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  • More School Choice Means Long, Lonely Commutes for Kids

    The school choice movement has sent low-income students commuting far and wide in search of a better education, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University. Whether those long commutes to school are worth the sacrifice isn't so clear.

    In a study of more than 24,000 records of Chicago students entering high school in the fall of 2009, JHU education professor Julia Burdick-Will found that the poorer a student's neighborhood, the farther that student was likely to travel to get to school. In areas where the median income was $25,000 or less, kids spread out to an average of 13 different schools. In wealthy neighborhoods with median incomes above $75,000, most kids attended one of just three schools.

    The social and geographic consequences of long school commutes can be significant, and another major barrier to success for poor children. Navigating such a complex educational system is a daunting task for even the best-prepared families. "We think of choice as a thing of privilege,” Burdick-Will said in a press release. “But what we see is that there is a privilege of not having to choose."

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  • This Map Shows Who Wants to Move to Your Country

    As the migration crisis in Europe continues to unfold, images of dead children, crowded train platforms, and people trying not to be sent to migrant camps have triggered worldwide concern. The individuals jammed in Hungarian train stations or washing up on the shores of Greece all have very specific stories, but they're also a part of a long history of displacement. As long as there has been starvation and war, there has been migration to countries of peace and economic opportunity.

    What is new, however, is the ability to look for information about a potential destination before going there. And all over the world, people are clicking on Google searches to learn more about lands of opportunity, especially the prosperous G-8 countries—France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, Canada, and Russia.

    In the map below, the Google News Lab has come up with a way to chart comparative levels of curiosity about the G-8 countries from others all over the world. For instance:

    And here is the interest of Syrians in France:

    Check out Google's full map below:

  • If Only Every Lawmaker in the Country Performed a Whip/Nae Nae YouTube Dance to Get the Budget Passed

    In an attempt to draw attention to a state budget impasse and its effects on education funding, a group of Pennsylvania state Democratic legislators have come together in the spirit of dance. Not just any dance. These lawmakers thought it was best to show the kids they care by deploying the Whip/Nae Nae, featured in the song "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" by Silento.

    Fan tributes—like this one by a group of Texas senior citizens, or this one performed by a mom and her adorably precocious daughter—have made the hit song a kind of sleeper viral sensation across summer. Whether the dance by lawmakers has worked to drum up support has yet to be seen. (But for some reason, as of the time of writing, the video seems to have disappeared from the YouTube page run by the Pennsylvania House Democrats.)

    Watch below:

  • Nuclear Weapons Complex That Couldn't Keep Out 82-Year-Old Nun Is Still Unsafe

    A good security system would seem essential for the federal repository holding virtually all of the nation’s highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient of nuclear weapons, just outside Knoxville, Tennessee.

    But the high-tech system installed at a cost of roughly $50 million over the past decade at the Department of Energy’s Y-12 complex is still riddled with flaws that impede its operation, according to a newly released report by the department’s top auditor. Moreover, no one knows how much the government will have to spend to fix the system or when that task might be accomplished, the report says.

    Flaws in the site’s security system first came into national view in July 2012, when an 82-year-old nun and two other anti-nuclear activists cut through fences and walked through a field of motion detectors to deface the exterior of Y-12’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, which holds enough explosives to make 10,000 nuclear bombs. Subsequent investigations concluded that those monitoring the few critical sensors that were operating that day had been trained to ignore them by persistent false alarms, including many triggered by wildlife.

    But not much has changed since that break-in, according to the report by Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman, even though the department spent more than a million dollars in 2012 to get a consultant’s advice about how to make the system work better, and then millions more completing the installation of high-tech sensors in 2013. The report says the so-called Argus security system, which was developed by the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and named optimistically after the fabled 100-eyed monster of Greek mythology, "did not fully meet the site’s security needs" and was not installed the way it was designed to be used. It’s still prone to frequent false alarms and falls short of the Energy Department’s requirements.

    Friedman blames the flaws on inadequate spending and poor management. In particular, those installing the system tried to do so on the cheap. Instead of undertaking a top-to-bottom modernization, they tried to integrate new equipment with older alarm wiring and cabinets. Those operating the system said this effort was not successful, and that it caused false alarms to jump by 25 percent.  

    As a result, the report states, the operators were "not able to efficiently perform their duties." A 27-month study of alarm data that ended in July 2014 showed that false alarms accounted for more than 35 percent of all alerts.

