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California Is on Fire. This Map Shows Where.

On the two-year anniversary of the Rim Fire, the state confronts more vicious blazes.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 7:21 PM EDT
A wildfire burning near Clearlake, California, earlier this month.

On August 17, 2013—two years ago today—a deer hunter near California's Yosemite National Park ignored a campfire ban and burned trash from his dinner. The embers blew into dry brush, starting the third worst wildfire in the state's history. All told, the Rim Fire, as it came to be called, burned 257,314 acres in and around Yosemite.

No wildfires of that scale have occurred since, but, thanks to drought and climate change, California is far from out of the woods. In fact, in 2015, 4,382 wildfires have already scorched a total of 117,960 acres, more than double the five-year average for this time of year. Firefighters have finally controlled the largest two fires, in Northern California's Jerusalem Valley, but not before the blazes razed nearly 100,000 acres. 

The map below, made by California's wildfire fighting agency, Cal Fire, gives a sense of where these fires are occurring. To read more details about each fire and how much of it is contained today, click on the map's fire icons or see Cal Fire's ongoing reports here

And California isn't even the state with the most acres burning right now. A blaze in Idaho has consumed more than 200,000 acres so far. In Alaska, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres this year. This map from the research organization Climate Central shows where wildfires are occurring nationwide:

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Report: 0.03% of Families in Public Housing Make a Lot of Money

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 5:54 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports today on what's sure to become a shiny new conservative talking point. Here's the inevitable headline:

In a nutshell, the story behind this is pretty simple: HUD checks your income when you apply to live in subsidized housing, but they never check it again. Most people who climb up the income ladder move out anyway because they want to live someplace nicer, but a few don't. And of those few, a very few make really large amounts of money.

How many? Well, out of 1.1 million tenants, about 2.3 percent are over the income limits. Most of them, however, are only modestly over, or have been over the limit for just a short time. Only 0.03 percent are "egregiously" over the limit. Still, 0.03 percent is 0.03 percent, and these are the families the audit report focuses on. Why not kick them out?

HUD tweaked its policy on high-earning tenants in 2004, encouraging the thousands of housing authorities in the system to move families out of public housing if they earn more than the income limit for their area. While HUD gives money to the housing authorities, they’re run by states and local governments.

But the 15 authorities investigators looked at told them they had no plans to evict these families, because if they did, poverty would continue to be concentrated in government-subsidized housing. The goal, they said, was to create diverse, mixed-income communities and allow tenants who are making good money to serve as role models for others.

Okey doke. The programs are actually run by the states. And the states unanimously allow over-income families to stay because they think it has a positive impact on the housing projects.

As usual, then, once you read past the click-bait headline, the actual story turns out to be considerably less inflammatory than it seems. HUD encourages states to kick out over-income families, but doesn't require it. The states prefer to keep them, and for a seemingly good reason. And if you limited yourself to kicking out just the "egregious" cases in the blaring headline, you'd save only 0.03 percent of the budget.

Opinions may differ on this, but any way you look at it, it's just not a big problem. The number of very high earners in public housing is minuscule, and it's a pretty self-policing system since families that make half a million dollars mostly don't want to stay in public housing anyway. More than likely, then, it's probably best to ignore the whole thing and leave the program alone.

That's not likely, though. I wonder who will be the first Republican candidate to make this a standard part of their stump speech?

First Amendment Law is Facing Some Very Big Changes

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 3:31 PM EDT

Adam Liptak says that Reed v. Town of Gilbert is the sleeper Supreme Court case of the past year. It unanimously struck down an ordinance that discriminated against signs announcing church service times, but only three justices ruled on the basis of existing law. The other six signed an opinion that went further, ruling that many other speech regulations are now subject to "strict scrutiny." How far will this go?

Strict scrutiny requires the government to prove that the challenged law is “narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” You can stare at those words as long as you like, but here is what you need to know: Strict scrutiny, like a Civil War stomach wound, is generally fatal.

“When a court applies strict scrutiny in determining whether a law is consistent with the First Amendment,” said Mr. Abrams, who has represented The New York Times, “only the rarest statute survives the examination.”

