State Farm will no longer accept applications for homeowners insurance in California, citing wildfire risk

ABC News

State Farm will no longer accept applications for homeowners insurance in California, citing wildfire risk

 Julia Jacobo – May 28, 2023

One of the largest insurance agencies in the country will no longer accept applications for home and business insurance in California due to wildfire risks and the cost of rebuilding.

State Farm has ceased new applications, including all business and personal lines property and casualty insurance, starting Saturday, the company announced in a press release.

PHOTO: The headquarters for State Farm Insurance is shown in Bloomington, Illinois. (Google Maps Street View)
PHOTO: The headquarters for State Farm Insurance is shown in Bloomington, Illinois. (Google Maps Street View)

Existing customers will not be affected, and the company will continue to offer auto insurance in the state, according to the release.

The insurance agency cited “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market” for its decision.

MORE: Mosquito Fire in Northern California has destroyed dozens of homes

State Farm said while it takes its responsibility to manage risk “seriously” and will continue to work with state policymakers and the California Department of Insurance to help build market capacity in California, the decision was necessary to ensure the company remains in good financial standing.

“It’s necessary to take these actions now to improve the company’s financial strength,” the statement read. “We will continue to evaluate our approach based on changing market conditions. State Farm® independent contractor agents licensed and authorized in California will continue to serve existing customers for these products and new customers for products not impacted by this decision.”

PHOTO: In this Sept. 7, 2022, file photo, a property destroyed by Mosquito Fire is shown in the Michigan Bluff neighborhood of Foresthill, in Placer County, Calif. (Fred Greaves/Reuters, FILE)
PHOTO: In this Sept. 7, 2022, file photo, a property destroyed by Mosquito Fire is shown in the Michigan Bluff neighborhood of Foresthill, in Placer County, Calif. (Fred Greaves/Reuters, FILE)

A decadeslong megadrought and climate change have been exacerbating wildfire risk in California in recent years. Severe drought during the winter is leading to matchbox conditions in the dry season, allowing intense wildfires to ignite with the slightest spark.

The warm, dry climate that serves as fuel for wildfires is typical for much of the West, but hotter overall temperatures on Earth are increasing wildfire risk in the region.

MORE: Out-of-control wildfire destroys town of Greenville, California, as dry, gusty conditions encourage rapid spread

Last year, the Mosquito Fire destroyed dozens of homes in El Dorado and Placer counties. In 2021, the Dixie Fire destroyed more than 100 homes in the town of Greenville.

The Creek Fire in 2020 became the largest single fire in California history, damaging or destroying nearly 1,000 structures and burning through about 380,000 acres.

PHOTO: In this Sept. 24, 2021, file photo a burned residence is shown in Greenville, Calif. The Dixie fire has burned almost 1 million acres and remains at 94% containment after burning through 5 counties and more than 1,000 homes. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: In this Sept. 24, 2021, file photo a burned residence is shown in Greenville, Calif. The Dixie fire has burned almost 1 million acres and remains at 94% containment after burning through 5 counties and more than 1,000 homes. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

Rebuilding from wildfire destruction is expensive, expensive, experts have found.

The reconstruction costs from the 2022 Coastal Fire in Southern California were estimated to be $530 million, and only 20 homes were destroyed, according to a report by property solutions firm CoreLogic.

MORE: Creek Fire becomes largest single blaze in California history

In addition, the nationwide impact of California’s 2018 wildfire season — which included the Camp Fire, the most destructive in California history — totaled $148.5 billion in economic damage, according to a study by the University College London.

PHOTO: In this Sept. 8, 2020, file photo, a home is engulfed in flames during the 'Creek Fire' in the Tollhouse area of unincorporated Fresno County, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: In this Sept. 8, 2020, file photo, a home is engulfed in flames during the ‘Creek Fire’ in the Tollhouse area of unincorporated Fresno County, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

The state’s FAIR Plan provides basic fire insurance coverage for high-risk properties when traditional insurance companies will not, but that plan is the last resort, Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communication for the Insurance Information Institute, told ABC San Francisco station KGO.

“It’s a basic policy, only covers fire – you have to get a wraparound policy too to cover theft and liability,” she said.

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

ABC News

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

Peter Charalamboust – May 23, 2023

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

If the United States defaults on its financial obligations, millions of Americans might not be able to pay their bills as well.

With Social Security and other government benefits at risk amid a political stalemate over the government’s debt ceiling, experts and older Americans told ABC News that the consequences of the impasse in Washington could be dire, including for older Americans who need the money to pay for basic needs such as food, housing or health care costs.

A quarter of Americans over age 65 rely on Social Security to provide at least 90% of their family income, according to the Social Security Administration.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden walks to the White House after landing on the South Lawn aboard Marine One, May 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
PHOTO: President Joe Biden walks to the White House after landing on the South Lawn aboard Marine One, May 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Fred Gurner, 86, of New York, told ABC News that he uses his Social Security payment for his $800 rent. But now there is real risk that his payment might not come in time in June — when the Treasury Department says the government might not be able to send him the money he counts on.

“It’s very stressful, gives me a heart attack,” Gurner said about how the issue has become politicized.

How are Social Security payments affected by the debt ceiling?

Since 2001, the United States has spent more money than revenue it has taken in overall.

To cover the difference, the United States Treasury issues debt through securities, according to University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business professor Olivia Mitchell. Backed by the United States, those securities are happily bought by investors who see it as a safe guarantee they’ll get paid back with interest.

However, the United States and Denmark are the only two countries to limit the amount of debt the government can issue, known as a debt ceiling, Mitchell noted.

MORE: Ahead of meeting with Biden, McCarthy says debt, spending deal needed ‘this week’

Lawmakers can pass new laws that require government spending, but the debt ceiling will remain in place until lawmakers vote to increase it. That has happened 78 separate times in the United States since 1960.