    Budget records suggest the task of safeguarding nuclear weapons has not been as high a priority as developing them at the Energy Department. The security program that supports the Argus project and others like it across the nation’s nuclear sites received $79.8 million for the current fiscal year. For 2016, the Energy Department has asked Congress for 5.8 percent less, or $75.2 million. Meanwhile, spending on weapons programs stands at $8.1 billion, and the Energy Department’s request to Congress for next year seeks 10.5 percent more weapons funding, boosting the total to $8.8 billion.

    Argus’s troubles are not unique to Y-12. A report by the Government Accountability Office in May said similar problems erupted at the Energy Department’s Nevada National Security Site when Argus was installed there. "We determined that the Argus project experienced schedule delays and cost increases as a result of inadequate project management and funding issues," the GAO wrote.

    The Argus project in Nevada began in November 2010 with a targeted completion date of October 2011 and an estimated cost of $8.4 million. By June of 2012, it still wasn’t done, and the estimated cost had more than doubled, to $17.8 million. It’s been on hold since May 2014, and the Nevada site "has continued to rely on an outdated security system," according to the GAO.

    At Y-12, the system’s operation has been undermined as well by the use of error-filled and cumbersome maps of the complex, which obscure the views of the operators. "Even within the confines of…funding limitations, we found that management weaknesses contributed, at least in part, to the issues identified," Friedman's report states.

    The inspector general recommends installing the necessary components to have a fully operational version of Argus, and replacing parts of the security system that are driving the high rate of false alarms. Although the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the production and handling of nuclear weapons, has analyzed the security needs at Y-12 and identified the work that needs to be done to improve it, no detailed plan, schedule for making the upgrades, or cost estimate for the full project has been developed by the Energy Department, according to Friedman. One estimate suggested the Y-12 improvements could cost $300 million.

    In a letter responding to Friedman, NNSA chief Frank Klotz wrote that NNSA agreed with the audit’s conclusions and recommendations. Klotz said efforts have begun to address the lingering security needs at Y-12 "within programmatic constraints," in part by developing a plan by the end of September 2016 for replacement and maintenance of security systems across the nation’s nuclear labs.

    "The secure operation of our facilities is a top priority," Klotz wrote.

  • Is Donald Trump Setting Up the GOP for his Biggest Prank Yet?

    Putting to rest GOP concerns about a possible independent run by reality television tycoon Donald Trump, Republican party insiders say that the frontrunner in their presidential contest has agreed to sign a loyalty pledge, promising to back the party's eventual nominee and not mount an outside effort.

    The benefit for Trump is that it removes a line of GOP attack against him. The move signals he is a serious candidate who plans to stay in the race and is not campaigning on a lark. But is Trump the deal-maker pulling a fast one? After all, the actual pledge looks neither legal nor binding.

    If there's one guy who knows about how to escape from or alter a contract, it's Trump. He has sued many people on assorted grounds, attempting to hold others liable for questioning his wealth, for insulting a building that he considered building (but didn't), and for allowing airplanes to be loud. (That's just a partial list.) Since he announced his candidacy, Trump has lost a number of business partners, and he has sued most of them. He sued celebrity chef Jose Andres for $10 million after Andres, an immigrant who recently became a US citizen, pulled out of a plan to build a restaurant in Trump's new Washington, D.C. hotel. Trump also launched a $500 million lawsuit against Univision for dropping the Miss Universe pageant.

    And watch out, GOP;  the number of successful lawsuits against Trump for breaching contract are surprisingly few. In 2013, an 87-year-old Illinois woman accused Trump of making false promises concerning investment possibilities regarding a Chicago condo tower he was developing. During his testimony, Trump seemed to enjoy the contentious exchanges with the plaintiff's attorney and deftly sidestepped demands for information about the construction of the building. According to the Chicago Tribune:

    "(The judge) told the chatty Trump to narrow his responses and stick to the questions asked of him. She told (the plaintiff's attorney) to simplify his questions about the complicated condo deal at the heart of the dispute.

    "I'm going to give you both time to catch your breath," the judge said. "… Do you think the jury likes this? If you do, I can tell you they don't."

    Over the two days of testimony, Trump dodged and weaved, trying to distance himself from specific knowledge of the condo development plans, often trailing off into lengthy observations about his many hotels. Trump also took every opportunity he could to tell the jury that a clause in the contract allowed him to change plans and that (the plaintiff) had asked for that right to be removed. Yet her request was refused, and she bought two condos anyway, he said.

    "And then she sued me! Unbelievable!" he said, his voice rising as he lifted his arms and grimaced in a moment reflective of the Trump the nation has come to know from his network TV reality show."

    Trump's attorneys argued that the woman was actually a sophisticated investor and should have known that Trump might change the terms of the agreement. He won.

