Friday, February 26, 2021

Editorial: Free-Market Freezer Burn

 It took a catastrophic week of sub-freezing weather in Texas to distract public attention from the disgrace of 43 Senate Republicans who held out to let Donald Trump off on the charge he incited the failed insurrection on Jan. 6.

The Senate voted 57-43 on Feb. 13 to convict Trump for his role in promoting the rally of his supporters in D.C. that turned into a storming of the Capitol, and his refusal to send forces to rescue Congress from violent insurrectionists. But the 57 who voted to convict Trump were 10 short of the number of senators needed to bar him from holding public office again. Trump supporters called the vote an exoneration, but we call it a hung jury, and we expect Trump to be prosecuted in federal court in D.C. in due time, along with the many high crimes and felonies that various prosecutors are building cases against him in New York, Georgia and other jurisdictions. 

However, the day after the Senate vote, an icy storm driven by a polar vortex caused temperatures to plunge far below freezing on Valentine’s Day from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Demand for electricity to heat Texas homes shot up while gas wells and generators that were not designed to operate in freezing weather failed. The wholesale price of electricity skyrocketed from the usual $20 per megawatt-hour to $9,000 in the largely unregulated wholesale power market. That means a Texan who signed up for an electricity plan tied to the spot price of power on the Texas grid, such as Griddy offers, which usually costs from 2 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, would see the cost soar to $9 per kWh. A Griddy customer told the Dallas Morning News her electricity bill for her 2,700-square-foot house in Rockwall, a Dallas suburb, would be more than $5,000 for the five days of the freeze. Her monthly bill normally runs $125 to $150.

Karen Cosby told the News she flipped the breakers connected to her heating units and moved into a small bedroom with an air mattress and her two dogs, and shut off the rest of the house. Her energy use was limited to a space heater, making a cup of coffee in the morning and using the microwave for four or five minutes to heat her meals.

“It’s been 43 degrees in the house since Monday, and I still have a $5,000 bill,” she said. Bills as high as $17,000 were reported. 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) operates the grid within Texas to avoid federal oversight, and it allows electricity suppliers to charge up to $9,000 per MWh as an incentive to add generating capacity, but the price has never stayed that high that long. The price per MWh reached the limit Sunday night, Feb. 14, and stayed at or near there through Thursday before it dropped to 85 cents the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 19, the News reported.

The extended freeze was a boon for natural gas producers, as the spot market price increased from less than $4 per million British thermal units a week before the deep freeze to more than $1,000 per million BTUs in East Texas and northern Louisiana and $1,250 per million BTUs in Oklahoma. Spot gas in Houston shot up as much as $400 during the week and averaged $201. 

Texas has a generating capacity of 67,000 megawatts in the winter, compared with peak capacity of 86,000 megawatts in the summer, as many plants are taken offline for maintenance and declining demand during the colder months. But by Feb. 17, another 46,000 megawatts were offline, leaving only 21,000 megawatts in the grid while millions of Texas families shivered in frigid homes. What were supposed to be “rolling blackouts” lasted for hours or days. (Our office in Manchaca, Texas, was out of power for 22 hours and was out of water for six days.)

Texans on fixed-rate plans, such as those offered by most electric utilities, shouldn’t see the spectacular increases in bills, but they may have spent more time without power because their utilities were reluctant to pay that $9,000 per megawatt-hour from speculators at the peak spot market (at 450 times their normal operating cost) to reduce the numbers of their customers that were blacked out.

Gov. Greg Abbott at first blamed wind turbines, which were disabled by the sub-freezing temperatures. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Feb. 15. “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” But wind turbines are used throughout the winter in northern states, where they are equipped to handle freezing weather. And Texas lost 28,000 megawatts from natural gas, coal and nuclear plants going offline because they were not winterized. 

Until 1995, Texas regulated electric utilities, which were guaranteed a profit based upon the price of fuels (mostly coal or natural gas). At the urging of the Houston-based energy trading firm Enron, after the election of George W. Bush, the state Legislature deregulated the electric industry, starting with the wholesale power industry in 1995 and it expanded the deregulation in 1999.

ERCOT created a market where companies that own power plants, bid to provide electricity for the “day ahead” and in real time during the day. As demand increased, generators could charge more for their electricity. Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, noted in a Washington Post column Feb. 18 the Texas system was not much different than what Enron did in the California electricity market in 2000-2001. Except that market manipulation was illegal in California — but not in Texas, thanks to ERCOT. It was destined to come crashing down, and the polar vortex of 2021 was the force that finally broke the Texas grid.