If that debt ceiling does not increase by June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that the country will not be able to satisfy all of its financial obligations.

Beyond not being able to pay interest and principal on government securities — which economists broadly agree would rattle the stock market and possibly damage the U.S. credit rating — the Treasury would be unable to issue new debt to cover expenses like Social Security, according to Mitchell.

The government projects to spend roughly $100 billion on Social Security in the month of June, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“It’s going to be pretty tight for people for a while, unless Congress and the president can get together on this problem,” Mitchell said.

When would Social Security payments become delayed?

The Social Security Administration plans to send contributions to beneficiaries on four dates next month — June 2, 14, 21, and 28. Those checks would be the first ones at risk of being delayed, according to Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Millions and millions of Social Security beneficiaries are worried about having the income to pay their basic bills,” he noted.

Lynda Fisher, 80, told ABC News that her budget relies on her monthly Social Security check and that a delay would complicate her essential spending, frustrating the 80-year-old who has spent her life contributing to the system.

PHOTO: FILE - House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, speaks with reporters in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 17, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: FILE – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, speaks with reporters in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 17, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

“I paid into Social Security, and I paid into Medicare,” she said. “And now they’re trying to take it away. It’s not their money, it’s my money that I paid into.”

Richtman is now actively encouraging older residents to save money in anticipation of a delayed Social Security payment, fearing negotiations will not yield a compromise in time to avoid default.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Yellen indicated that certain bills might be prioritized, including interest payments, Social Security and military contractor payments. However, Richtman expressed doubt that such a prioritization would be legally possible.

What does this mean for the future of Social Security?

Some Republican lawmakers have framed the debt ceiling fight as necessary to slow government spending; however, some economists, including Mitchell, see this as a “manufactured crisis” that threatens essential services, retirement savings and the overall economy.

“Every time one of these crises occurs, it’s signaling to the rest of the world, and to American investors that U.S. Treasuries are not as safe as we thought,” Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff said.

MORE: Debt ceiling breach could cut millions of jobs. Here’s who would lose employment first

Kotlikoff expressed further concern that the Social Security system will have over $65.9 trillion in unfunded financial obligations over the indefinite horizon, based on the entity’s own report.

However, the debate over the debt ceiling appears unlikely to produce a meaningful solution to the broader Social Security shortfall, though, according to Kotlikoff, Mitchell and Richtman.

When will retirees receive their payments?

Mitchell and Richtman remained optimistic that Social Security recipients would eventually receive their checks once a deal is made, albeit with some delay.

“I’m pretty confident that payments would be fulfilled,” Richtman said. “That’s not much comfort to those people who will not be able to pay for their groceries, their utilities or their rent while they’re waiting to receive a back payment.”

Jimmy Carter, 3 months into hospice, is aware of tributes, enjoying ice cream

Associated Press

Jimmy Carter, 3 months into hospice, is aware of tributes, enjoying ice cream

Bill Barrow – May 23, 2023

Motorists pass a sign dedicated to former President Jimmy Carter along Jimmy Carter Blvd. on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Norcross, Ga. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)
Motorists pass a sign dedicated to former President Jimmy Carter along Jimmy Carter Blvd. on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Norcross, Ga. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

NORCROSS, Ga. (AP) — Three months after entering end-of-life care at home, former President Jimmy Carter remains in good spirits as he visits with family, follows public discussion of his legacy and receives updates on The Carter Center’s humanitarian work around the world, his grandson says. He’s even enjoying regular servings of ice cream.

“They’re just meeting with family right now, but they’re doing it in the best possible way: the two of them together at home,” Jason Carter said of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, now 98 and 95 years old.

“They’ve been together 70-plus years. They also know that they’re not in charge,” the younger Carter said Tuesday in a brief interview. “Their faith is really grounding in this moment. In that way, it’s as good as it can be.”

The longest-lived U.S. president, Jimmy Carter announced in February that after a series of brief hospital stays, he would forgo further medical intervention and spend the remainder of his life in the same modest, one-story house in Plains where they lived when he was first elected to the state Senate in 1962. No illness was disclosed.

The hospice care announcement prompted ongoing tributes and media attention on his 1977-81 presidency and the global humanitarian work the couple has done since co-founding The Carter Center in 1982.

“That’s been one of the blessings of the last couple of months,” Jason Carter said after speaking Tuesday at an event honoring his grandfather. “He is certainly getting to see the outpouring and it’s been gratifying to him for sure.”

The former president also gets updates on The Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program, launched in the mid-1980s when millions of people suffered from the parasite spread by unclean drinking water. Last year, there were fewer than two dozen cases worldwide.

And in less serious moments, he also continues to enjoy peanut butter ice cream, his preferred flavor, in keeping with his political brand as a peanut farmer, his grandson said.

Andrew Young, who served as Carter’s U.N. Ambassador, told the AP that he too visited the Carters “a few weeks back” and was “very pleased we could laugh and joke about old times.”

Young and Jason Carter joined other friends and admirers Tuesday at a celebration of the former president along Jimmy Carter Boulevard in suburban Norcross, just northeast of Atlanta. Young said the setting — in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse suburban swaths in America — reflected the former president’s broader legacy as someone who pursued peace, conflict resolution and racial equity.

When the almost 10-mile stretch of highway in Gwinnett County was renamed in 1976 — the year he was elected president — the small towns and bedroom communities on the edge of metropolitan Atlanta were only beginning to boom. Now, Gwinnett alone has a population of about 1 million people, and Jimmy Carter Boulevard is thriving, with many businesses owned by Black proprietors, immigrants or first-generation Americans.

Young, a top aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, said Carter began as a white politician from south Georgia in the days of Jim Crow segregation, but he proved his values were different.

As governor and president, Carter believed “that the world can come to Georgia and show everybody how to live together,” Young said.

