to force the Trump administration to put its “sanctuary city” defunding efforts on hold last month. The judge’s opinion made it clear that punishing cities for anything other than explicitly violating federal law wasn’t going to fly.

The Trump administration appears to finally be admitting that current law doesn’t allow it to do much on “sanctuary city” defunding. On Monday, a memo from Sessions clarified that the administration would only strip funding from jurisdictions that violated the federal information-sharing law.

And then on Tuesday, the budget’s general provisions contained language that would change the law itself — putting more cities in violation — and that would explicitly allow the Department of Homeland Security to prevent any city, state, or other government that violated such a law from getting DOJ or DHS grants.

The budget is a wish list — but now the wish has been made

If this proposal were to become law, the consequences could be huge. Hundreds of law enforcement agencies would be at risk of losing federal grants that many of them rely on for their budgets. It would put huge political strain on cities to start helping ICE pick up immigrants whenever asked.

And if those cities buckled — as many of them likely would — it would funnel hundreds of thousands more immigrants into federal deportation proceedings. Any encounter with law enforcement, even for the most minor offenses, would become a one-way ticket into the deportation process.

But the Trump administration is admitting that it can’t make this happen on its own. It’s asking Congress to change the law to make its policy possible. And it’s doing that by attaching the request to a 2018 budget that pretty much everyone in Congress, including Republicans, agrees is dead on arrival.

Congress is going to go its own way in enacting a budget for next year. It’s possible that it’s going to slip the language forcing cities to help federal immigration agents into the final budget, but it’s not hugely likely, because Congress doesn’t appear to be taking anything in the Trump budget terribly seriously.

The bigger concern for Democrats and city governments is that now that the legislative language has been written, Republicans in Congress could slip it in as a rider on a must-pass bill down the road — as a blow to (mostly Democratic-run) city governments, as a favor to the administration, or simply as an easy way to demonstrate they’re doing something on immigration.

If that happened, the Trump administration would finally be able to do what it’s been threatening to do all this time — and it would have the law on its side.

Trump told the Philippine president that he’s doing a “great job” killing drug dealers
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Trump continues to be at ease endorsing the country’s brutal campaign.

Most American presidents wouldn’t heap praise on a foreign leader for spearheading an anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 7,000 people, including children as young as 4. Donald Trump, as we learn again and again, isn’t like most US presidents.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a chummy phone call, according to a transcript obtained by the Washington Post and other media outlets. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. In September, Duterte likened his quest to rid the Philippines of drug addicts to Hitler’s purge of European Jews, saying he’d be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts. Humans rights groups around the world have condemned his extrajudicial killings, and the Obama administration was critical of it as well. (Duterte responded by calling Obama a “son of a whore.”)

Trump, by contrast, appears not only unfazed by Duterte’s bloody methods, but actively supportive of them. During the call, he encouraged Duterte to visit the White House, an invitation he’s made in the past as well.

“I will love to have you in the Oval Office,” Trump said. “Any time you want to come … Seriously, if you want to come over, just let us know. Just take care of yourself, and we will take care of North Korea.”

Trump can’t stop himself from boasting about firepower

The other striking moments in the conversation revolve around the topic of the threat posed by North Korea.

At one point, Trump boasts to Duterte that among the firepower he has in the region are “two nuclear submarines” off the coast of North Korea. It’s unclear whether this is a case of Trump carelessly discussing sensitive national security matters, as was the case recently when he told visiting Russian diplomats about highly-classified intelligence about ISIS that the US had received from Israel.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific security program at the center for a New American Security said on Twitter that it is potentially “a hugely problematic disclosure,” depending on what kind of submarine the US has deployed.

Trump also pressed Duterte for his thoughts on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who Trump described as unhinged and dangerous.

“We can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons let on the loose like that,” he said.

Most experts say that Kim, much like previous North Korean leadership, is in fact remarkably predictable in its behavior.

Trump’s actual foreign policy ideas, however, are notoriously hard to predict or pin down. Trump recently praised Kim as a “smart cookie” and said it would be “an honor” to meet him under the “right circumstances,” which have made him sound at least somewhat open to a diplomatic solution.