The Texas energy industry was urged to implement winterization guidelines after a similar freeze in 2011 led to power-plant shutdowns that knocked out power to 3.2 million Texans, but the Legislature rejected new regulations. Instead electricity generators were asked to adopt voluntary guidelines developed by an industry group. Few made the recommended investments in equipment and other measures, such as insulating generators, gas wells and pipelines. 

Former Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s former energy secretary, said, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” But Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said Texas should consider putting its grid under federal oversight. “We just have to be honest about the situation: The grid failed us,” Johnson said. As a Democratic state representative in 2015, Johnson authored a bill that would have required power plants to prepare for weather and climate change. The bill was rejected in a House vote.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith (D) called for federal regulators to investigate natural gas prices that spiked as high as 100 times typical levels, forcing utilities and other natural gas users to incur exorbitant costs, many of which were passed on to customers.

In a letter to federal regulators, the Associated Press reported, Smith said the price spikes will not just harm consumers, but could “threaten the financial stability of some utilities that do not have sufficient cash reserves to cover their short-term costs in this extraordinary event.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a strong proponent of the Green New Deal proposal, slammed Texas Republicans for blaming renewable energy sources for the blackouts. “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you don’t pursue a Green New Deal,” she said in a tweet Feb. 16. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2021

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Selections from the March 15, 2021 issue

 COVER/April M. Short 

COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of our food system — here’s how we can localize it

Free-market freezer burn

Climate consciousness courtesy of the Wall Street Journal


Two pastors, two prophets

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen  
Keep the peace and get things done

Dems march ahead with COVID relief bill while Republicans whine. 
US Supreme Court denies Trump effort to block release of his tax returns. 
With Trump gone, CNN pulls plug on White House press briefings. 
Defeated and impeached, Trump still commands loyalty of GQP loyalists. 
Republicans who voted to convict Trump in impeachment trial face backlash.
Voting machine company sues pillow CEO to quash stolden election lies.
Republicans are shocked! by partisan animosity.
Lawmakers pull in opposite directions on voting rights.
Federal judges continue to step back, allowing Biden to choose their replacements.
Anti-Black hate crimes have plummeted in US.
Pandemic recession pain continues ...

Frozen in: A new civic battery will help us restart

Expose the insurrection financiers 

Education won’t stop conspiracy theories

Wanted: Jurors who aren’t accomplices

Can Uncle Sam hold the line against mob rule? 

The best way to start fighting big meat is to start

US labor laws need a major update — and the PRO Act is a great start

Cuomo and Newsom symbolize the rot of corporate democrats — and the dire need for progressive populism

Raise the floor: Time to boost the minimum wage

Raising the minimum wage will expand the economy

Impeachment does not get in way of providence & manifest destiny

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas  
Rural hospitals: Congress acts

Conspiracies: What do you believe? 

Vaccine rules: Intellectual property rights and COVID-19

State of the Democrats

True financial literacy

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel  
Keeping history honest

What happens next

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson  
Those who can, do — those who can’t ...

New documentary poses the question: Reform or revolution? 

GOP senators said Trump was culpable, but he’s a ‘private citizen’ now. Fine — indict him like one. 

and more ...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Editorial: Biden Learned His Lesson

 In the first few weeks of his administration, Joe Biden put the lie to Donald Trump’s taunt that he was “Sleepy Joe,” as he signed 36 executive orders in the first two weeks in the White House, fixing as much as he could from the damage Donald Trump left behind. Then Biden turned his attention to working with Congress to accomplish what he couldn’t get done by edict.

His first priority was the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, and a few days before Senate Democrats were to start the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill with Democratic votes, if necessary, a group of 10 Republicans offered a low-ball $600 billion proposal — less then one-third of the Democratic plan — as a pretense at bipartisan compromise.

Biden apparently learned his lesson about how much good faith Republicans have in their dealings from the 2009-10 negotiations over the Affordable Care Act. Back then, President Barack Obama kept Democrats, including then-Vice President Biden, working for months to reach a bipartisan compromise, making concessions in a vain attempt to get Republican ssenators to support a market-based health care reform bill based on what Republicans had proposed a few years earlier. In the end, not a single Republican voted for the bill.

This time, Biden got the “open letter” Jan. 31from the “moderate” Republicans urging him to work in a bipartisan manner to provide support to families struggling during the pandemic. He met with the Republicans at the White House Feb. 1, gave them a respectful hearing, thanked them for their time, and signaled Dems to start the reconciliation process to pass a bill that already is overwhelmingly popular with little Republican input.