Now, Georgia “looks like the whole world,” said Young, 91.

Nicole Love Hendrickson, elected in 2020 as the first Black chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, praised Carter as “a man with an exceptional regard for the humanity of others.”

Alluding to Carter’s landslide re-election defeat, Young said he has personally relished seeing historians and others finding success stories as they reassess Carter’s presidency — ceding control of the Panama Canal, developing a national energy strategy, engaging more in Africa than any U.S. president had. Such achievements were either unpopular at the time or overshadowed by Carter’s inability to corral inflation, tame energy crises or free the American hostages in Iran before the 1980 election.

“I told him, ‘you know, it took them over 50 years to appreciate President Lincoln. It may take that long to appreciate you,’” Young said.

“Nobody was thinking about the Panama Canal. Nobody would have thought about bringing Egypt and Israel together. I mean, I was thinking about trying to do something in Africa, but nobody else in Washington was, and he did. He’s always had an idea about everything.”

Still, when Jason Carter addressed his grandparents’ admirers Tuesday, he argued against thinking about them like global celebrities.

“They’re just like all of y’all’s grandparents — I mean, to the extent y’all’s grandparents are rednecks from south Georgia,” he said to laughter. “If you go down there even today, next to their sink they have a little rack where they dry Ziplock bags.”

Most remarkable, Jason Carter said, is the fact such a gathering occurred with his grandfather still living.

“We did think that when he went into hospice it was very close to the end,” he told attendees. “Now, I’m just going to tell you, he’s going to be 99 in October.”

Florida flood insurance costs are about to explode. ZIP codes closest to the coast will pay the most

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Florida flood insurance costs are about to explode. ZIP codes closest to the coast will pay the most

Ron Hurtibise, South Florida Sun Sentinel – May 22, 2023

Events of the past year have convinced more Florida homeowners of the need to carry flood insurance.

Flooding caused by hurricanes Ian and Nicole caught hundreds, if not thousands, of homeowners across the state by surprise, and without flood insurance.

Similarly, many homeowners affected by last month’s historic rainfall in eastern Broward County had no flood insurance and learned tragically that damage caused by water rising from the ground was not covered by their normal homeowner insurance.

It’s not just flood victims who are experiencing hard lessons about flood insurance.

Just as homeowners are realizing the increased risks of going without flood coverage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has released data showing that coverage costs are exploding for properties in coastal areas most vulnerable to flooding.

The cost hikes stem from mandates by Congress to require rates charged by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA, to reflect the cost of flood risk to individual covered properties, and to pay down the program’s deficit, which was $20.5 million as of last November, according to FEMA.

The result is a new risk pricing model called Risk Rating 2.0, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2021, for new NFIP policies and on April 1, 2022, for renewing policies. Rather than set rates solely based on a property’s elevation within a zone on a Flood Insurance Rate Map, the new approach considers more risk variables such as flood frequency, types of flooding, and distance to a water source, along with individual property characteristics like elevation and the cost to rebuild, FEMA’s website states.

Improved modeling, however, is of little comfort to homeowners who will have to pay more for flood insurance at the same time costs of regular multiperil property insurance are skyrocketing.

Recently, FEMA released a spreadsheet that compared average premiums currently and how high they’ll climb under the new pricing model.

For example, homeowners in Boca Raton’s 33432 ZIP code can look forward to a whopping 229% flood insurance premium increase, from an average $950 per policy to $3,128.

In Broward County, the 33305 ZIP code that includes Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods near the Middle River will pay 209% more, from $1,099 to $3,400.

In the 33315 zip code, which includes Fort Lauderdale’s Edgewood neighborhood that was among the hardest-hit by last month’s flooding, average rates will increase by 64% — from $863 currently to $1,420.

These numbers are averages. Within each ZIP code are less expensive homes with cheaper coverage costs and pricier homes that will cost even more to insure.

Unsurprisingly, homes nearest the coast, particularly in low-lying areas, cost far more to insure than homes on higher ground in western suburban cities.

For example, homeowners in Coral Springs’ 33071 ZIP code are looking at a total premium increase of just 17.6% — from $669 to $787.

FEMA says the new pricing model will also drive down the cost of flood insurance for customers with low-risk characteristics. Yet, none of South Florida’s ZIP codes will see average rates decrease, FEMA’s data shows.

Not everyone facing rate increases will have to pay the higher premiums immediately. While homeowners who previously did not carry NFIP flood insurance will have to pay the new higher prices if they want a new policy, price hikes for existing policyholders are capped at 18% a year for homesteaded properties and 25% annually for second homes or investment properties, until they reach the new rates.

If the total increase is 18% or less, affected homeowners will pay it just once — presumably until FEMA raises rates again, whenever that happens.

Few homes have flood insurance, even in Florida

Although Florida has the largest number of NFIP flood insurance policies of any U.S. state — 597,967 of 2.2 million in the U.S., FEMA data shows, the percentage of covered homes remains low.

Florida has 3.8 million detached single-family homes, according to 2020 census figures. The number of FEMA flood insurance policies are just 15.7% of that total. In South Florida’s tricounty region, the percentage is 20.8%.

The actual percentages of homes with flood insurance are likely to be a little different. The above estimates don’t take into account private flood insurance policies, which are increasing but still a fraction of the number of federally-backed policies. And the estimates exclude attached single-family homes, such as townhomes. The percentage also does not include condominiums, which are typically covered by blanket commercial policies.

Experts advise every Florida homeowner to buy flood insurance because flooding can happen throughout the state, as during last fall’s hurricanes.

But many buy flood insurance only when required, such as home loan borrowers with federally backed mortgages who live in high-risk flood zones.

Flood insurance required for some with Citizens insurance

This year, a new set of homeowners are required to buy flood insurance. Customers of state-owned Citizens Property Insurance Corp. who live in high-risk flood zones are required to also carry flood insurance.