    Republicans ought to remember that during the 1992 presidential contest, billionaire H. Ross Perot, after ending an independent bid, said he was out of the race, but then he changed his mind shortly before the election in October. Perot never garnered enough support to have a shot at winning, but he drew 19 percent of the general election vote, and many analysts believed this assured Bill Clinton's defeat of President George H.W. Bush. 

  • California Is About to Do Something Great That No State Has Ever Done Before

    Back in January, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) made a promise. His state, he said, would pursue a new package of climate goals that are the most ambitious in the nation (and among the most ambitious in the world). California was already a leader in efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy. Brown pledged to go further. By 2030, he declared, California would double the energy efficiency of state buildings; get half its electricity from renewables; and halve consumption of gasoline by cars and trucks.

    At the time, all those nice-sounding goals were just words in a speech. But they could very soon become the law of the land. The state legislature is currently considering several bills (SB 350 is the most important) that would codify Brown's climate agenda. The legislation is widely expected to pass before the end of the legislative session next Friday, but not without a fight from the state's powerful oil lobby.

    Before we get into the bills themselves, let's talk about California. Believe it or not, the state where America fell in love with cars and highways is now leading the nation, and the world, when it comes to climate action. And that matters, because California, the world's seventh-largest economy, is a world-class emitter of greenhouse gases. It ranks second for state emissions, behind Texas, and if it were its own nation, it would rank 20th globally, right between Italy and Spain. Still, it's remarkably clean for its size: On a per-capita basis, it ranks 45th among US states and 38th when compared with countries around the world. (Below, the bars represent total emissions and the dots represent per-capita emissions.)

    California Air Resources Board

    California is also special because of how much of its emissions come from road transportation (cars, trucks, buses, etc.), which is why a major reduction in gasoline use would be so significant. Nationally, just 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation; in California, it's 37 percent. Another way to crunch those numbers: One-tenth of the nation's road transport emissions come from California. Unsurprisingly, California is also the biggest consumer of gasoline, accounting for one-tenth of the national gas market. As a result, it also has an infamously aggressive oil lobby—more on that in a minute.

    California first stepped onto the national climate stage back in 2006 during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, with the passage of AB32, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. That law sets a target of reducing the state's economy-wide carbon footprint to 1990 levels by 2020. Since the bill was enacted, gasoline consumption in the state is down 9 percent—double the nationwide decline. Total carbon emissions are also down, while GDP and population are both on the rise. Roll those things together and you get the most impressive number: The carbon intensity of the state's economy (that is, emissions per unit of GDP) is down 28 percent. The upshot is that California has become a proving ground for the notion that strong economic growth and climate action can go hand in hand:

    California Senate

    That's where the current bills come in. SB 350 would bring the state's gasoline consumption down to about where Florida's is now, while setting new targets for clean energy and energy efficiency projects. There's also SB32, which would build on Schwarzenegger's targets and require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (to meet that target, emissions have to start falling about five times faster than they currently are). That would be the most aggressive state target in the country; nationally, the furthest President Barack Obama has gone is to aim for a 26-28 percent reduction by 2025 (and that's not enshrined in law, either). Both bills passed the state Senate in June by a wide margin; they're due for a vote in the Assembly within the coming week. If they pass, they'll head to Brown's desk for a signature.

    Neither bill includes specific prescriptions for how to meet the targets. Those are left to the state's Air Resources Board (CARB), which would be required to turn in an enforcement plan by 2017. The gas consumption target would likely require some combination of new fuel efficiency standards for cars, incentives for alternative fuels and biofuels, cooperation with local planning agencies to improve public transit and make communities less car-reliant, and a push to get people to buy more electric vehicles. (California is already home to half of the roughly 174,000 electric vehicles on the road in the United States.)

    "If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," said Tim O'Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate."

    Combined, these efforts are expected to create up to half a million jobs, according to a recent University of California-Berkeley study, and draw billions in clean tech investments (for which California is already the undisputed national champ). The bills' supporters in the California capitol also say they will save millions of dollars in traffic-related public health costs and result in reduced energy bills.

    The bills' other supporters include Obama; both the state's US senators and a majority of its congressional delegation; and a coalition of California businesses, large and small. But they also have some powerful enemies who are pushing back hard.

    Because of the state's share of the gasoline market, and its robust oil and gas production industry, the oil lobby has long been the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. The biggest group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spent $8.9 million on lobbying last year. Now, Californians are getting blitzed by ads like the one below, from the so-called California Drivers Alliance (backed by WSPA, and representing "fuel users & providers"). The ad claims SB 350 will lead to gas rationing and is all about "limiting how far we can drive" and "penalizing drivers for using too much gas." The bill's sponsor, Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), called the ad "absurd" and "fear-mongering."