But he has also warned of a potential “major, major” conflict with North Korea, and his administration has deliberately refused to rule out a preemptive strike against the regime.

A great deal of what policy course is decided upon hinges on whether or not the administration considers Kim rational, and on this front they’ve been inconsistent.

So to sum it up, on this call Trump was exceptionally warm with an authoritarian leader, added to our confusion about how feels about a crucial foreign policy challenge, and was potentially reckless in revealing national security information. Sounds about par for the course.

Donald Trump's meeting with Pope Francis, in one hilarious picture
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

We’re a happy family (me, mom, and daddy)!

President Donald Trump and his entourage met with Pope Francis at the Vatican this morning, and the photo they posed for during the meeting basically sums up how it went:

It almost looks like a farce: Trump cheerily oblivious, Pope Francis looking for all the world like he’d rather be literally anywhere else but in that room with that man, and Melania and Ivanka standing stiff and oddly morose, as if they’re part of a historical reenactment of a Victorian-era funeral.

(The conservative black dresses and veils are Vatican protocol for women, but are not mandatory — leading some to question why the two women chose to cover their hair in the presence of the Pope, but declined to do so in Saudi Arabia.)

The photo is awkward and hilarious — but it also perfectly captures the tension inherent in a meeting between two of the world’s most powerful men whose visions of the world couldn’t be more different.

“The opening exchanges between the pope and the president,” wrote the Guardian, “began on an unusually sombre note, with the pope not exuding his usual warmth and cheerfulness.”

Trump and Pope Francis have made no effort to hide their shared enmity over the past few years. During the presidential campaign, the Pope — who is revered for his deep humility and sincere affinity for the poor and downtrodden — was cutting about Trump’s plan to build a border wall with Mexico. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” Francis said in February 2016.

Trump fired back via Facebook:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.

Trump added, huffily, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

The pope is also a passionate and vocal advocate for the plight of refugees, and he believes that man-made climate change is a critical problem that must be addressed by world leaders. Trump, on the other hand, has tried to temporarily ban all refugees from the United States, called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese, and wants to back out of the Paris climate accords.

Europeans seem to fall more in the pope’s school of opinion. Indeed, when Trump arrived in Rome on Tuesday night, he was greeted with an illuminated message blazoned across the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica by environmental activists that read “Planet Earth First.”

We don’t know exactly what the two men discussed during their 30-minute, one-on-one meeting behind closed doors. But afterward, Pope Francis was none too subtle about what he’d like the takeaway to be: "At the end of the audience, the pope gave Trump copies of his writings," Sylvia Poggioli said on NPR, from Rome, "including his encyclical on climate change — a topic on which Trump has a very different opinion."

The two men also exchanged gifts. Trump apparently gave the pope a copy of the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. The pope gave Trump a medallion of an olive tree rendered by an Italian artist, as a symbol of the need for global peace. “It is with all hope that you may become an olive tree to make peace,” the pope told the president.

“We can use peace,” the president responded.

A few of the photos taken before and after the meeting do show the pope smiling, but they are few and far between. Most of them show a decidedly dour-faced Pope Francis — rather surprising for someone who is often photographed mid-chuckle or with a huge, beaming smile on his face.

Even People magazine, not known as a particularly political publication, had a distinctly political take on the two leaders’ interaction: “Onlookers described the meeting as ‘stiff’ and the pope as ‘stone-faced’ during the meeting. In the first minutes of the meeting, the pope did not say anything to Trump and did not smile.”

Following the meeting, Trump told the press “He is really something!” of the Pope. Judging by the pope’s face in that photo, the pontiff certainly seems to think Trump is really quite something, too.

Someone killed a congressional inquiry into America’s sky-high transit construction costs
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The life and death of great American GAO reports.

Mass transit construction costs in the United States appear to be far higher than what European countries pay for comparable projects.