That mandate, enacted by the state Legislature and governor last year, took effect on April 1 for new Citizens policyholders and on July 1 for renewing policyholders.

Under the new law, all Citizens policyholders will have to buy flood insurance by 2027.

According to Citizens data, 228,203 of the company’s 1.2 million customers are now required to buy flood insurance. Of them, 105,763 are in Broward, Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties.

When enacted last year, the law also required condo owners covered by Citizens to buy flood insurance. They were exempted, however, by a new law that was passed during the just-completed spring Legislative session and now awaits the governor’s signature. The change followed complaints that flood insurance is unnecessary for residents on upper floors of multistory buildings and for those covered by commercial policies that cover all units.

Although the mandate remains in place legally, Citizens has stopped sending notices to condo owners telling them they must buy flood insurance at renewal time, Citizens spokesman Michael Peltier said. Once it is signed, condo owners who bought coverage will be able to drop it.

If they bought FEMA coverage, they can request refunds if their policies have not yet taken effect, the NFIP’s website states.

Because the flood insurance requirement for renewing Citizens customers won’t take effect until July 1, Ryan Papy, president of Palmetto Bay-based Keyes Insurance, says it’s still a bit early to gauge the impact.

“There hasn’t been that much sticker shock,” Papy said in an email. “Many (premiums) in Miami-Dade County have gone down.”

But he added, “We do see issues when some clients are purchasing new property.” The difference between a new owner’s premiums and the capped rates paid by the previous owner can sometimes “be extreme,” he said.

Save money on the private market?

Florida homeowners hit hardest by rising NFIP rate hikes might ask their agents to see if they can save money by checking out the private flood insurance market.

Neptune Flood, the nation’s largest private flood insurer with more than 150,000 clients, can save policyholders up to 25% off the cost of comparable NFIP coverage, Neptune spokeswoman Loren Pomerantz said by email.

Private flood insurance satisfies requirements of both federal mortgage guarantors and Citizens, according to Pomerantz and Peltier.

Pomerantz said Neptune’s sales in Florida have increased in recent months. Sales climbed 20% in areas hard hit by Hurricane Ian prior to the new Citizens mandate taking effect. In high-risk flood zones, sales have increased 25% since April 1 compared to the same period last year, she said.

Private flood insurance also offers coverage that far exceeds the NFIP’s $250,000 cap for structural damage and $100,000 limit for personal property damage. “We can cover homes for up to $4 million in building coverage and $500,000 of personal property,” she said. “Additional coverage options not available through the NFIP include pool repair and refill, replacement cost on contents, temporary living expenses and more. This allows a homeowner to adequately cover their property and protect their families in the event of a flood-related loss.”

David Axelrod: After Barack Obama, America will never be the same

CNN – Opinion

David Axelrod: After Barack Obama, America will never be the same

David Axelrod – May 20, 2023

In all the years I worked for Barack Obama, I didn’t think enough about the burdens of being America’s first Black president – in part because he bore them so gracefully.

There were bracing moments, of course, like the day, relatively early in his campaign for the White House, when Secret Service agents became a constant presence in his life, given the inordinate number of death threats against him.

There were the overtly racist memes about his citizenship and faith and worthiness, fueled by demagogues and social media, that continued throughout his presidency.

There was the startling outburst from a Southern congressman, who shouted “You lie!” during a presidential address to Congress – an intrusion that has since become more common but back then was a stunning departure from civic norms.

Among Obama’s staff, we dealt with these moments mostly as political challenges to navigate. And while he addressed issues of race, Obama rarely spoke, publicly or privately, about the unique pressures he faced personally.

It took someone else to open my eyes and cause me to think more deeply about the extraordinary burden – and responsibility – of being a trailblazer at the highest of heights in a nation where the struggle against racism is ongoing.

In 2009, Obama was considering nominating Sonia Sotomayor, a highly regarded federal appellate judge from New York, for a seat on the US Supreme Court.

If appointed, Sotomayor would become the first Latina on the nation’s highest court. The president asked me to chat with her and assess how she would hold up under the pressures of the confirmation process and that weighty history.

I met with Sotomayor in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, where she had been spirited for a final round of clandestine interviews. I asked her what, if anything, worried her about the process.

“I worry about not measuring up,” she said, bluntly.

It was instantly clear to me that this brilliant, accomplished judge, who fought her way from poverty in the South Bronx to Princeton and Yale Law School, was talking about more than her own ambitions. As The First, she knew she also would be carrying with her the hopes and aspirations of young Latinas everywhere. Her success would be their inspiration. Her failure would be their setback.

That conversation prompted me to reconsider the unspoken burden the president himself had navigated so well for so long under the most intense spotlight on the planet. The burden was not just racism but the responsibility to measure up, to excel, to shatter stereotypes and to be an impeccable role model in one of the world’s toughest and most consequential jobs.

Watching the episode of CNN’s documentary series “The 2010s” about Obama, I was reminded again of how well he weathered those burdens.

It isn’t that he got everything right. No president does. And there always will be a debate about how much the election of the first Black president contributed to the reactionary backlash that yielded Donald Trump, a divisive and toxic figure who would lead the country in an entirely different direction.

But the history is clear: Obama led the nation through an epic economic crisis and war, passed landmark legislation on health care and strengthened the social safety net, bolstered America’s standing in the world and, in our most painful moments, comforted the nation by speaking eloquently to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Against the relentless pressure of being First and all the anger and resentment that it may have stirred among some fearful of change, Obama was consistently thoughtful, honorable and poised. He carried himself with the comforting authenticity of a man who knows who he is – and never flinched.

When Obama was considering a campaign for president in the fall of 2006, a small group of friends and advisers gathered with him in my office in Chicago to assess a possible race.