Laws based on the content of speech, the Supreme Court has long held, must face such scrutiny. The key move in Justice Thomas’s opinion was the vast expansion of what counts as content-based. The court used to say laws were content-based if they were adopted to suppress speech with which the government disagreed.

Justice Thomas took a different approach. Any law that singles out a topic for regulation, he said, discriminates based on content and is therefore presumptively unconstitutional.

Securities regulation is a topic. Drug labeling is a topic. Consumer protection is a topic.

This is obviously not news to people who follow this stuff carefully, but it was news to me. Apparently the reach of Reed is pretty spectacular: three laws have been struck down by lower courts in just the past two months based on the reasoning in the case. Any law that treats, say, medical records or political robocalls or commercial speech differently from any other kind of speech is in danger—and there are a lot of statutes on the books that do exactly this.

They say that hard cases make bad law. But Reed was an easy case. It failed "the laugh test" said Elena Kagan. And yet, it seems likely to have provided an excuse for an astonishingly broad change in how speech is regulated. So far it's stayed mostly under the radar, but eventually something bigger than panhandling or ballot selfies will get struck down, and suddenly everyone will notice what happened. What then?

Professor [Robert] Post said the majority opinion, read literally, would so destabilize First Amendment law that courts might have to start looking for alternative approaches. Perhaps courts will rethink what counts as speech, he said, or perhaps they will water down the potency of strict scrutiny.

“One or the other will have to give,” he said, “or else the scope of Reed’s application would have to be limited.”

Stay tuned.

The Push to Unionize College Football Players Just Suffered a Huge Blow

But Monday's labor board decision left the door open to future unionization efforts.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 3:16 PM EDT

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday dismissed a bid from Northwestern University football players to form the first-ever college athletes' union, overturning an earlier regional board ruling and ending a year-and-a-half-long battle that included several union-busting efforts by the school and the team's coaches to persuade athletes to vote against unionization.

From the Chicago Tribune:

In a unanimous decision, the five-member board declined to "assert" jurisdiction over the case because doing so would not promote uniformity and labor stability in college football and could potentially upset the competitive balance between college teams, according to an NLRB official.

The board, the official said, analyzed the nature, composition and structure of college football and concluded that Northwestern football players would be attempting to bargain with a single employer over policies that apply league-wide.

The decision marks a significant blow for Northwestern athletes, who won a regional board decision in March 2014 that determined they were university employees and could therefore seek union representation. However, it is unclear what effect the latest ruling will have on potential future unionization attempts at other schools; the board's decision applies strictly to Northwestern's case, and it declined to decide whether the athletes were employees under federal law, leaving open the possibility for athletes to unionize elsewhere.

The College Athletes Players Association, a collection of former athletes spearheading the bid, could appeal the ruling in federal court, but, according to the Tribune, that appears unlikely. Former Northwestern star quarterback Kain Colter, who had pushed the athletes' union efforts, expressed disappointment over Monday's ruling on Twitter, noting that the jury was still out as to whether college athletes are still employees. 

CAPA president Ramogi Kuma called Monday's ruling a "loss in time" in a statement, in that it delayed "the leverage the players need to protect themselves." But, he said, it didn't stop other athletes from pursuing unionization. "The fight for college athletes' rights," he told the Tribune, "will continue."

One Angry Man: Trump (Finally) Reports for Jury Duty

The GOP front-runner has a history of skipping out on summonses.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 2:30 PM EDT
Donald Trump enters a Manhattan courthouse for jury duty on August 17.

Celebrity tycoon and GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump arrived at a courthouse in Manhattan on Monday morning to report for jury duty. He pulled up in a limo and fist bumped bystanders on his way into the State Supreme Court. Last week, at a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said he would willingly sacrifice valuable campaign time to answer his jury summons.

But prior to professing his commitment to civic responsibility, Trump has perennially skipped out on jury summonses in the past.

Trump's attorney Michael Cohen confirmed to CNN that Trump has missed five jury summonses over nine years. But Cohen claimed that Trump was not shirking his civic duty. The summonses, he said, were delivered to the wrong address.