The Second Avenue Subway in New York City, for example, is being built at a cost of nearly $1.7 billion per kilometer while new subway lines are being built in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berlin for about $250 million per kilometer. It’s not entirely clear what accounts for those differences or what the United States can do to increase the cost-effectiveness of its tunneling. But one clue could come from studying what Los Angeles, the city that’s doing the most rail construction in the US these days, is doing to deliver lower-than-normal costs. They’ve also been publishing project management best practices to explain what they’ve gleaned.

Some people in the United States Senate had the smart idea that the federal government ought to do something similar and included language in their appropriations bill commissioning a Government Accountability Office study of the issue. It’s normally the kind of thing that’s an uncontroversial measure, but the language was stripped out when the bill had to be reconciled with the House’s language as part of the big government funding deal earlier this year.

And it’s a shame. Obviously one study won’t make a huge difference. But beyond being interesting and useful on its own terms, the first step to increasing productivity in American transit construction is for people to acknowledge that it’s an issue. Mass transit proponents are understandably sensitive about anything that might end upon labeling existing projects as wasteful, but if the United States could start building at European unit costs we’d be able to build drastically more tunnels and have much more useful transit systems. Shying away from the truth is short-sighted.

The case of the missing GAO study

Looking at the final omnibus document to see what Congress was doing with the DC area’s mass transit system, I found this curious line:

That led to a search for when, exactly, the GAO was going to be directed to report on this.

Poking around got me to the Senate’s original text contained this language calling for a GAO study of transit construction costs:

Increasing Costs of Transit Projects. -- Not later than 6 months after the enactment of this act, the GAO shall report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations regarding the construction costs of transit capital projects in the United States in comparison to other developed G-20 nations, such as South Korea, Japan, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. The GAO shall examine potential cost drivers, including: contracting and procurement, project and station design, routing, regulatory barriers, interagency cooperation and legal systems. The report shall compare practices both between various cities in the United States as well as to practices in other nations. The report should, if appropriate, make recommendations to DOT on steps it can take to address the issues identified by the reports to help bring best practices in the United States in line with international standards within the boundaries of current U.S. law. These recommendations may take the form of changes to funding guidelines or prioritization, regulatory changes, contracting practices, or intergovernmental technical assistance.

Nobody seems to want to officially claim credit for killing this or to point the finger at exactly who did it, since for better or worse mass transit construction costs aren’t anyone’s top priority on Capitol Hill. But there was an effort to get the federal government to take a look at this, and then someone else squelched it.

Transit advocates need to care about costs

That back-and-forth encapsulates a dispute within the American transit community about how to think about this problem.

One popular school of thought holds that transit advocates essentially ought to circle the wagons and deny that there’s a problem here. The Second Avenue Subway may be ungodly expensive, but it is a really valuable and useful project. The United States wastes plenty of money on highways, too, and there always seems to be enough money for another cruise missile or stealth bomber, so why should we nickel-and-dime transit projects?

I’ve come to think that this is fundamentally misguided. The reality is that if you want to build a lot of transit projects, it’s really helpful to be able to build them at an affordable cost. Not only does that stretch a given pile of dollars further, but precisely because it lets you stretch further it means that your project touches more people’s lives and can garner a broader coalition of political support. Paris’s ability to build subways cheaply doesn’t mean Paris has become stingy on its transit projects — the ability to get a lot of bang for the buck is one reason they can do the enormous $25 billion Grand Paris Express expansion project.

It’s precisely the people who do want to see the United States build great new transportation projects who ought to worry about why we are so bad at executing on them. Unfortunately, not everyone in politics sees it that way.

Scientists really aren't the best champions of climate science
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

Why aren’t facts enough to get us to act on global warming?

When scientists struggle to communicate with the public, they often respond by doubling down: more data, more charts, more lines of evidence. But sometimes you don’t need more science; you just need three minutes with the pope in a parking lot.

Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been publishing on climate change for more than 40 years, dating back to the early 1970s when he discovered the greenhouse effect of CFCs. But his finest moment in scientific communication was not in a prestigious journal or a global climate conference.

