Editorial Roundup: United States
Aug 29, 2023, 1:52 PM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on wildfires in the United States
Maui officials should have known what was coming. In 2014, they were put on notice that highly flammable invasive grasslands presented a serious wildfire risk. In 2018, after West Maui fires destroyed 21 houses and 27 cars, angry residents criticized the poor disaster response. The next year, wildfires charred five times more land in Maui County compared with the previous year, and Hawaiian Electric admitted it needed to better fortify its power lines. In 2021, another report came out urging officials to clear flammable grasses. Again and again, the warnings came.
Days before the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, weather forecasters warned that fierce winds would give life to dangerous fire conditions across much of the island, offering still more time to coordinate potential evacuation plans. As the fires barreled toward neighborhoods, officials failed to activate its expansive All-Hazard Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System, instead opting for digital and radio communications many residents say they never got. At least 115 people have died, and more than 300 are missing.
In the aftermath, leaders said “ nobody saw this coming,” but that is wrong.
There should be no more deflection of accountability. Generally, three things are needed to start a wildfire: climate, tinder and a spark. And while climate change will likely continue to fuel drought, heat and hurricane intensity, which helped strengthen the 80-mph winds, officials can act on other obvious ways to prevent this devastation in the future.
Invasive grasses and shrubs, many of which are extremely flammable, cover about a quarter of land in Hawaii. And months of drought rapidly dried out the vegetation encroaching around homes and communities. Vegetation removal strategies should be implemented immediately because nonnative grasses thrive after fires and claim the space where native grasses once lived.
As for the spark, many lay blame on Hawaiian Electric, which is facing lawsuits from Maui County and others as evidence mounts that downed utility poles ignited fires. More than 30 utility poles, some of which still had energy coursing through them, fell across the region, and video footage showed a fallen power line setting a grass fire near Lahaina, the historic town destroyed in the flames.
While the fire’s precise causes — or combination of them — have yet to be determined, power lines are known to spark deadly wildfires. Pacific Gas & Electric power lines ignited the California wildfire that previously held the record for the nation’s deadliest modern fire. Now, California, along with Oregon and Nevada, will shut down electricity when adverse conditions arise.
Though Hawaiian Electric was aware California’s power shutoff plan was an effective way to prevent wildfires last year, the company that supplies 95 percent of Maui residents with electricity didn’t have formal plans in place to cut power ahead of high winds. These protocols should be crafted, in addition to taking more aggressive action in trimming vegetation and applying fire retardant to poles in at-risk areas.
But Hawaii is not the only state that needs to prepare for wildfires. Some of the largest on the U.S. mainland were also fueled in part by invasive grasses. Half of all addresses on the continental United States face some type of wildfire risk, and the numbers will likely only increase. Wildfires, once they start, can move a mile a minute. But the warnings are here now and should not be ignored.
The New York Times on Americans paying the price for corporate consolidation
Across the American economy, in industries ranging from air travel to veterinary medicine, big companies keep getting bigger and more powerful. Swallowing smaller rivals has become a widely accepted practice.
This concentration of corporate power, however, is neither inevitable nor desirable for the health of the American economy.
The Biden administration is embarking on a wide-ranging effort to check corporate power by promoting competition — a stated goal of both parties — and it needs Congress to support its effort with bipartisan legislation. It has proposed new rules, like a ban on noncompete agreements that prevent workers from changing jobs more freely. It is seeding competition, for example, by investing more than $1 billion to open and expand smaller meatpacking plants. And it has taken a tough line on mergers, blocking some big deals, dissuading companies from pursuing others and even suing to unwind Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram.
Last month, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, which are charged with enforcing antitrust laws, proposed new merger guidelines that would formalize this turn toward stringency, ending decades of acquiescence to corporations by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The document explains what the administration regards as illegal, creating a basis for consistent enforcement, putting companies on notice and preparing judges for the cases that may come before them.
This reassertion of an active government role in protecting competition has the potential to deliver significant benefits. Competition keeps pressure on prices. It encourages the development of better and more diverse products and services. It holds open the gates of opportunity so workers can pursue other jobs or start their own businesses. It helps to ensure that prosperity and political power are broadly distributed.
“In my view, it’s the most important economic policy thing that the Biden administration will do this year,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who served until earlier this year as President Biden’s adviser on technology and competition policy. Mr. Wu, who was not involved in creating the proposed guidelines, said the document reflected a determination to end a “green light” era in which American antitrust enforcers largely declined to enforce antitrust laws.
But the shift comes with real risks, too. Tighter enforcement could inhibit the growth of companies that have prospered through innovation or through the delivery of goods and services at lower costs. Bigger companies may be better equipped to compete in the global marketplace.