"You gotta serve it to the right property," Cohen said. "I believe he owns the building but he doesn't reside there, and nobody knows what happened to the document."

It's true that master jury lists are often outdated; an address mix-up is feasible. But in general, wealthy individuals are usually more likely to report for jury duty. Lower-income people often cut out due to the various economic pressures that come with jury duty: time off from work, reduced pay (in most states, jury pay is less than $50 a day), and child care needs.

Because he made it to the courthouse today, CNN reports, Trump will not have to pay the $250 fine he was facing for previous failures to appear. It's doubtful the threat of such a fine compelled him to show up. But a cynic can certainly wonder what will happen the next time he is called to jury duty when he is not a presidential candidate.

Social Security Is More Important Than a Lot of People Realize

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 1:41 PM EDT

The 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute is out, and it shows the usual: hardly anyone thinks that Social Security benefits will remain stable in the future. They expect cuts, cuts, and more cuts.

This may be part of the explanation for the two charts on the right. If you ask current workers, only a third think that Social Security will be a major source of retirement income. But if you ask current retirees for a reality check, two-thirds report that Social Security is a major source of their retirement income.

Why the big difference? If workers think Social Security benefits are likely to be cut, that's probably a part of the explanation. But a bigger part is almost certainly just invincible optimism. Current workers are sure they're going to save enough, or get a big enough return on their 401(k), or get a big enough inheritance, or something—and this will see them through their retirement. Social Security? It'll just be a little bit of extra pin money for fun and games.

But in reality, that's not how it works. For most people, it turns out they don't save nearly as much as they think, which in turn means that their little Social Security check is what keeps them solvent. If more people understood this, public acceptance of conservative plans to cut Social Security benefits would probably be a lot lower.

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Conservatives Attack Carly Fiorina for Being Pro-Islam

And just wait until they find out Fiorina found comfort in Muslim prayers.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

Carly Fiorina has had the wind at her back after the first Republican presidential debate. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO earned high marks for her appearance at the "kids table" forum for the least-popular GOP candidates, and she has been rising in the polls ever since. So it was only a matter of time before the knives came out.

On Sunday evening, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who herself was doing well in the GOP presidential polls this time four years ago, drew her followers' attention to a 14-year-old speech Fiorina had given in Minneapolis, in which she defended the cultural, legal, and scientific heritage of the Muslim world. The catch: It was delivered just weeks after 9/11. What nerve!

Fiorina's speech reads as a thoughtful defense of the faith of many of her employees at Hewlett Packard. Her respect for Islam seems to come from personal experience. In her 2006 book, Tough Choices, she described the soothing effect of listening to Muslim prayers when she was a teen and her family lived in Ghana. (Her father was a law professor then on a teaching sabbatical at the University of Ghana). She wrote:

I remember hearing, for the first time, Muslims pray, and how over time their sound evolved from being frightening in its strangeness to comforting in its cadence and repetition—I would feel the same peace when I listened to the sound of summer cicadas around my grandmother's house. I grew to love being awakened in the morning by the sound of the devout man who always came to pray under my bedroom window.

Uh-oh. That reminiscence may well provide Bachmann with more ammo. And it's not just Bachmann who has called out Fiorina for being soft on Islam. Fiorina's comments on Islamic civilization have also been criticized by fringe-right outlets like the American Thinker and Western Journalism Review.

Islam has once again become a wedge issue in the Republican primary. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for instance, has called for a ban on certain kinds of Muslim immigrants. Fiorina, who tried (and failed) to ride the GOP tea party wave into the Senate in 2010 by fashioning herself as a stalwart conservative—is now the target of the extremists she once courted.

Happy Families: Let's Just Call It a Tie Between Democrats and Republicans

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Who's got happier families, Democrats or Republicans? David Leonhardt reports on a new study that says it's Republicans:

Among married people between the ages of 20 and 60, 67 percent of Republicans report being “very happy” with their marriages....That gap shrank when the researchers factored in demographic differences between parties....But the gap did not disappear. Even among people with the same demographic profile, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say they are happily married. The seven-percentage-point gap that exists between Republicans and Democrats without any demographic controls shrinks to three percentage points with those controls.