In 2014, at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Ramanathan learned that he was going to have a brief audience with Pope Francis. He quickly crafted a statement, tried to memorize it in Spanish (which he doesn’t speak), and headed to what he assumed would be a formal meeting in some ornate receiving room inside the basilica. Instead, as he was walking through the parking lot, he saw a familiar, pope-shaped man climb out of a Fiat and walk toward him.

“I completely panicked — it was a panic attack,” said Ramanathan of the moment he realized it was Pope Francis.

The Spanish words evaporated from his brain.

“I said, ‘Heck with it, I’m going to tell him in English,’” said Ramanathan.

Instead of getting into carbon dioxide emissions, sea level rise, and all the intricate details of climate science, he dove straight into the moral crisis that climate change presents.

“Most of the pollution is coming from the wealthiest 1 billion people, and the poorest 3 billion are going to suffer the consequences,” he told Pope Francis.

The pope not only listened but wanted to know what he could do to help.

“Since I was not prepared, I went to my heart to tell him, and I think without any exaggeration, those three minutes were my best scientific moments in my life. I could have blown this,” said Ramanathan.

Pope Francis included Ramanathan’s message in an address several days later, started tweeting about climate change, and in 2015 issued a 184-page encyclical focused on the environment and climate change. The pope has an audience of more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world — an audience that trusts what he says.

The repeated failures of the scientific community to get the world to act on climate change are often chalked up to framing problems: If only the data were presented in a way that people understood, people would feel a sense of urgency and demand action. But reframing the argument isn’t a magic fix: Regardless of the topic, people actively seek out ways to reinforce what they already believe. The message matters, but it’s often the messenger that matters more.

This fact isn’t lost on Van Jones. Widely known as a CNN political commentator, Jones is also a founder of Green for All, a nonprofit that focuses on solutions for the people most directly affected by pollution and the effects of climate change.

“Low-income communities, communities of color — we get hit first and worst for everything bad with regard to the environment. We've got the cancer clusters, the asthma. We've got the incinerators right next to our playgrounds,” said Jones.

To his mind, it’s not just one pope or one Van Jones that’s needed — it’s going to take a chorus of voices to broaden the coalition to the point that there’s an effective climate movement in the US.

“You've got to have 20, 30, 40 million African Americans on your side. You've got to have 50 million Latinos on your side. And they're not going to come in the same way that the other folks came in. They're going to come in with a different set of agendas, a different way of talking about it, a different set of needs and priorities,” said Jones.

Watch the video above with Ram Ramanathan, Van Jones, a founder of the Tea Party movement, and others using trusted voices to bring more communities into the climate change fight.

Find out more ways that scientists and activists are finding new venues for talking about real climate change solutions at climate.universityofcalifornia.edu.

How a 3-year-old Rihanna meme led to a real-life heist movie with an all-black creative dream team
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

That Rihanna/Lupita heist meme spent three years on Tumblr. Now it’s becoming a Netflix movie.

Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, and Issa Rae: Apparently it takes a meme to round up a Hollywood dream team like this.

As reported earlier this week by Entertainment Weekly, all four women have signed up to helm a heist movie that began its life as a viral Tumblr post. That meme spread to Twitter, where it caught the attention of its subjects, Rihanna and Nyong’o, and Hollywood at large.

Now, after a “dramatic” negotiation at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s becoming an actual Netflix movie, with production slated to begin in 2018.

If this all seems sudden, that’s understandable — you may have only recently heard about the meme. But it’s been brewing on the internet for a long time — three years, in fact. On July 5, 2014, Tumblr user elizabitchtaylor, a.k.a. Roxy, made a photo post taken from the sidelines of the designer Miu Miu’s March fashion show. The photo shows a fur-and-leather-clad Rihanna sitting next to a preppy-chic Nyong’o.