The Senate started considering amendments to the the stimulus budget resolution the afternoon of Feb. 4 and considered 55 amendments in a 15-hour overnight session that finished at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 5, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. Among the amendments, senators agreed to measures that block tax increases on small businesses and to create a fund for restaurants impacted by the pandemic. There was also bipartisan support to exclude the $1,400 direct payments from Americans with high incomes, though it didn’t specify the level where the checks would be cut off, and the Senate approved a new child allowance for low- and middle-income families. Senators agreed to a Republican amendment to bar an increase in the federal minimum wage, but that issue may be revisited. The House approved the budget resolution later in the day, 219-209. The actual bill will come later.

Republicans proposed to cut off stimulus checks for individuals earning between $50,000 and $75,000, or families earning between $100,000 and $150,000 for families, which was under the cutoff for stimulus checks under Trump. We agree with Sen Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget chair, who noted, “Unbelievable … working class people who got checks from Trump would not get them from Biden.” However, the argument that “high-earning” families should not get the payments appeals to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), so Bernie and Biden need to change Manchin’s mind to pass the bill. (Manchin also opposes an increase in the minimum wage during the pandemic.)

Democrats have a good move with the proposed credit to families of $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 per child up to age 17. That payment would phase out starting at $75,000 for a single filer and $150,000 for joint earners. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has a similar plan, which increases the chances of bipartisan agreement. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the child tax credit would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line. It also would give young parents — including millions who were enamored of Trump — a solid reason to vote Democratic.

The progressive think tank Data for Progress reported that 73% of Americans — including 63% of Republicans — surveyed Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 support extending unemployment benefits that are set to expire in March, and expanding them from $300 to $400 weekly. 

The poll also found 79% support for $350 billion in emergency aid for states and cities trying to prevent layoffs of essential workers and maintain services while the vaccine is distributed. Republicans proposed no funds for state and local governments.

While 77% of the American electorate support the stimulus checks, Republicans asked Biden to cut his proposed $1,400 checks to $1,000. 

Republicans also oppose the $15 minimum wage, which 54% of Americans support, and which would be the first federal minimum-wage increase in more than a decade. They want to cut the child tax credit, which 70% of voters support. And they oppose funds to help schools reopen safely, over the objections of 74% of Americans who support the funding.

Even among Republicans, Biden’s stimulus relief bill has 37% approval, which is better than the 31% approval of Mitch McConnell, in a Quinnipiac Poll released Feb. 3, which also showed overall that 61% of Americans were optimistic about the the next four years under Biden and 68% supported the stimulus bill, which Republican leaders criticize as unnecessarily increasing the federal deficit.

The budget reconciliation process will pause for the Senate trial of the impeachment of Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. 

Trump’s lawyers indicated that their defense of Trump will rely heavily on a challenge to the constitutionality of impeaching a former president, as well as a First Amendment defense of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the riot, which sought to disrupt the certification of presidential election results by Congress.

House managers prosecuting the case against Trump promised to prove their case. “We live in a Nation governed by the rule of law, not mob violence incited by Presidents who cannot accept their own electoral defeat,” they wrote.

Conviction would bar Trump from holding public office in the future, and might result in taking away Trump’s $221,400 annual pension and more than $1 million annually in perks as a former president, but the trial is likely to end with nowhere near 17 Republican senators willing to join Democrats in convicting Trump. His QAnon cult is consolidating its hold over the Republican Party, with threats to purge Congress members who dared to question Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection. That sets up new conflicts to split the GOP between old-line Republicans and the QAnon wing of Trumpers. 

Republicans hope to gain several seats through redistricting later this year. They hold total control of reapportionment in 18 states, including Florida, North Carolina and Texas, which are expected to gain seats after the 2020 census results are tabulated. Some election experts believe Republicans could pick up the six seats they’d need to regain the House in 2022, based solely on gains from gerrymandering, but that depends on how badly the party is fractured by the split between “classic” pre-Trump Republicans and the QAnon Trumper wing. Republican gerrymanders pushed the envelope in 2011 redistricting. If the new QAnon Republican Party alienates suburban voters, particularly women, Democrats who deliver the goods to the working middle class might turn “red” districts competitive. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2021

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Selections from the March 1, 2021 issue

 COVER/Sonali Kolhatkar 

Joe Biden proves he will use his power to undo Trump’s damage

Biden learned his lesson

Big chicken bosses are no longer calling all the shots in D.C.