    "There's a significant amount of inertia protecting the industry," O'Connor said. "The lobby is putting its aim right at the center, at swing moderates" in the Assembly.

    We'll have to wait and see how this pans out. But California has a strong history of leadership on climate policies—including carbon trading programs (it created the nation's first economy-wide cap-and-trade market in 2012) and clean vehicle standards—so the odds are pretty good.

    "The governor has put his reputation on the line," O'Connor said. "It's hard to imagine 350 won't pass."

  • Your Cheap Uber Rides May Be Going Away. And That's a Good Thing.

    No company right now elicits a wider range of emotions than Uber. The on-demand ride service has grown in six short years from an idea hatched by a couple of San Francisco tech bros to a $50 billion juggernaut that serves millions of users in 290 cities. Its name has not only become a verb, like that of Xerox or Google, but shorthand for an entire industry. Now an army of start-ups offers quick, cheap delivery of goods and services—everything from maids and mechanics to pizza and pot—by independent contractors tethered to smartphone apps. If you live in a major city, earn decent money, and know how to punch buttons on your phone, then you can thank Uber and its ilk for making your life a hell of a lot easier.

    But that world as we know it may soon come to an end.

    On Tuesday, a federal judge in San Francisco awarded class-action status to a lawsuit in which three Uber drivers contend they are employees, not independent contractors. If they win the lawsuit, the drivers must be reimbursed by the company for gas, workers compensation, and other benefits. Uber has said losing the suit, which could involve 15,000 of its former drivers, might force it to fundamentally rethink its business model. And maybe that's exactly what needs to happen.

    Uber has disrupted not just powerful taxi monopolies but also a sizeable swath of the American middle class. By flooding city streets with gypsy cabs operating under the guise of a "ride sharing" service, Uber evaded regulators, delighted consumers, and put an end to what had once been a passable way to make a living. In San Francisco, for instance, the cabbie who leads the city's Taxi Drivers Association reported last year that his take-home pay from driving had dropped by 50 percent. Lured over to Uber by recruitment ads promising $40 an hour, many professional drivers eventually found that after paying for gas, maintenance costs, and Uber's cut of the profits, they ultimately made less than minimum wage.

    The system used by Uber and its imitators is often called the "1099 economy." The people who work for these companies don't file W-2 tax forms; instead, they file the independent-contractor form, the 1099-MISC. The benefits of using 1099 contractors are obvious. You only have to pay contractors for the time they spend providing services, not for lunch breaks or vacation time. You need not provide health benefits, unemployment insurance, or retirement plans. And contract workers don't even need to be fired if they screw up, since they were never formally employed by you to begin with. You simply boot them from your app and move on.

    Tech start-ups didn't invent the 1099 economy, but they've dramatically expanded it. Most companies that market themselves as "Uber for __" use independent contractors, including some that are backed by tens of millions in venture capital. The dozens of 1099 start-ups in the Bay Area include Washio (Uber for laundry); Eaze (Uber for marijuana); Handy (Uber for handymen); and Spoonrocket, Postmates, and DoorDash (Uber for food).

    Last year, Kevin Roose, then a writer for New York, hired a house cleaner through Homejoy, a company backed by $40 million in venture capital funding from well-respected firms such as Google Ventures. Roose asked him where he lived. "Well, right now I'm staying in a shelter in Oakland," he said. It turned out that he was homeless, as were other Homejoy cleaners used by Roose's friends. (In July, Homejoy shut down, citing lawsuits brought by cleaners who claimed they were misclassified as independent contractors).

    Most 1099 start-ups insist their approach is better for workers. They're typically allowed to set their own hours and, in the words of Steven Hsaio, the CEO of SpoonRocket, to become "their own entrepreneurs." Such flexibility and autonomy might be ideal for students, artists, and anyone else looking to earn a few extra bucks in their free time, but it's hard to see how it benefits people for whom such work is the sole means of making a living.

    "If we want to live in a country where you can have a job and work 9 to 5 and have that be enough, then maybe we want to think about what these business models are doing to the larger economy," Veena Dubal, an expert on the "sharing economy," said recently on a San Francisco radio show.

    "In the taxi industry, which Uber has effectively been trying to replace, at some point not too long ago, you had workers who were able to do this professionally," said Dubal, an associate professor at the University of California-Hastings College of Law. "There's something to be said for this work being professional labor and for people being able to support their families and send their kids to college and buy homes."