Michelle Obama – perhaps the greatest skeptic in the room at that moment about the advisability of such an audacious journey – asked a fundamental question: “Barack, it kind of comes down to this. There are a lot of good, capable people running for president. What do you think you could contribute that the others couldn’t?”

“There are a lot of ways to answer that but one thing I know for sure: The day I raise my hand to take that oath of office as president of the United States,” he said, lifting his right hand, “the world will look at us differently and millions of kids – Black kids, Hispanic kids – will look at themselves differently.”

Two years later, in Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama claimed victory, I watched a sea of humanity, including Black parents, with tears rolling down their cheeks, as they held their kids aloft to witness the scene.

Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staff member, touches then- President Barack Obama’s hair in the Oval Office of the White House. – Pete Souza/The White House/The New York Times/Redux

And then there was the iconic photo in the Oval Office of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staffer who was leaving the administration. The little boy, who is Black, stood dressed in a shirt and a tie. He had looked up at the president and asked, “Is your hair like mine?” Obama bowed his head toward the boy and told him, “Go ahead, touch it,” which he did.

It was a moving, spontaneous scene captured by the splendid White House photographer Pete Souza. The moment spoke volumes about Obama, his meaning in our history and the unique responsibly he bore.

As the president bowed his head to this little boy, his unspoken message was clear: “Yes, you are like me. Yes, you can dream big dreams.”

Under extraordinary pressures, Obama more than “measured up,” not just as a president but as a role model. As a First.

And for that alone, America will never be the same.

A ‘Canadian Armageddon’ Sets Parts of Western Canada on Fire

The New York Times

A ‘Canadian Armageddon’ Sets Parts of Western Canada on Fire

Dan Bilefsky – May 20, 2023

Flames from a prescribed burn, started by wildland firefighters in an attempt to halt the spread of larger wildfires, in Shining Bank, Alberta, Canada on May 19, 2023. (Jen Osborne/The New York Times)
Flames from a prescribed burn, started by wildland firefighters in an attempt to halt the spread of larger wildfires, in Shining Bank, Alberta, Canada on May 19, 2023. (Jen Osborne/The New York Times)

EDMONTON, Alberta — As acrid smoke filled the air, turning the sky around her sleepy hometown, Fox Creek, Alberta, a garish blood orange, Nicole Clarke said she felt a sense of terror.

With no time to collect family photographs, she grabbed her two young children, hopped into her pickup truck, and sped away, praying she wouldn’t drive into the blaze’s menacing path.

“This feels like a Canadian Armageddon, like a bad horror film,” said Clarke, a 37-year-old hair stylist, standing outside her truck, a large hamper of dirty laundry piled in the back.

In a country revered for placid landscapes and predictability, weeks of out-of-control wildfires raging across western Canada have ushered in a potent sense of fear, threatening a region that is the epicenter of the country’s oil and gas sector.

Climate research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.

Amid frequent fire updates dominating national television news broadcasts, the blazes have also helped unite a vast and sometimes polarized nation, with volunteers, firefighters and army reservists from other provinces rushing in to lend a hand.

Roughly 29,000 people in Alberta have been forced from their homes by the recent bout of wildfires, though that number has been cut in half in recent days as fires subsided.

Clarke said her family had been staying in cheap motels since they were ordered about a week ago to evacuate. But she and her boyfriend were unemployed and money was quickly running out.

“I don’t know if I’ll have a home to return to,” she added Thursday, sobbing.

The fires have produced such thick smoke that during recess, children in some towns have remained in their classrooms rather than risk smoke inhalation outside. Dozens of residents left in such a frantic panic that they left pets behind.

On Highway 43, a long stretch of Alberta highway peppered by small, evacuated towns, the thick layer of smoke blanketing the road on Thursday conjured the feeling of a dystopia.

With helicopters hovering and dropping water, police cars with flashing lights blocked parts of the highway as fires approached the road. Residents trying to return to homes they hoped were still intact commiserated as they were forced to turn back.

Fires have broken out throughout western Canada, including British Columbia, but hardest hit has been neighboring Alberta, a proud oil and gas producing province sometimes referred to as “the Texas of the North,” which has declared a state of emergency. More than 94 active wildfires were burning as of Friday afternoon.

British Columbia was the site in 2021 of one of Canada’s worst wildfires in recent decades, when fires decimated the tiny community of Lytton after temperatures there reached a record 49.6 degrees Celsius, or 121.3 Fahrenheit.

Not since the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic buffeted the region has the area been so overcome by apprehension, accompanied by the all-too familiar need to wear masks outside. Only this time, residents say, a silent killer has been replaced by something more visceral and visible.

So far, no deaths have been reported. But in Alberta, Frankie Payou, a firefighter and 33-year-old father of three from the East Prairie Métis Settlement in Northern Alberta, was in a coma with severe injuries after being hit in the head by a burned tree. His home was also destroyed by a fire.

The bulk of the fires are in the far north of the province, home to many Indigenous communities, dealing a heavy blow to people who depend on the land and natural resources.

At a sprawling evacuation center in Edmonton, Ken Zenner, 61, a father of eight, two of whom are members of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, said he and his family had been evacuated from the town of Valleyview. He worried how they would get by.

Families that have been displaced for a cumulative seven days are eligible for government-provided financial support, according to provincial regulations. But Zenner said he didn’t qualify because he had only been evacuated for six days.

“Indigenous communities have been underfunded for years and now we are seeing the consequences,” he said.

The rest of the country is mobilizing to help. Some 2,500 firefighters are battling the fires, among them 1,000 from other provinces. Joining them are wilderness firefighters from the United States.

The fires have even affected Alberta’s largest city, Calgary, where residents this week said they sat down for breakfast only to see and smell pungent smoke entering from cracks under their front doors.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said the air quality index for the city Wednesday afternoon was at 10+, or “very high risk.” Canadian health authorities have warned the smoke could cause symptoms ranging from sore and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations.