Repealing child marriage, North Carolina style

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen  
Unity and cooperation are still hard to find

Trump shifted campaign-donor money into his business after losing election.
Jared and Ivanka may have made $640 million while in the White House. 
CBO sees mixed impact of $15 minimum wage, but Bernie Sanders says that qualifies it for budget bill. 
USPS head readies another assault on Postal Service. 
Meager January job gains point to slow recovery.
Biden gives the back of his hand to deficit trolls.
Feds charge 'Proud Boys' with conspiracy to obstruct Electoral College vote count.
Pro-Trump extremists increasingly middel-class, older.
Florida governor rebrands bill to silence Black Lives Matter as response to Capitol riot. ...

To capture the wind and sun, quiet the lies with results

Black land matters 

The GOP’s resentment theater

One-way ticket for a super weasel

The return of the regulators

Biden moved swiftly to protect workers’ rights

Republicans in the Biden era

The so-called Moderna vaccine is a publicly funded miracle

Biden must inspect America’s brittle nuclear reactors

The X in MeXiquense

Forced flight and false choices

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Health in the time of COVID: Not me, but you

Buy American, promote democracy

Three steps to prevent future election violence

Unholy alliance: Christian conservatism and antidemocratic politics

Nukes, Trump and cybersecurity

Asia’s peasantry ruined with no alternatives

Attack on US Capitol prompts Latin American nations to reflect on their own coups — often sponsored by the US

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel  
What now? 

Still reconstructing

A Frenchman in Texas

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson
The woman in green

Endangered indigenous Amazonians struggle for survival

and more ...

Friday, January 29, 2021

Editorial: Go Big or Go Home

 Joe Biden hit the ground running Jan. 20, finding a stack of executive orders on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office waiting for his signature to start reversing Donald Trump’s policies. 

Biden started with orders to organize the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. He required masks on all federal grounds and instructed agencies to extend moratoriums on evictions and on federal student loan payments. He urged Americans to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 infections for at least 100 days while his administration puts together a plan to distribute vaccines across the nation.

Biden also resurrected a global health unit in the National Security Council that Trump had disbanded. Biden reversed Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, rejoined that group as well as the Paris climate agreement and he froze approval of rules advanced in the final days of Trump’s presidency.

In the first three days, Biden also accelerated the manufacturing and delivery of supplies for vaccination, testing and personal protective equipment to fight COVID and he directed FEMA to expand reimbursement to the states to cover the cost for National Guard personnel and emergency supplies. He directed FEMA to create federally supported community vaccination centers and he called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide clear guidance on COVID-19 in workplaces, decide whether to establish temporary standards, and he directed OSHA to enforce worker health and safety requirements.

On the economy, Biden signed an order to restore collective bargaining power and worker protections for federal workers and lhe aid the foundation for setting a $15 minimum wage. He called for assistance to those who are struggling for food, including those who missed out on stimulus checks or are unemployed.

Biden also required that non-citizens be included in the Census and apportionment of congressional representatives; fortified DACA after Trump’s efforts to undo protections for undocumented “Dreamers” who were brought into the US as children; and reversed the Trump administration’s restrictions on US entry for residents of seven Muslim-majority countries. He also halted construction of the border wall by terminating the national emergency declaration used to fund it. He paused oil leases on federal lands and revoked the permit for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas refineries.

Biden directed the Office of Management and Budget director to develop recommendations to modernize regulatory review and undo Trump’s regulatory approval process.

The Biden administration also started the work of prying out Trump loyalists who had been “burrowed” into the bureaucracies in the closing months of the Trump administration. 

Biden accomplished a lot with the 30 executive orders he signed in the first three days. But new initiatives will need to get through the House and Senate. In the House, Democrats hold a narrow 221-211 majority, with three vacancies, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be able to hold that majority to pass priority items. The tougher nut will be the Senate, where two new Democrats from Georgia made the 50-50 tie, making Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaker which gave Democrats the majority.

Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is the new majority leader, but nothing will come easy with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking as much as he can. McConnell finally cleared the way for Democrats to take control of the Senate Jan. 25, after demanding Dems give up on eliminating the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass a bill.

McConnell said he would agree to a power-sharing deal, allowing Democrats to take charge of committees, after two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — publicly reiterated their previously stated opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

Before McConnell threw in the towel, Schumer insisted the Democratic caucus was united: “We must get big things done,” he told Rachel Maddow. Now, if Republicans want to keep the filibuster, they need to commit to work with the Democratic majority for the common good, or the GOP must block those bills in full public view.