    In fact, a backlash against the 1099 economy is well underway. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that 2,300 FedEx delivery drivers in California were being misclassified as independent contractors since FedEx exercised broad control over their schedules and methods. And in June, the California Labor Commissioner sided with an Uber driver who challenged his classification as an independent contractor, ruling that the company had acted like an employer by maintaining substantial control over workers' behavior. Uber is appealing the ruling.

    If Uber is forced to revamp its business model, it could spell the end of the low-cost service economy that many affluent urban consumers have come to take for granted—and a few venture capitalists might get slightly less rich. But on balance, the change will put the economy on a more sustainable track. Service workers might have a better shot at earning a living wage. And consumers will still be able to order $13 grilled Hawaiian tuna at the click of a button.

    Several thriving on-demand start-ups, among them Munchery (a competitor to SpoonRocket) and Alfred (a competitor to Homejoy) treat their workers as employees and offer full-timers benefits such as health care. Others that had previously used independent contractors, such as BloomThat (Uber for flowers), Shyp (Uber for packages), and Luxe (Uber for valet parking), have recently made the switch.*

    None of this means the gig economy is going away, of course. There will always be people like my friend James, a self-employed childrens' book illustrator who has long delivered pizzas to help pay the bills. Lured by Uber's recruitment ads, James bought a four-door Mini Cooper last spring and went to work shuttling people around. But he quickly discovered he was only making about $12 an hour, not including wear and tear on his car. So in February, James gave up the Uber gig and went back to working for the same old-school San Francisco pizza joint—where he's classified as an employee, meaning he gets reimbursed for gas.

    "A lot of people are treating Uber like a full-time job but are not getting anything from it," he says. "I was often making twice as much delivering pizza as I was working for Uber."

    Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Shyp and BloomThat use independent contractors. BloomThat now uses W2 employees and Shyp is in the process of making the transition. Mother Jones regrets the oversight.

  • The GOP's Problem Is Not Donald Trump

    Only a few weeks ago, pundits and political observers roundly proclaimed that Donald Trump, the reality-show tycoon who's mounted a takeover of the GOP, would flame out, fade, implode, or whatever. Jeb Bush's campaign aides were telling journalists that they had no concerns about Trump threatening a third Bush regime. "Trump is, frankly, other people's problem," said Michael Murphy, the chief strategist for Bush's super-PAC. It's becoming clearer, though, that Trump, still dominating the polls and the headlines as the Republican front-runner, could well pose an existential threat to the Grand Old Party (or at least its establishment, including the Bush campaign). But the fundamental problem for the Rs is not Trump; it's Republican voters.

    Trump is a brash and arrogant celebrity who is well skilled in pushing buttons, belittling foes, uttering outrageous remarks, causing a ruckus, and drawing attention to one thing: himself. He's a smart marketer and a brilliant self-promoter. His name recognition is over 100 percent. He cooked up a wonderful ready-for-swag tagline: "Make America Great Again." He's incredible. He's yooge. But none of this would matter if there was no demand for his bombastic, anger-fueled, anti-immigrant populism—that is, if Republican voters did not crave a leader who equates undocumented immigrants with rapists and who claims that everyone else in political life is a nincompoop selling out the US of A to the Chinese, the Mexicans, and just about every other government.

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  • How the Refugees Crisis Is Wreaking Havoc on the European Union

    In July, the European Union was supposedly on the verge of disaster. Greece seemed ready to reject the demands of its creditors and dump the euro, paving the way for the potential end of Europe's common currency—and perhaps the end of a united Europe.

    Two months later, that threat is gone. The Greek government agreed to financial reforms in exchange for another bailout. Talk of a euro exit dissipated. But the conversation in Europe is now dominated by the astronomical rise in the number of migrants trying to enter the continent, both refugees from wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries, as well as job seekers from elsewhere in Europe. The influx is again pitting EU states against each other. Germany and other countries are threatening to reinstate unilateral border controls in the face of EU inaction, undoing the landmark Schengen Agreement that has allowed years of free movement within the European Union.

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  • Rand Paul: Troll Me, and I'll Track Your Phone

    Rand Paul's campaign established itself as the cool internet campaign early when it hired Austin-based GOP digital hipster Vincent Harris to run a small social media empire heavy on memes. But the campaign's latest effort to appeal to the youth seems mostly like an invitation to troll the struggling candidate—except that it's also kind of creepy.

    Paul took to Twitter this afternoon to announce the launch of his new official campaign app—available for free in Apple and Android stores—which promises the latest "insider" Rand Paul news and event listings, as well as "fun" features like a tool to take fake "selfies" with Paul and a hidden Space Invaders-style game in which Paul's logo shoots at the logos of other candidates. (Sound fun?)

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