In Alberta, the blazes have brought back bad memories of 2016 when a raging wildfire destroyed 2,400 buildings in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the heart of Canada’s oil sands region with the third-largest reserves of oil in the world.

Alberta is Canada’s main energy-producing province and the United States’ largest source of imported oil and the fires have compelled some companies to curb production.

As flames bore down on wells and pipelines, major drillers such as Chevron and Paramount Resources together shut down the equivalent of at least 240,000 barrels of oil a day, according to energy consulting firm Rystad Energy.

For now, the disruptions affect only a small proportion of the country’s total oil and gas output. Still, they underscore how the production of oil and gas, the main driver of climate change, is also vulnerable to increasingly dire consequences of a warming planet.

Some say the fire may help galvanize Canadians about the perils of climate change. “The smoke from forest fires has an in-your-face impact affecting millions of Canadians that makes it harder to ignore,” the CBC, the national broadcaster, observed this week.

The human toll of the fires will reverberate for weeks to come. Christine Pettie, a business manager for a logging cooperative in Edson, a rural town about two hours west of Edmonton, said residents were still shellshocked after being evacuated.

She and her husband left in such a rush that he forgot his insulin medicine. They were fortunate that their home remained standing.

Still, Pettie said, the experience “definitely shook me to my core.”

Texas has the anti-climate Governor: Greg Abbott signs Law Making EV Owners Pay for Their Gas-Free Cars


Greg Abbott Signs Law Making EV Owners Pay for Their Gas-Free Cars

Lauren Leffer – May 19, 2023

Photo of electric vehicles charging
Photo of electric vehicles charging

EV drivers in Texas don’t pay at the pump, but will have to start paying a significant annual fee that critics are calling “punitive.”

Driving an electric vehicle in Texas is soon to become more expensive. Governor Greg Abbott signed a law (SB 505) on May 13 instituting new fees for registering and owning EVs in the state. Under the bill, electric car owners will have to pay $400 upon registering their vehicle. Then, every subsequent year, EV drivers will have to shell out an additional $200. Both of those fees are on top of the cost of the standard annual registration renewal fees, which are $50.75 each year for most passenger cars and trucks.

The law exempts mopeds, motorcycles, and other non-car EVs, and goes into effect starting on September 1, 2023.

At least 32 states currently have special electric vehicle registration fees, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. These range from $50 in places like Colorado, Hawaii, and South Dakota to $274 (starting in 2028) in a recently passed piece of Tennessee legislation. Note: Tennessee lawmakers had originally proposed a $300 fee, but lowered it in response to pushback.

Like many other states that have instituted EV fees, the reasoning behind the Lone Star State’s new law is that electric car drivers don’t buy gas. Taxes at the fuel pump are the primary way that most states, Texas included, amass funds for road construction, maintenance, and other driving-related infrastructure.

“Currently, Texas uses the gasoline/diesel fuel tax to fund transportation projects; however, with the growing use of EVs, the revenue from the fuel tax is decreasing, which diminishes our ability to fund road improvements for all drivers,” said the bill’s author, Republican State Senator Robert Nichols, in comments about the legislation, per local NBC News affiliate KXAN.

But, compared with what gas drivers contribute, Texas’s EV fees seem a little out of whack. Charging $200 per year and $400 at the outset of EV ownership places Texas’s fee schedule at the higher price end of the policies out there. In comparison, Texas’s gas tax is among the lowest in the country, at just $0.20 per gallon. Just seven states impose a lower duty on gasoline than TX. Among the 10 most populous states in the country, additional fees levied elsewhere make Texas’s gas the cheapest.

The average Texas driver burned through ~55 million BTUs of motor gasoline in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s equal to about 440 gallons of gas. At $0.20 per gallon, the standard car owner in Texas is paying just $88 per year in gas taxes—far less than the hundreds more EV drivers will now be throwing into the pot. A 2022 Consumer Reports analysis determined that a Texas driver’s gas tax contribution is even lower, at just $71.

The new law says loud and clear that Texas is “fully behind oil and gas,” Kara Kockleman, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin, told local ABC News affiliate KVUE. “Electric vehicles should pay a gas tax – I just think the tax on the conventional cars should be much, much higher than it is. We pay less for gas in this state than almost anyone in the world… Texas is really behind the curve on trying to do the right thing by the environment. And so, that’s embarrassing, I think, for all of us.”

There’s no doubt that roads and other car infrastructure are expensive. Though it can be easy to forget that—every time a driver cruises down the asphalt, complies with a traffic signal, or reads a highway sign—they’re benefiting from a costly system constructed for their particular use and benefit. But compared with other forms of transportation in the U.S., car ownership is already heavily subsidized. So is burning fossil fuels.

According to a 2015 analysis from the nonprofit Canadian media outlet The Discourse, society pays more than $9 for every $1 a driver pays in commuting: Through infrastructure, accident liability, noise and air pollution, and congestion. Buses, biking, and walking all eat up much less public funds for the same amount of miles traveled. EVs presumably also have a slightly lower public cost, as they’re quieter and don’t directly emit air pollution.

Yet in Texas, the tax load for driving an electric car will far exceed that of a gas-powered vehicle. The new law is “punitive” according to Consumer Reports. “Consumers should not be punished for choosing a cleaner, greener car that saves them money on fuel and maintenance,” Dylan Jaff, a policy analyst at CR, wrote in an April statement. “The fees proposed in this bill will establish an inequitable fee scale for EV owners, and will not provide a viable solution to the long-standing issue of road funding revenue.”

Luke Metzger, director of the non-profit advocacy group, Environment Texas, echoed Consumer Reports’ findings in a statement from last month. “The Texas Legislature is pouring sugar in the tank of the electric vehicle revolution. This punitive fee will make it harder for Texans to afford these clean vehicles which are so critical to reducing air pollution in Texas.”