For several decades, beginning under President Ronald Reagan, both Democratic and Republican administrations embraced the idea that corporate concentration was often economically beneficial — and that companies engaged in harmful behavior would be disciplined by market forces. The merger guidelines issued by the Reagan administration in 1982 set the tone: “Although they sometimes harm competition, mergers generally play an important role in a free enterprise economy,” the guidelines said. Under subsequent administrations, the government refined an approach that gave corporations the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t enough to show a merger would reduce competition; the government generally sought to block deals only when it could show a merger would result in higher prices for consumers or that it would clearly cause some other quantifiable harm — a standard that was rarely met.
Under this E-ZPass approach to antitrust enforcement, industries rapidly consolidated until the United States was left with four major airlines, three major cellphone companies and two dominant makers of coffins. A 2018 analysis concluded that concentration had increased in three-quarters of domestic industries, giving companies more power to raise prices, squeeze suppliers, suppress wages and influence policymakers.
Americans have been living as subjects in a large-scale experiment in letting big companies do as they please, and the consequences are increasingly apparent in daily life. Compare the United States with Europe, where authorities have more successfully resisted the consolidation of major industries. Airfares in the United States are now significantly more expensive; North American airlines pocketed more than twice as much in profits from each passenger in 2022 as their European counterparts did. The internet costs more, too: Americans pay more than twice as much for broadband, and the cost of cellular service is also, on average, more than twice as high in the United States as the average in other developed nations. The economist Thomas Philippon wrote in a 2019 book about the decline of competition in the United States that the American economy would be roughly $1 trillion larger than it is today if the United States had simply maintained the level of competition that prevailed in 2000.
The turn toward stringency reflects some of what has been learned in recent years about the effects of corporate concentration, for example, in a new emphasis on protecting workers. Economic circumstances also have changed. The rise of online business models in particular has created challenges not fully anticipated by earlier generations of policymakers, such as the ways that user data can be used to limit competition. In December, Amazon settled an antitrust complaint brought by European Union regulators by agreeing to stop using data gathered from third-party sellers on its site to calibrate its own retail business decisions.
The most important change, however, is a reconsideration of the role of economics in making policy. The guidelines treat the economic analysis of corporate concentration as a valuable source of information, rather than the measuring stick by which decisions are made. Antitrust authorities have failed in their responsibility to the American people by assigning to themselves the burden of trying to figure out which mergers may be harmful, rather than taking seriously their marching orders from Congress to prevent concentration.
Some harms are difficult to quantify. Some are difficult to anticipate. And sometimes the damage is cumulative. In separate interviews, Jonathan Kanter, the assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and Lina Khan, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, argued that the changes should be seen as a restoration of the plain meaning of the nation’s antitrust laws, which place limits on corporate concentration even when it isn’t possible to show negative economic effects in advance. Mr. Kanter said his department is focused on protecting competition because that is the goal that Congress enshrined in law and he is in the law enforcement business. “We’re going back to enforcing the law to its fullest extent,” he said.
To achieve this goal, the administration will need to overcome the skepticism of federal judges, many of whom are steeped in the minimalist approach to antitrust enforcement. The regulatory agencies have lost several cases in which they sought to enforce antitrust laws more stringently, including decisions allowing the tech giant Meta to buy Within, a maker of virtual reality apps, and to let Microsoft proceed with its acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which makes video games.
A key element of the Reagan administration’s antitrust revolution was to put on the bench legal scholars who had played leading roles in developing what might be called the anti-antitrust movement. The Biden administration so far has not emulated that strategy. Through the guidelines, however, it is at least seeking to change minds. The document can be understood as an open letter to the judiciary, encrusted in footnotes and references, pressing the argument that a shift is not just good policy but also good law.
Congress can help. Prominent politicians in both parties regularly express concern about the effects of concentration and the power of corporations, but Congress has not passed a significant law addressing antitrust enforcement in more than 70 years. The proposed guidelines seek to apply those old laws to the modern economy, but it’s an imperfect fit. The United States needs to update its antitrust laws to place stronger limits on corporate concentration and specifically to curb the power of tech companies. Bridging differences between the two political parties won’t be easy, but enduring changes in antitrust policy have always required bipartisan support.
The Wall Street Journal on Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve’s plan to stay the course on anti-inflation
Investors these days parse Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s every remark for any sign the pain of higher interest rates will end soon. He disappointed them again Friday in his annual speech at a central banking conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which is much to the good.