OK, so three percentage points. And since this study was done by Brad Wilcox of the right-wing Institute for Family Studies, you have to figure it's as friendly toward Republicans as possible. But even Wilcox admits that causality might work in the opposite direction:

The GSS data and our earlier research suggest that an elective affinity—based on region, religion, culture, and economics—has emerged in the American electorate: married people are more likely to identify as Republican and unmarried people are more likely to identify as Democratic.

Sure. The Democratic Party is obviously more friendly toward non-married couples and the Republican Party is more dedicated to the proposition that (heterosexual) marriage is important. So the survey difference could be due to the fact that Republicans are simply less likely to admit to an unhappy marriage. As Wilcox says, "Perhaps Republicans are more optimistic, more charitable, or more inclined to look at their marriages through rose-colored glasses."

Personally, I'd be happy to put this whole subject to rest. The differences are small no matter how you slice the data, and really, who cares? Republicans generally report higher happiness levels overall, which is understandable at one level (conservatism doesn't challenge your comfort level much) but peculiar at another (if they're so happy, what's the deal with the endless anger and outrage?). But whatever the reason, if they're generally happier they're probably also happier with their marriages.

As for generally dysfunctional family behavior (teen pregnancy, divorce rates, etc.), I suspect that has a lot more to do with social factors like race, age, religion, and so forth. Party ID doesn't seem likely to play a huge role as a causal factor. Unless someone comes up with some genuinely blockbuster results, I'm willing to just call this a tie and move on.

What Happens When a Small City Raises Its Minimum Wage?

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

When a big city raises its minimum wage to $15 per hour, local companies probably won't lose too much business. A few will lose business to online companies, and a few on the border of the city will lose business to competitors right over the city line, but overall losses will probably be modest. It will be a few years until we know for sure, since most cities doing this aren't phasing in the full $15 rate until 2016 or later.

But what happens if a small city does this? Emeryville is a tiny place nestled in between Oakland and Berkeley that recently raised its minimum wage to $14.44, the highest in the country. Vic Gumper runs a pizza place there:

All workers now earn $15 to $25 an hour as part of an experimental business model that also did away with gratuities and raised prices, making meals at all five locations "sustainably served, really ... no tips necessary."

....Gumper has also earned kudos from patrons for his innovation, but some have recoiled from paying $30 or more for a pizza. He has seen a 25% drop in sales over the last few months and has had to eliminate lunch hours at some locations.

"The necessity of paying people a living wage in the Bay Area is clear, so it's hard to argue against it, and it's something I'm really proud to be able to try doing," he said. "At the same time, I'm terrified of going out of business after 18 years."

Obviously this wouldn't be a problem if the national minimum wage went up—though robots might be—but it's a problem in Emeryville even though its neighboring cities also have pretty high minimum wages.

I don't have any conclusions to offer here. This is just raw data. We'll be getting a lot more like this as additional cities join the $15 club and economists eagerly collect data to see what happens. In the meantime, anecdotes like this are all we have.

Carson, Cruz, Fiorina Are the Big Winners After the Debate

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

It's taken a while, but we finally have a national poll taken following the Republican debate. Fox News conducted a poll starting on the Tuesday after the debate, so the results capture not just reaction to the debate, but reaction to the big Trump-Kelly feud over the weekend. The results, it turns out, aren't that different from some of the insta-polls: Ben Carson (!) is the big winner and Jeb Bush is the big loser. And Trump? He pretty much stayed where he was.

Carson and Carly Fiorina "won" the debate; Trump and Rand Paul lost it. But these numbers are for all registered voters. Among Republicans, about equal numbers thought Trump did the best or the worst, for a net score (best minus worst) of -1 percent. Surprisingly, independents were the most enthusiastic about his debate performance, giving him a net score of +4 percent.

Overall, nearly half of Republicans now support either Trump, Carson, or Cruz for president. Those are the three of the most extreme candidates running. For the moment, anyway, it appears that Republican voters are in no mood to support anyone even remotely in the mainstream.