Electric personal vehicles are not a perfect solution to the ongoing problem of petroleum-powered cars. Swapping every gas-guzzler for an EV still would use up an extraordinary amount of resources, that are likely to be ill-gotten. Public investment in mass transit would inarguably be a better environmental strategy. But, as long as the U.S. remains overwhelmingly car dominant and as long as most Americans lack access to adequate public transit, EV uptake remains important for lowering the nation’s carbon emissions.

Already, the upfront costs of purchasing an electric car are significantly higher than buying a gas vehicle. A disproportionate tax system adds to that burden, and it could dissuade people from transitioning to EVs.

Cognitive decline after retirement is a universal trend. Here are 4 ways to reverse it


Cognitive decline after retirement is a universal trend. Here are 4 ways to reverse it

Erin Prater – May 19, 2023

Getty Images

Retirement—the word often conjures up thoughts of overseas vacations, bonus time with loved ones, and the discovery of new hobbies.

But the life milestone can be a stressful one—and, thus, “a potential trigger for cognitive aging,” according to a 2021 piece in The Journals of Gerontology, authored by researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany, and the University of California at San Francisco.

Researchers interviewed nearly 9,000 European retirees ages 50 and older, from 17 countries. Each completed six memory assessments over the course of 13 years.

Their findings: Retirement was generally associated with a moderate decrease in word recall, and memory decline “accelerated after retirement.” This was true in all countries involved—even in those with more generous welfare systems and higher pension benefits—like Germany, Austria, France, and Belgium—versus those with low public pensions, like Portugal, Greece, Israel, Estonia, Poland, and Slovenia.

Studies have shown that postponing retirement can protect against cognitive decline, especially among the more highly educated. But let’s face it—life is short. For those who can and wish to retire on time, here are four tips for staying mentally sharp during what should be the most joyous season of life.

Keep (or get) connected.

A quarter of Americans ages 65 and older are socially isolated, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. While loneliness is miserable, it’s also more: It poses a health risk as deadly as smoking a dozen cigarettes a daily, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently told attendees of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference. Retirement often means loss of the community you worked in, perhaps for decades. Keep connected to others by taking classes, volunteering, hanging out with friends, or picking up a sport.

Keep active.

It’s never too late to begin an exercise routine—even if you didn’t pre-retirement, or if you fell off the wagon at some point. Having been physically active at any point in adulthood, “to any extent,” is associated with better cognition later in life—though those with a lifelong habit of exercising see optimal results, according to a recent article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity—or 75 minutes of vigorous activity—a week, per the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep stress to a minimum.

There are myriad ways to keep stress at bay. A few of them:

  • Sexual activity. Studies show that those who have sex less frequently report higher levels of stress. Of note: masturbation counts as sex; no partner required.
  • Sleep. It’s well known that quality sleep is protective against cognitive decline—and a host of other health issues like depression and obesity. Aim for seven to nine hours a night, according to the National Institute on Aging. If sleep is a struggle for you, talk to your doctor—a sleep study may be in order to get to the root of the issue.
  • Budget. Do your best not to introduce any new stressors in your life. For the vast majority, this will require keeping a budget. If you don’t have one, you’re not alone—and it’s never too late. A financial advisor can help you establish one and determine how much money you truly need to live on—not just how much you think you need.
Keep working.

Hear us out: Ideally, you’re in a situation where you don’t have the financial need for a typical 9-to-5. But you have just as much to contribute to society as the day before you retired. If it brings you joy, consider volunteering, contract work, or a part-time job in a field you love—regardless, perhaps, of pay. You’ll reap the benefits of connectedness and cognitive acuity and typically accompany work—hopefully without all the stress.

Psaki on debt ceiling talks: China probably ‘rooting for default’

The Hill

Psaki on debt ceiling talks: China probably ‘rooting for default’

Alex Gangitano – May 19, 2023

Former Biden White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that China is probably “rooting for default” while talks in Washington over a debt ceiling compromise have been cut short.

“All of these world leaders and their teams are watching what’s happening in the United States. Is democracy going to last? Are they going to default? All of that makes the United States look weak on the world stage,” Psaki said on MSNBC.

“If you’re China, you’re probably — you’re rooting for default,” she added.

President Biden has also warned it could be a concern internationally if the U.S. were to default on its debt, arguing recently that world leaders have been wondering about the looming risk.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said earlier this month Beijing and Moscow would use a potential default for propaganda purposes through “information operations” as evidence the U.S. political system is chaotic.

Psaki outlined the situation with the president in Japan for the Group of Seven (G-7) summit, relying on Republican negotiators and White House officials to keep working to avoid a default until he returns to Washington on Sunday.

“So for the president, this is about — he’s there to project strength; the United States is back at the table,” she said. “But these negotiations, this being tricky and unresolved at home, is not great. And that’s important for people, Republicans, Democrats to really understand.”

She also warned against being overly concerned by the top Republican lawmakers negotiating a debt ceiling compromise with the White House cutting the talks short. The Republicans left a meeting with White House officials Friday in the Capitol, saying the two sides were too far apart and that the White House is being unreasonable.

“Sometimes, there are pauses where it looks like everything is going to explode and not come back together, and it does,” she said.

The White House had expressed optimism as recently as late Thursday, saying there had been “steady progress” in debt limit talks, and officials said Friday the president’s team is “working hard towards a reasonable bipartisan solution.”

Additionally, Psaki said there “will be no doubt legal challenges if the president were to invoke the 14th Amendment” in response to a letter sent earlier this week from 11 senators to Biden suggesting he prepare to invoke the amendment.

The president said last week there have been discussions about whether the 14th Amendment can be invoked, but he acknowledged it would have to go to the courts.