“Although inflation has moved down from its peak—a welcome development—it remains too high,” Mr. Powell said. He added that the central bank will keep monetary policy at its current “restrictive level” until there is more evidence that inflation is truly whipped.
Many on Wall Street were hoping to hear a more dovish signal that the Fed would declare victory soon, perhaps starting this year or early next. This would entail a premature rate cut while hoping inflation would continue to drift downward. The Fed chief pointed specifically to prices for services excluding shelter as having remained sticky.
Mr. Powell’s speech was consistent with his earlier promises to avoid the “stop-go” policy errors of the 1970s. In that decade the Fed’s premature declaration of victory over inflation led to a price-increase ratchet that had to be cured with ever-higher interest rates.
We were especially pleased to see him explicitly rebuff the argument from some economists that the Fed should raise its inflation target to 3% from 2%. Mr. Powell seems to appreciate that such a change would undermine the Fed’s anti-inflation credibility. It would also add pressure on the Fed to ease its monetary tightening once inflation is in the neighborhood of 3%, even if that’s premature.
One reason to avoid a stop-go monetary repeat is that, as Mr. Powell noted, the Fed is uncertain about how the modern economy responds to its policy changes. Economic growth, employment, wages and prices have often not behaved in ways the Fed’s economic models predicted since the 2008 financial panic. Mr. Powell described this as “navigating by the stars under cloudy skies.”
This humility is welcome from the Fed, but we’d add a note of caution about Mr. Powell’s approach. His Friday speech reinforced the extent to which the Fed remains beholden to the discredited Phillips Curve, which posits a direct relationship between employment and inflation. Mr. Powell and his colleagues still believe they must slow economic growth and weaken the labor market somehow to guarantee that inflation remains subdued.
Ample experience has shown that low inflation can coexist with a low unemployment rate and strong economic growth. Inflation is its own beast and the Fed’s job is to maintain price stability.
Investors had hoped Mr. Powell would give them the all-clear on inflation and signal an early rate cut. Mortgage rates above 7% in particular are giving politicians a case of jitters as an election year approaches. But households still digesting 40-year-high price increases, and a two-year decline in real wages, will welcome the signal that Mr. Powell plans to stay the anti-inflation course.
The Los Angeles Times on gun violence in the U.S.
It was perfectly legal for the racist killer of three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday to buy and possess the Glock handgun and AR-15-style rifle he used in the shootings, officials said.
A laptop belonging to Ryan Christopher Palmeter, the white 21-year-old killer, was filled with racist screeds. Officials said he had been briefly held for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation in 2017.
Two days before the Jacksonville massacre, Jason and Melissa Dunham and their three children aged 15, 12 and 9 were found shot to death in their Lake Township, Ohio, home in an apparent murder-suicide. The handgun used in the shooting belonged to Jason Dunham, police said, but it wasn’t yet clear whether he was the shooter. He and his wife both had permits to carry concealed weapons.
A day before that, retired Ventura police sergeant John Snowling shot his estranged wife and eight other people at Cook’s Corner, a roadhouse in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County. His wife, Marie Snowling, survived but three others died. Police shot the gunman to death. The killer lawfully acquired and possessed the .380 pistol, .38 revolver, .25 pistol and shotgun that were recovered at the scene.
A few days earlier, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ferguson pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife, Sheryl Ferguson. He is charged with shooting her to death in their Anaheim Hills home during an argument. His lawyer said it was an accident. Law enforcement officers recovered 47 other weapons and about 26,000 rounds of ammunition from the judge’s home, all of which were apparently acquired and owned lawfully, although one rifle is unaccounted for.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Americans’ right to possess, carry and conceal weapons cannot be curtailed by laws that are not rooted in practices that existed in the late 18th century, when the 2nd Amendment was drafted and ratified. Gun advocates argue that the right to carry weapons makes Americans safer, and that any bad guy with a gun is now more likely to be stopped by a good guy with a gun — someone presumably like an armed parent, retired police officer or judge.
The targeted racist slayings understandably loomed larger in the news than the family violence. President Biden said, “We must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said, “Targeting people because of their race has no place in the state of Florida.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, also running for president, said, “There is no place in America for racially inspired violence.”
They are wrong and they know it. The American people, their politicians, their courts and their culture have made this nation the planet’s preeminent place to target people for death because of their race — or for any other reason, such as their familial relationship, differing beliefs or reasons indiscernible to the rest of us. This country is exactly the place for hateful, murderous, suicidal gun violence, because this is the place for millions upon millions of guns, and the bizarre American delusion that the more of them we have, the safer and freer we are.
