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Uber Drivers in California Are Employees, Labor Commission Rules

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

California's Labor Commission just delivered what could potentially be a significant blow to Uber's business model. After a former driver sued to be reimbursed for driving expenses, the commission ruled that drivers working for the popular ride-hailing app are employees, not independent contractors.

"The defendants hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation," the commission wrote in its ruling. "The reality, however, is that defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation."

The ruling, which for now only applies to California drivers, is the result of a claim filed back in September by Barbara Ann Berwick, a former Uber driver. Berwick argued she was owed payment for expenses, such as mileage, incurred while working for the company, but Uber insisted that she was only an independent contractor and therefore not eligible for reimbursement. On Tuesday, the commission ordered the company to pay Berwick $4,000 in expenses.

The difference in classification is significant, as an employee status may force Uber to provide drivers benefits such as social security, health insurance, and unemployment insurance. Uber is in the process of appealing the decision.

Read the ruling its entirety below:

Uber vs Berwick by SuperAdventureDoug

 

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Sarah Palin Has Some Very Nice Things to Say About Donald Trump

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 1:21 PM EDT

Via HuffPo, here is some more word salad from a reality show host.

@realDonaldTrump - Mr. Trump should know he's doing something right when the malcontents go ballistic in the press!...

Posted by Sarah Palin on Wednesday, June 17, 2015
 

 

Benghazi Hearings Now a Trip Down Memory Lane

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 1:19 PM EDT

Jonathan Allen on the Trey Gowdy clown show better known as Benghazi! hearings:

Republicans finally stripped away any pretense that they are more interested in the Benghazi attack than in attacking Hillary Clinton. With the nine-hour interrogation of bit player Sid Blumenthal Tuesday, they jumped the shark.

The House Select Committee on Benghazi deposed the Clinton confidant in a closed hearing room in a sub-basement of the Capitol. Blumenthal’s never been to Libya. He doesn’t know anything special about the Benghazi attack. He did sometimes forward "intelligence" memos from an ex-CIA officer to his longtime friend Hillary Clinton.

Not surprisingly, the committee — tasked with investigating the Benghazi assault — learned absolutely nothing from Blumenthal about the terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September 2012.

However, by spending all that time on Blumenthal, they met someone who does know something about Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Blumenthal’s appearance on Capitol Hill — where he was last a prominent figure during Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga — felt like part of a national time warp in which Americans are forced to relive the partisan warfare of the 1990s, when Republicans summoned Clinton aides to testify about an endless string of investigations. A Clinton confidant testifying before Congress is the only thing more '90s than a Bush and a Clinton running for president.

Apparently the questioning of Blumenthal was so transparently aimed at gathering campaign material against Hillary that Democrats on the committee want the full transcript released. They probably also want it released because Republicans in the past have had a bad habit of selectively releasing tiny little parts of transcripts purpose-designed to make Democrats look bad.1 Best to nip that in the bud.

There are so many things that I thought Republicans would eventually calm down about. Obamacare. Benghazi. Climate change. Iraq. Putin. Obama's betrayal of Israel. But no. Granted, campaign season is upon us, and that's when things always get hot, but still. Benghazi? Seriously? How many metric tons of evidence does it take for them to admit that it was a tragedy but not an act of treason?

1Though, in fairness, I don't think Gowdy has ever done this.

Obamacare for Blue States But Not For Red: Dream or Nightmare?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

Speaking of King v. Burwell, here's the thing about it that I've always really wondered about. Suppose the plaintiffs win and Republicans can't agree on a plan to do anything about it. Subsidies get eliminated in 34 states, almost all of them red. This basically guts Obamacare for anyone in, say, the bottom third of the income spectrum, which is virtually all Obamacare users. A few middle-class users with pre-existing conditions will still take advantage of it, which will cause either a big death spiral or a little one among insurance companies, but rates will surely go up. Bottom line: the extent of the chaos is a little hard to predict, but for all practical purposes Obamacare goes away in red states.

But in blue states? It's business as usual. California will continue to hoover up federal subsidies and its exchange will be open for business as usual. Ditto for the liberal hellholes of New York and Taxachusetts and so forth.

Bottom line: We will have a thriving social welfare program for health care in the blue states—funded by everyone's tax dollars—and nothing in the red states. Is that tolerable? Is it sustainable? Red states won't be able to do much about it, aside from caving in and tacitly supporting Obamacare by starting up their own exchanges. So what happens? Does this eventually cause congressional Republicans to cave in completely and pass the infamous four-word fix? Do they hold out because they hate Obamacare just that much? Or what?