We Don’t Have to Accept Antisocial Gun Behavior Just Because the Guy Says It’s a Political Protest


We Don’t Have to Accept Antisocial Gun Behavior Just Because the Guy Says It’s a Political Protest

Jack Holmes – May 19, 2023

a supporter of us president donald trump keeps a hand on his gun during a
Antisocial Gun Behavior Is Not ProtestKEREM YUCEL – Getty Images

We may have reached the pinnacle of Both Sides journalism with some coverage out of Maryland, where Governor Wes Moore signed a package of new gun control bills into law this week restricting who can carry guns in public and where they can do it. The Supreme Court conservatives created a constitutional right to carry guns outside the home last summer when they struck down a 110-year-old New York gun law, a decision which also functionally threw out parts of Maryland’s legal regime on guns. Moore and his allies in the legislature are presumably trying to prevent their jurisdiction from becoming another gun anarchy state now that the number of residents allowed to carry a concealed firearm in public has tripled.

Gun rights groups don’t like this—they’re also suing to throw out Maryland’s assault weapons ban—and it seems neither did one resident in particular. Tolly Taylor of WBAL in Baltimore reported Thursday that “a man with an AR-15 has been showing up for weeks to a school bus drop off for local elementary school students.” He teased a piece on that night’s local news in which viewers would learn that “parents say their kids are afraid, the man says he’s protesting @GovWesMoore’s new gun control law. You’ll hear from both sides at 5+6pm.”


Taylor may well just be trying to abide by coverage guidelines set by his boss(es), but in the process, this becomes really the apotheosis of the Both Sides affliction in the American press. There is no scenario in which some maladjusted creep who’s frightening children at an elementary school bus stop should be presented as just some guy with political opinions by the local news. This is antisocial behavior that should be ridiculed, including by normal people who own guns.

You wouldn’t ask some guy who menaced people on the subway with a knife for his thoughts on whether knife-menacing is cool and good, and make no mistake: this man is attempting to menace members of the public using a deadly weapon that’s capable of killing way more people in way less time. That this kind of weapon is a favorite of school shooters, and these are schoolchildren, only adds to the disgusting character of the events here. Carrying a gun like this in the public square is a way to constantly communicate the threat of deadly force to those around you. A gun like this exists for two purposes: to maim and kill, and to communicate the threat thereof. This loser could make the case that he has a right to carry a gun around via the standard political speech that normal people make use of on this and every other issue. He’s parading around a gun for a reason, the same reason that courts upheld the prerogative of local jurisdictions to restrict who can carry weapons in the public square for 700 years until the Supreme Court conservatives got involved.

This is a particularly eye-catching example of the wider phenomenon where, out of genuine belief in the principle of “objectivity” or fear they’ll be called “biased,” members of the mainstream press create a false equivalence between arguments and political opinions rooted in reality and those that are complete nonsense. Normally, the Both Sides phenomenon involves reporters—often some of the most well-informed, purportedly savvy people around—pretending to believe that bullshit has merit in order to present it as One Side of the Argument, and Who’s to Say Who’s Right? For about 20 years, Washington political scribes would present the Republican view on climate change—nuh uh, no, hoax—as just the other side of the coin to…the overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter.

people take part in a protest for
These folks could easily have demanded an end to pandemic lockdowns without guns. So why did they bring them to the statehouse steps? To communicate the threat of force if they do not get their way.JEFF KOWALSKY – Getty Images

Sometimes, reporters will lobotomize themselves for the period of time in which they’re working on a story. Anyone paying attention over the last decade has watched Republicans raise the debt ceiling without incident when a Republican is president. (Under the most recent one, they also added trillions to The National Debt to service a tax cut for rich people and corporations, part of a debt orgy under President Trump.) But when Republicans turn around and say the debt is a huge problem and we can’t raise the debt ceiling, Beltway reporters pretend they don’t remember anything that happened before—or even, at times, that raising the debt ceiling does not approve new spending. (It applies to paying off debts already accrued.) This goldfish-brain approach has been necessary for the last few decades because, while the Democratic Party has its manifest failures, the Republican Party no longer resides in reality. To present what they say in the full context of reality would involve losing the mask of Neutrality which is often conflated with Objectivity. The objective truth is that Republicans only care about the debt when they’re out of the White House, and they don’t even really care about it now. If they did, they would consider raising revenues as part of a debt deal. They’ve ruled that out.

What’s so unsettling about this Maryland incident, though, is that the adoption of a neutral stance legitimizes antisocial behavior and presents it as a fair form of “protest.” This guy does not have to point the gun at anyone for it to serve its purpose. This has been a steadily expanding problem throughout the country, as right-wingers show up heavily armed to statehouses in an explicit communication of the threat of deadly force if they do not get their way on matters of public policy. This is not normal political expression, just as breaking windows and vandalizing businesses is not a legitimate form of protest against police violence and racial injustice in our society. The fact is that certain things are out of bounds, and we’re really arguing over where the line should be. This guy’s conduct is on the far side of the line. He is leaving the realm of civil disagreement and discussion and entering a gray area where the potential for deadly violence is implied.

What we’re really reluctant to confront, however, is that there is a sizable faction in America who continually make explicit threats to engage in violence if the government—elected by the people to make public policy—makes public policy that they and their faction do not like. They brandish their weapons during these discussions, physically or rhetorically, and they’re never more aggressive than when anyone suggests that Thomas Jefferson did not envision an inalienable right to carry an AR-15 into Chipotle. It’s not hard to put all this together, particularly if you’re a reporter, but it’s scary to confront the fact that there’s a segment of the American population dedicated to the proliferation of deadly weapons—more guns, everywhere, all the time—and threatening to use the ones they already have if they don’t get their way. Easier, then, to stand to the side and offer the View From Nowhere, where every side has a case worth hearing.