Pence added that his solutions include an “ expedited federal death penalty for anyone engaged in a mass shooting.” It’s difficult to grasp how quick executions would alter the behavior of the Jacksonville killer, who shot himself to death. Or whichever member of the Dunham family pulled the trigger, the deranged Ventura cop who died at the scene or the judge who claims to have shot his wife by accident.
Firearms are the leading cause of death of juveniles in the U.S. Biden recently unveiled a plan to increase access to mental health care, including in schools, in part to address the causes of gun violence.
The far-right organization called Moms for Liberty said, in effect, don’t you dare. Mental health care “has NO place in public schools,” the group said in a social media post earlier this month.
At a special session of the Tennessee Legislature called in response to the slaying of three children and three adults at a Nashville elementary school in March, lawmakers last week rejected gun control proposals and instead introduced measures to allow more guns in schools.
Speaking of schools, a 16-year-old boy was shot to death at a high school football game Friday night in Choctaw, Okla. Several others were shot as well. Don’t confuse that incident with the one at the high school game the same night in Tulsa, in which a 16-year-old waved a pistol, causing a stampede and ending the game before it was finished. Or the game on the same night in Locust Grove, also in Oklahoma, where a deputy took a gun from a teenager.
Or high school football games the same night in Abington, Pa., Waterloo, Iowa, or Goodyear, Ariz., where other teenagers were disarmed before they could harm anyone with the guns they brought with them.
A week earlier, four teenagers were charged for carrying three loaded Glock 9 millimeter pistols at a high school football game in Canal Winchester, Ohio.
“Why bring those to a football stadium?” Madison Township Police Chief Gary York asked. “Why do these kids have them to begin with?”
Such a mystery. Where on Earth do kids get these violent ideas? And where do they get all those guns?
The Guardian on the Republican debate
Donald Trump stayed away from Wednesday’s Republican candidates’ debate in Milwaukee. Yet he remained the evening’s dominant presence. The former president’s poll lead among Republican supporters for the 2024 US presidential contest is so strong that he could afford to do this. His absence deliberately belittled both the televised event, as he simultaneously gave an imperiously misleading social media interview to Tucker Carlson, and his eight challengers, who were left vying to impress in a fantasy “What if?” contest over the choice for a party not in fact dominated by Mr Trump.
Absence also allowed Mr Trump, on the eve of his latest court appearance in Atlanta and now facing 91 felony counts in four separate criminal cases, to avoid offering himself as a target to his eight rivals. Not that he need have worried about that. Most of them went out of their way all evening to pay him repeated homage. No one did this more shamelessly than the Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who told the audience both that Mr Trump was the best Republican president of the 21st century and that, if elected, Mr Ramaswamy would instantly pardon him for whatever he may have been convicted of in the meantime.
By identifying deliberately with Mr Trump’s outsider status, Mr Ramaswamy did two things. He made a bid to be Mr. Trump’s running-mate next year and he also separated himself from the platform’s professional politicians. These seven all see themselves, with varying degrees of credibility, as the alternative candidate to Mr. Trump. Their shared problem is that the party shows little sign of being interested in such a person. Certainly not in the former vice-president Mike Pence, whose certification of Joe Biden’s victory in January 2021 was supported by most of his fellow candidates but remains heretical to Trump supporters. And probably not in the Florida governor Ron DeSantis either, who entered the debate as the nominal chief rival to Mr Trump but who once again did relatively little to cement that claim.
There were, nevertheless, clashes and revealing evasions. Mostly, however, they were over the degree of ferocity that the candidates would bring to promoting the party’s priorities rather than over whether the priorities were desirable in themselves. One bidding war of this kind focused on militarizing the US’s southern border. Another on rolling back the Biden administration’s climate crisis agenda. A third came over entrenching an abortion ban at federal level, a pledge from which the sole woman in the debate, Nikki Haley, demurred. One striking divergence came on Ukraine, whose defence, for Republicans like Mr Ramaswamy, runs counter to the isolationism that Mr Trump has made integral to America First rhetoric, but which for older politicians like Chris Christie and Mr Pence remains a geopolitical commitment that must be honored.
In the past, candidates’ debates have sometimes had dynamic political consequences. Not this time. The Republican party is too far gone for that. It is too dominated by Mr Trump. It is too obsessed with talking to its own echo chamber. It is too fanatical about its agenda. It is too dependent on electoral dark arts. The net result is that it has won the popular vote in US presidential contests only once since 1988. This week’s debate was a mealy-mouthed and discreditable event that changes nothing. The Republican party needs the courage to call out Mr Trump and his lies and take a new path. But there was no inkling of that in Milwaukee.