We've never had a major social spending program limited solely to the blue states who support it. It's terra incognita. So what would happen?

NOTE: I continue to think the Supreme Court will do the right thing and rule against the plaintiffs in King. That would make this all moot. But you never know.

Republicans All In On Gutting Obamacare Subsidies

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

The New York Times reports that Republicans are nervous about what might happen if they win their court case to slash Obamacare subsidies in some states:

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana....Mr. Cassidy, a physician who has provided care to uninsured patients in Louisiana’s charity hospital system, said he could easily imagine how the White House might respond: “The president brings a woman in the middle of chemotherapy up on a stage to point out that she can no longer have her insurance because the Supreme Court struck down the subsidies.”

The consequences could be felt in statehouses and on Capitol Hill....Of the Senate seats up for election next year, 24 are held by Republicans, and 22 of those are in federal exchange states that could lose their subsidies. Asked if she hoped the court would rule for the plaintiffs, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, paused a moment, then said: “Yes, I guess I do. It would provide an opportunity to transition to a new law, or an improved version of the Affordable Care Act.” But she added, “I don’t think it would be fair to cut off people who have been using Obamacare subsidies.”

Note that Susan Collins is allegedly one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate. Even so, she wants to win King v. Burwell. Sure, it would throw everything into chaos and cause panic for millions of people, including thousands in her own home state. Nevertheless, she's in favor because she claims to believe it would lead to a new and better law. She of all people knows perfectly well that this is entirely chimerical, but that gives her only momentary pause. She's still rooting for the chaos and immiseration.

If that's how Collins feels, I can only imagine how the rest of the Republican caucus feels. They wouldn't even experience a minor twinge about cutting off people currently using subsidies, as Collins does. They'd just be rubbing their hands in glee because a victory would be a big win against President Obama. And these days, what else matters? Cassidy may be right about the optics, but I wonder how much effect that would have on the true believers who control the Republican Party these days? Probably not much.

The Daily News Welcomes Donald Trump to the Presidential Race

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 9:09 AM EDT

On Tuesday, Donald Trump descended from an escalator and announced he's actually running for president. The formal launch is yet another entry into a group of obvious losers that have little to no chance of securing the White House. 

Will Republican voters eventually warm up to the Donald, though? Judging by this fantastic cover of today's Daily News, a traditionally right-leaning New York paper, we're guessing no:

Indeed, the clown car that is the current GOP presidential field finally has a leader! 

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6 Foods That Still Have Scary Amounts of Trans Fats

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

After years of hemming and hawing, the Food and Drug Administration has finally declared artificial trans fats a threat to public health, giving food companies until June 2018 to phase out partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of trans fats in processed foods.

The decision doesn't amount to a full ban, allowing companies to petition for small amounts of trans fats if they can present evidence that it won't cause harm to consumers. But the FDA cautions that food companies will be hard-pressed to find research that contests the negative health effects of trans fats, which it says contribute to as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Here's the Latest Evidence of How Private Prisons Are Exploiting Inmates for Profit

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The for-profit prison industry sells itself as a cost-effective option for cash-strapped states, but according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin, privatized prisons are keeping inmates locked up longer in order to boost profits.

Researcher Anita Mukherjee studied eight years* of data from Mississippi, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and found that private prisons there doled out twice the amount of infractions against inmates, lengthening their sentences by an average of two or three months. The extra time, Mukherjee found, adds up to an increase of about $3,000 in additional costs per prisoner. Mukherjee also noted that inmates housed in private prisons were more likely to wind up back in the system after being released—despite industry claims of lower recidivism rates.

The study, which compares length of stays in private and public prisons, is not the first to highlight strategies undertaken by the private prison industry to raise returns for stockholders. Last year, Christopher Petrella, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, accused the Corrections Corporation of America of including provisions in its contracts with governments to keep the most costly inmates—those with health issues—from being transferred to its prisons. Through open records requests, Petrella found there were 14 different exclusion criteria, including disabled or elderly inmates, those who were HIV-positive, or anyone with "sensitive medical conditions and/or high risk diagnoses."

Today, the $5 billion private prison industry houses close to 20 percent of federal inmates.