“They look like they’re in a heist movie with Rihanna as the tough-as-nails leader/master thief and Lupita as the genius computer hacker,” Roxy wrote.

 elizabitchtaylor/Tumblr

Nearly three years later, Roxy’s Tumblr post has almost half a million notes and reblogs, and has inspired all kinds of running commentary and fan art:

 ihiphop/Tumblr
 zombiekunoichi/Tumblr

In April 2017, a Twitter user, @1800SADGAL, moved the meme to that platform, where it once again instantly went viral.

And since Twitter is the platform where celebrities and their fans tend to hobnob, you can guess what happened next.

The tweet caught the attention of Lupita Nyong’o...

...who volleyed it over to Rihanna, who of course responded in style:

A fan of the pair then took the suggestion even further, lobbying Ava DuVernay, who was totally on board:

All that was left was for Issa Rae to hop on the Twitter train, also prompted by a fan:

The trend of internet fun going mainstream has been happening for a while

While this Twitter-to-film development is exciting because of all the star power attached, it’s not the first of its kind. We’ve already had TV shows based on Twitter feeds, like $#*! My Dad Says. We’ve had movies based on true internet stories, like Lion. We’ve had movies inspired by major internet trends, like the fan demand for a Deadpool movie that ultimately led to the 2016 blockbuster. We’ve even had viral internet fan casting, like a meme that saw Donald Glover being cast as Spider-Man, ultimately leading to his finally playing the part, albeit in a different movie than fans originally wanted him in. We’ve also had movies based on basically every internet meme imaginable.

So in the never-ending grab for content, it only makes sense that networks and studios are eager to cash in on a viral meme. This is just a higher-profile, more intense example of many trends we’ve already seen.

What does seem to be new, however, is the quick pace at which this all came together, and the immediacy with which a bunch of high-profile people got on board — not to mention the public, vocal enthusiasm for a project centered on a creative team of black women. It took years for the internet’s demand for Deadpool to convince studio executives to pull the trigger, even with the crusading of star Ryan Reynolds, whose leaked studio test footage became the linchpin of the internet effort to make a full-length film. It took even longer for Glover to get his shot at playing Spidey.

But the turnaround time between the Tumblr meme hitting Twitter and all four of its creative stars expressing interest in it was a mere five days; the Netflix negotiation — in which the company, according to EW, made an “aggressive” bid against other studios to turn the project into a movie deal — came down just under a month later. Few details are known outside of the EW write-up regarding how studios actually started putting the deal together, but it appears interest at Cannes was intense.

It’s also worth noting that Twitter as a platform played a significant part in the project’s short turnaround time; after all, the meme originated on Tumblr three years ago, and even though it went twice as viral on Tumblr, it flew completely under Hollywood’s radar until it showed up on a social platform Hollywood execs actually use.

On her Tumblr, Roxy indicated that she might be involved in the production to some degree, but couldn’t give any details: “Hey everyone, just a quick shout to let you know that I still can’t answer any questions about the Rihanna/Lupita movie project. Just know that I’m very happy and excited to see the idea coming to fruition.”

Rae also told Vanity Fair that the original meme creators would be given some form of credit for the idea.

Unsurprisingly, DuVernay’s framing of the project sums it up best:

Cannes 2017: Michael Haneke's Happy End is tense horror, and the lurking monster is privilege
May 24th, 2017, 06:50 PM

The latest from the two-time Palme d’Or winner depends on its audience to connect the dots. It’s terrific.

When notoriously provocative director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) makes a movie with a name like Happy End, you can be pretty sure the film’s conclusion will be anything but cheery. Haneke doesn’t do happy endings.

But Happy End’s beginning is just as quintessentially Haneke: It starts silently, with Instagram Live-style videos that observe a woman brushing her teeth before bed as the text onscreen predicts what she’s about to do next: brush, rinse, spit, pee, flush, and so on. Then we see a hamster digging into a bowl of food as the text describes what the hamster’s about to eat. Then another, more gruesome scene.

Soon we’re back to regular-looking wide-screen cinema, watching cranes in a pit and the sudden collapse of a wall. Then we’re observing the events of a seemingly disparate selection of people. A French family (Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Franz Rogowski, and Laura Verlinden) eats dinner together as a mother scolds her adult son for not exercising restraint when he pours the wine. A young girl (Fantine Harduin) packs a suitcase with clothing. A man (Toby Jones) talks both business and pleasure on the phone. An unseen person types a seductive, sexually deviant message to someone named “Thomas.”

