Lies, Damn Lies, and Wildfires: The Sunday Wrap (9/13/20)

This week: West coast wildfires, Trump’s on-tape comments on COVID-19, and the latest on stimulus talks.

Welcome to the Sunday Wrap! Each week, we’ll look back on some of the big headlines regarding public policy as well as some that might have flown under the radar. This is a new thing for the 101PC, so don’t be surprised if the format and content change over the next few weeks.

Now to the thing.

As of Sunday night, we’ve seen 6.5 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. About 194,000 people have died.

There’s no other way to put it. It was a debilitating week of news. Let’s look at three important things that happened and what they mean.

1. The West Coast burns.

If we were to use just one word to describe the wildfires occurring in California, Oregon, and Washington, it would be “apocalyptic.”

At least 25 people have died from the fires, with hundreds of thousands forced to evacuate their homes. Millions of acres of land in these states have been burned. With smoke filling the sky along the coast and inland, the air quality has declined dramatically.

The state responses have calmed the fires somewhat. There is some increasing concern in Oregon though, as the state expects strong winds to complicate things. Idaho and Montana have also seen large fires, though not to the same degree as the coastal states.

This is an exceptional year in wildfires for California. When comparing January 1 to August 31 of 2019 with this year, the state has seen sharp increases in the number of fires and burned acres (3,673 -> 5,924 fires ; 29,960 -> 1,059,583 acres burned). When including data from September, almost 3.4 million acres have burned this year, the most in a single wildfire season.

There have been a number of reported reasons as to why these fires started, some being natural and others being human-caused. But the real underlying conditions that prompted these fires is connected to climate change, as California, the U.S., and the world steadily grow warmer each year.

This is all despite California taking a commanding role in adopting greener climate policies than most other states. While the Golden State has led the way for years, it’s just not enough for it and a handful of peers to take this seriously. A much more aggressive and collaborative effort needs to take place, or else events like these will only become more frequent. In the meantime, we can continue to say with begrudging certainty that the climate crisis is not a future dilemma—it’s already here.

Related: ProPublica’s Elizabeth Weil interviewed several California fire management experts about why the state needs to dramatically increase its use of controlled burns.

Related: NPR’s Laura Sullivan, along with PBS Frontline, spent months digging into the oil and gas industries decades-long deception about recycling plastic. Read if you’re looking to ruin your mood.

2. On tape, Trump admits he knew of COVID-19’s severity despite publicly saying otherwise. (So, he lied.)

In an interview for a forthcoming book by journalist Bob Woodward, President Trump explicitly stated that he was aware of COVID-19’s severity back in February. Publicly at the time, Trump greatly downplayed the virus and its health risks.

By then, the WHO had declared the virus a global health emergency and the U.S. had already restricted travel from China, where coronavirus cases were spiking.

But then the U.S. did little else for weeks as the virus hit other countries very hard. It wasn’t until mid-March that Trump declared a national emergency, and even after this, we have had a disjointed response as the states are left with little federal guidance.

To sum it up, we could have been prepping for this pandemic far earlier in the year had Trump been honest. Instead, we sat on our hands and we’re seeing one of the worst public health and economic disasters in recent memory. Just as a rule of thumb: Honesty is always a good policy choice.

The AP has a good timeline of Trump’s public and private comments about the virus, as does ABC. I personally appreciated this one from Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett because it includes an important yet overlooked detail concerning the White House pandemic response team in 2018.

Related: In other “lies that endangered people and their livelihoods” news, the Department of Homeland Security has reportedly downplayed risks from two separate yet timely issues—white supremacist violence and Russian election interference. Additionally, DHS supposedly exaggerated threats posed by terrorists from across the U.S.-Mexico border as well as domestic groups like “antifa.”

Following this, the House Intelligence Committee has requested DHS allow top department officials to speak on record about these claims. This came to light thanks to a whistleblower complaint, which you can read here. The New York Times has coverage, with a paywall; NPR‘s and Vox‘s are free. For more background, check out this piece from The Intercept about how DHS’ internal unrest.

3. Congress’ negotiations on the much-needed stimulus package stall again, likely for good.

Talks between Congressional Democrats and Republicans about the next stimulus bill reached a new low this week, as Senate Rs proposed “skinny bill” failed to garner the 60 votes it needed to pass. GOP leadership railed against Democrats for obstructing a badly needed piece of legislation; Ds argued this bill was not nearly as large or effective as what’s needed.

This development might not come as a surprise, as the negotiations never seemed to get off the ground. House Democrats passed the HEROES Act back in May, which covered dozens of issue areas and had a $3.4 trillion price tag. Months later, Senate Republicans introduced the $1 trillion HEALS Act, which covered fewer things but did include disbursement of stimulus checks and a smaller boost to unemployment benefits.

Lawmakers tried to navigate the $2 trillion difference in plans and conflicting lists of priorities, but eventually they took a recess. After Labor Day, talks did resume, though not with much gusto. That led to Senate Rs introducing their new bill, which was a sharp departure from their original negotiating position in scope and effect. The so-called skinny bill would have cost half a trillion dollars and included only money for the Payment Protection Program, a reduced boost to unemployment insurance, and some relief for schools.

With election season fully upon us, it’s unlikely members of Congress will stick around D.C. to keep negotiations going. In other words, stimulus talks are unofficially over despite millions of Americans remaining jobless and many outlooks showing we might heading into a new, awful phase of the pandemic.

What else?
  • Trump’s payroll tax holiday has proven unpopular. The move, which would provide some short-term relief for workers yet hurt Social Security’s solvency, has not been taken up by many private employers. This policy will take effect within the federal government, so civilian workers and service members will see more take-home income in their checks …and then pay this back next year. In a nutshell, the impact of this measure has shrunk dramatically since private companies aren’t partaking, and it looks as though the policy is widely accepted as a purely political action.
  • The federal government could shut down (again) at the end of September. There has been some talk between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about a stopgap measure, so this does not currently seem likely. Still, with Congress splitting its attention on several other pressing things and with a president looking to use any chance to improve his election chances, this could change quickly.
  • Switching gears: An ongoing debate about golf courses and housing in LA got some attention this week. One particular course, owned and operated by the city, could be repurposed for new housing, which could provide living spaces for 50,000 people. Check out the piece on CityLab.
One last thought: A graduated income tax

Ballots include more than the names of candidates, namely potential changes to state and local laws. In Illinois, it’s a proposed constitutional amendment involving everyone’s favorite topic: income taxes.

If passed, Illinois would switch from its current flat income tax rate to a graduated one—higher earners would be taxed at a higher rate. It’s a polarizing thing here, with millions of dollars spent in promoting and bashing it. Naturally, there are some unfounded claims made to sway voters one way or another. I’ll spare you the back-and-forth (a quick Google search would get you up to speed).

By and large, flat rates aren’t fair systems. Each person pays the same percent of their income. However, lower income individuals have less disposable income (and typically fewer non-income resources) than higher earners, so they experience a much harsher impact than their wealthy neighbors.

Under a graduated rate, that impact is shifted away from low and medium income people and toward those with stronger financial means. While this helps the overwhelming majority of taxpayers, it typically does not mean the state sees a dip in its income tax revenue. Rate structures like this have also shown to dampen income inequality, and they’re typically a staple of the least regressive systems at the state level.

If you’re interested in understanding why this is the case, check out the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s report, Who Pays?, which also covers other types of state and local taxes.

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That’s a wrap. If you missed it last week, read the 101PC’s latest piece on one big idea for cities: a department of food.

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