Looking specifically at California prisons, Petrella highlights how health expenditures are among the largest costs, second only to security, and account for 31 percent of the overall budget. But, private prisons set up contracts that say they only will house the youngest, healthiest—and cheapest—prisoners.

These details, Petrella writes, failed to make their way into a Temple University cost analysis often cited by the industry as proof that privatization produces cost savings. The economists behind the study were funded by three of the largest prison companies in the United States—a fact they failed to disclose when the study was first published.

Other studies have had similar findings: An analysis by the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2011 found that most prisoners were no less costly when housed in private prisons, and that some cost up to $1,600 more each year than those in public prisons. A cost analysis by the University of Utah in 2007 showed cost savings from private prisons were minimal at best.

Between 2000 and 2010 the number of inmates serving sentences in private prisons doubled. Today, the $5 billion industry houses close to 20 percent of federal prisoners and about 7 percent of state prisoners, and private prisons are increasingly being used as immigration detention centers.

*The time period of the data has been corrected.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who's the Most Reactionary of Them All?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2015 11:23 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Pablo Barberá uses Twitter to rank all the presidential candidates from most liberal to most conservative. I'll leave it up to the experts to debate whether his methodology is sound, since, you know, Twitter. Anyway, here it is:

What I liked about this ranking was that Barberá included a handful of media outlets in order to provide some landmarks for comparison, and he had the good taste to include Mother Jones as one of them. It turns out we rank in between Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee, and right smack in the ideological middle of the congressional Democratic caucus.

Is that good or bad? I don't know. But I figured everyone would want to know.

POSTSCRIPT: Also, note where Scott Walker is. The guy is really conservative.

Paul Ryan's Vision of a Dickensian Hellhole Is Up For a Vote Next Year

| Tue Jun. 16, 2015 7:00 PM EDT

Jon Chait points out today that it doesn't really matter very much whether Hillary Clinton moves a little leftward, a little center-ward, or frankly, in any other direction during the upcoming presidential campaign. Oh, it might help her get elected, but once in office Republicans aren't going to pass any of her proposals, no matter what they happen to be. Nonetheless:

The presidential election carries hugely important stakes, not just in policy realms where the president wields significant influence on her own, like foreign policy and judicial appointments, but also on domestic policy. It’s just that the stakes have nothing to do with Clinton’s proposals. What’s at stake is the Paul Ryan budget.

....Jeb Bush has already endorsed the Ryan budget. Marco Rubio has voted for it and said, “by and large, it's exactly the direction we should be headed.” The other candidates have positioned themselves to their right....The overall thrust is perfectly clear: deep cuts in marginal tax rates along with large reductions in means-tested spending, and a deregulation of the energy and financial industries. Its enactment would amount to the most dramatic rollback of government since the New Deal.

....News coverage has oddly failed to frame this question as the center of the election. Journalists like personal drama, and they prefer to place the candidates and their individual ideas in the center of the portrait.

In fairness, the general election is a long way off. It's pretty understandable that campaign reporters are currently spending most of their time on primary jockeying and not on the details of policy proposals—especially since most of the candidates haven't yet done more than outline their domestic agendas anyway.

That said, no one took this very seriously in 2012, even though the Ryan budget was at stake then too. I'll toss out three reasons I suspect the same thing will happen this time too:

  1. The eventual Republican candidate will insist that the Ryan budget is "a great roadmap" and "the direction our administration will move in," or some such waffle. But he will refuse to flatly endorse the document itself ("As the Constitution requires, details will be negotiated as part of the congressional budgeting process blah blah blah"), and this refusal will be taken at face value.
  2. As I've mentioned enough times to be a bore about it, Republicans generally get a pass from the press corps when they advocate some militantly right-wing position. It's taken as little more than an applause line they "have" to deliver to appease the base, not something they'll actually do once they're in office.
  3. And in the case of the Ryan budget, the truth is that when Republicans are out of power they do always say that the budget is a looming apocalypse and needs to be slashed—but when they're in power it usually turns out they like spending money too. Sure, they always have a period of remorse and backbiting after they've been turfed out of office, swearing that next time they'll slash the budget for sure. But they never do. They just run big deficits. So it's hardly surprising that seasoned campaign reporters take this stuff with a grain of salt when they hear it.

So are Republicans serious about it this time? Beats me. I don't really want to risk finding out, but I honestly have no idea.