Happy End is about a lot of things: psychopaths, wealth, privilege, suicide, even murder. But if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss what’s happening — in fact, even if you are paying attention, you might miss it. Most good films rely on their audiences to connect the dots a little, but Happy End is all dots, with none of the lines drawn in at all. The meaning is there, but you have to dig for it in the everyday events of a family’s life.

Which is a lot like real life.

Happy End boldly trusts its audience to pay attention

Happy End is all brushstrokes, snippets of ordinary lives that seem banal and even insignificant on their own. But as they pile up, one scene after another, they start to accrue meaning. Events and statements from earlier scenes suddenly mean something different because of information revealed later. It’s like watching a painting come together, each stroke adding information that informs the whole.

It’s a bold way to construct a film, trusting the audience to stay with you. But it’s consonant with Haneke’s other films (especially 2005’s Caché), as well as the way he treats each frame of this film. His camera is still, almost static, and it’s vital to look around in the frame as objects and words appear, adding layers of meaning to what’s happening in the center of the frame. Audiences that just want to kick back and zone out while watching a movie won’t love Happy End. But viewers who are up for a challenge (and subtitles — it’s in French) will be richly rewarded.

Isabelle Huppert in Happy End
Isabelle Huppert in Happy End.

As in Caché, a movie about a family who’s being spied on for reasons they can’t understand, Happy End uses technology to tell its story in innovative ways. In 2005, it was VHS surveillance tapes, spliced into the story so expertly that it was hard to tell if you were watching a tape or “reality.” This tactic made everything kind of terrifying, and made viewers complicit by forcing them to look at the illicit surveillance tapes.

Twelve years later, Happy End implicates viewers in some of the same ways, but this time through surreptitiously filmed live video and Facebook chats. We know more than almost any other character in the film, but our knowledge, instead of clearing up some of the film’s mysteries, makes everything even more frightening. We dread what’s about to happen, or what we think is about to happen — and in vintage Haneke style, when the moment of horror comes, it’s even more shocking than we expect.

Happy End is about the European refugee crisis and the pitfalls of privilege

Haneke’s focus in Happy End (and often throughout his work) is in how privilege and wealth, treated nonchalantly, can corrupt and distort humanity. Here, they’ve turned a family belonging to the wealthy bourgeoisie into several generations of unhappy psychopaths who quietly hide some of their pathologies while disguising others as benevolence — especially toward the immigrants who serve them and live on the fringes of their lives.

While this isn’t a distinctly French critique, it certainly feels like a very timely one. The film is set against the refugee crisis in Europe — the family lives in Calais, the major point in France where migrants attempt to cross to England, causing major problems for both countries — but you’d barely know it, because our subjects only let the sojourners among them impede on their consciousness when it suits them in some way. So the film is damning: sins against the stranger more by omission than commission.

Happy End
A family tradition.

That Happy End challenges its audience to pay attention to put together the story, then, is as much an aesthetic statement about how to watch a movie as a political one. We have to observe and see what’s in the background. And that’s just what the family at the center of the movie doesn’t do, and what makes them civilized monsters — a proclivity they pass on through generations.

And as the film’s title betrays, there isn’t a happy end in sight. You know how it’s impossible to purchase a great gift for someone who already has it all? It might seem like having a wealth of options available to you in life — anything you might want to do or see or experience or screw — would make you happy. But in Happy End, at least, it only makes you miserable. (It’s no coincidence that this film features the single most punishingly sad karaoke scene in cinema.)

The only happy end for the unhappy family lies in self-obliteration, whether through alcohol or compulsive cheating or even suicide. In Happy End, though, most of that happens off screen. All we see is a hundred insignificant moments that brilliantly add up to something excruciatingly dark.

Happy End premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21 and is awaiting a US release date.