Democrats probably will use the budget reconciliation process to pass much, if not all, of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, if they cannot get Republicans to buy in. 

Budget reconciliation is filibuster-proof and requires only a simple-majority vote to pass the Senate, but it has some restrictions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the new chair of the Budget Committee, said he is prepared to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the coronavirus package and include some legislation that addresses other key priorities, from the climate crisis to prescription drug prices.

Budgets passed under the reconciliation process are not supposed to increase the deficit, but Democrats could find savings by repealing large portions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Republicans passed on party-line votes in December 2017 using the reconciliation process. The act initially lowered taxes for most Americans, but automatic tax increases were built in, starting this year for families earning less than $30,000. By 2027 taxes would increase for nearly everyone, except those at the top of the economic heap, to keep the estimated $2.3 trillion cost of Trump’s tax breaks within bounds. All taxpayer income groups with incomes of $75,000 and under — about 65% of taxpayers — will face a higher tax rate in 2027 than in 2019 under the GOP plan.

To pass other bills, such as the “For the People Act, which House Democrats passed in 2019 and would protect and expand the right to vote, Democrats will have to find at least 10 Republican senators who will sign on, if the filibuster remains in place. But Republicans seem headed in the other direction. After failing to stop Democrats from voting by mail this past November, which helped elect Biden, statehouse Republicans plan to restrict that option for 2022.

Democrats must produce benefits for working people and the middle class in the next two years if they want to hold, or bolster, their narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Democrats will have an advantage in the 2022 Senate lineup, as 20 of the 34 seats up for election are now held by Republicans, while 14 seats are held by Democrats. The most vulnerable seats are split evenly between those currently held by Republicans in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and those held by Democrats in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Two of those Democrats (Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock) just won special elections and will be fighting for full terms in 2022. Trump might help if he supports primaries for Republicans.

But Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania announced he won’t run again in 2022. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr said in 2016 his current term will be his last. And Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said during his 2016 campaign that he would not seek a third term — although he has hedged on that promise. The battlefield could expand to other states, including Iowa (if Chuck Grassley, who will be 89 on Election Day 2022, doesn’t seek reelection) and Ohio (where Rob Portman announced he would not seek re-election).

If Democrats can hold the House and gain a couple more seats in the Senate, they might be able finally to get rid of the filibuster in 2023 and pass some real game-changing bills. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2021

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PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652

Selections from the February 15, 2021 issue

 COVER/Art Cullen 

Biden’s ag chief sees big shift in farms to battle climate change

Go big or go home

It’s been a fun-filled 4 years


A liberal’s lament: When the governed won’t be governed anymore

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen  
Let’s cool our jets

More than 30 cops linked to Capitol riot. 
Feds mull letting non-violent Capitol rioters go.
Trump supporters continue to plot violence as second impeachment trial approaches. 
Giuliani continues to double down on Big Lies, so Dominion sues him for $1.3 billion. 
Washington Post: Trump told 30,573 lies as president. Biden urged to fire Postal Service board for complicity in ‘sabotage.’ 
Tom Cotton stretched truth in 'Army Ranger' claim. 
AZ GOP censures Gov. Ducey, Flake and McCain, signaling fracture in swing state.
Trump was the accelerant in encouraging hate and political violence ...

Reasons for optimism despite what we have endured

Camo or no, traitors were clearly visible 

The time I got coffee with Hollywood satanists

After four years, accountability is long overdue

Facing the founder on a day of shame

Goodbye MAGA, hello MGWA (Make Government Work Again)

Incoming Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders lays out visionary first 100 days for Biden

American workers have been taken to the brink

Fix the broken health system

Obama didn’t close the racial wealth divide. Can Biden?

Manufacturing ‘democracy’

Citizen Trump

Dear Republicans, was your deal with Trump worth it? 

Bring down the damn wall, now!

Warning against further ‘erosion’ of civil liberties, Tlaib leads charge against new domestic terrorism laws

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas  
Vaccination: A call for the Biden plan

Too soon for a victory lap, but democracy is still standing

Workers need paid sick leave right this minute


Restoring workers’ trust

The great evasion

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson  
The beat goes on

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel  
Failing upwards

How do we heal now?

Janet Yellen gave progressives a lot to be happy about as Biden’s treasury secretary pick

By any means necessary: The FBI vs. Civil Rights

In defense of civility

and more ...