Aug 10, 2023

Biden's controversial new national monument.

Plus, why do we keep calling Social Security an "entitlement"?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

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We're covering the new national monument in Arizona, and how it might impact uranium mining. Plus, a question about why we call Social Security an entitlement.

Tomorrow's newsletter.

On Monday, I sat down with Mick West, one of the most prominent UFO skeptics in the world. Given some of my previous writing (and YouTubing) on the story of David Grusch, I thought it would be in the Tangle spirit to seek out someone who is very, very skeptical of Grusch's claims and UFO hysteria more generally. In tomorrow's members-only edition, we'll be releasing a transcribed interview of my conversation with one of the most biting UFO skeptics out there.


Quick hits.

  1. Prosecutors working for Jack Smith obtained a search warrant earlier this year for former President Trump's dormant Twitter account, and Twitter was fined $350,000 and found in contempt after refusing to comply. (The fight)
  2. A U.S. aid worker and her daughter were freed after being kidnapped in Haiti last month. (The release)
  3. At least 36 people have died and dozens more were injured in fast-moving wildfires spreading across three Hawaiian islands. (The fires
  4. The Supreme Court allowed Apple to keep its fee structure in place while legal challenges against the fees move forward. (The decision
  5. U.S. consumer prices rose 3.2% year over year, less than expected, while prices rose 0.2% month over month. (The numbers)

Today's topic.

The Grand Canyon monument. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden designated the fifth national monument of his presidency. The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument will protect an area of roughly 917,000 acres outside the Grand Canyon from human activity, notably uranium mining. The designation will also recognize existing grazing permits, leases, and existing mining claims, and will legally allow hunting and fishing in the area.

“Today I’m proud to use my authority under the Antiquities Act to protect almost one million acres of land around Grand Canyon National Park as a new national monument – to help right the wrongs of the past and conserve this land… for all future generations,” Biden said.

President Biden made the announcement while on a three-stop trip across the Western United States that included the battleground state of Arizona. He is making the tour to sell his economic agenda and celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Former President Barack Obama had imposed a 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon in 2012, but with this act those protections will now become permanent. Designating the area a national monument also fulfills a promise the Biden administration made to tribal leaders, environmental activists, and Democratic legislators in Arizona, who want the Grand Canyon area to be protected from potential mining.

However, the mining industry and the state's congressional Republicans opposed both Obama's ban and this latest designation, arguing that it would stifle economic growth, undermine the U.S. effort to produce more energy domestically, and increase dependence on Russia for uranium.

“Why would we permanently cut off access to some of America’s best uranium deposits for no scientific, health or environmental reasons,” Curtis Moore, the senior vice president of marketing at Energy Fuels Inc., a uranium producer, said.

Roughly 1.3% of the nation's uranium reserves exists in the now-protected land, according to an administration official. Roughly 20% of all U.S. electricity is supplied by nuclear power, which relies on uranium to be mined, milled, and enriched in order to make fuel. For years, that uranium has been supplied in large part by Russia and other countries.

Today, we're going to explore some arguments from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right opposes the monument designation, calling it overly expansive and poorly thought out.
  • Some argue the move will ensure the U.S. remains reliant on Russian uranium and endanger bipartisan efforts for energy independence. 
  • Others suggest Biden is abusing his presidential power on dubious legal grounds.

National Review’s editors said Biden just delivered a “grand gift to Putin.”

"Domestic uranium production has bipartisan support, as did the ban on Russian oil and gas imports in 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine," the editors said. The monument designation is the latest example of Biden’s "typical executive overreach" and will have serious consequences for America’s energy policy. By "rendering hundreds of uranium deposits unmineable," the new monument all but assures the U.S. will continue to spend billions on Russian uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors. Despite bipartisan support for boosting domestic uranium production, Biden decided to take a promising avenue toward energy independence off the table.

"It wasn’t necessary to put all this land off-limits for mining, which has a small footprint while packing a lot of energy punch," the editors added. "Arizona’s now-inaccessible uranium deposits each take up a maximum of 20 acres of land and each contain enough uranium to supply the entire state with carbon-free energy for one or two years. Energy contained in each of the mines is enough to fill a coal train stretching from Los Angeles to New York, according to Arizona mining executive Steve Trussell."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the monument a "government land grab" that’s likely to provoke legal challenges.

“The unstated purpose of the national monument appears to be to block uranium mining,” the board wrote, noting that local tribes in Arizona say mining "could contaminate water and wildlife." Such claims are suspect, though, as "a U.S. Geological Survey in 2021 found springs and wells in the region met federal drinking-water standards despite decades of uranium mining." Either way, "President Biden doesn’t seem to think it’s possible to develop and protect America’s natural resources at the same time, though miners have been doing so for decades."

"Democrats couldn’t pass this through Congress, so Mr. Biden is doing so by decree," the board said. The far-reaching nature of the designation illustrates a president’s vast power to remove land from development and public use under the Antiquities Act, but progressives’ "sweeping" interpretation of one-way executive power when it comes to environmental protections is "crying out for a legal challenge."

In The Federalist, Tristan Justice argued the monument is "a blatant abuse of presidential power."

"Biden has made a habit of wielding the 1906 Antiquities Act to cut off federal lands from local use and development," Justice said. It’s been a theme of all five new national monuments established during his presidency. In October 2021, Biden "also placed millions of acres under monument protection with the reinstatement of Obama-era boundaries at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Antiquities Act, however, was never intended to authorize the president to establish quasi-national parks without congressional approval."

In reality, "the law passed by Congress maintains three requirements violated by President Biden’s serial designation of millions of acres with monumental status. One, there must be an object to be protected, whether it’s geologic, historic, or prehistoric. Two, the monument itself must be on federal land. Three, the land to go under protection must be ‘the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’ The one-million acres in northwest Arizona now under monument protection can hardly be considered the ‘smallest area compatible’ with conserving delicate artifacts and relics."


What the left is saying.

  • The left largely supports the move, framing it as a win for Biden’s environmental agenda.
  • Some say Biden is continuing the legacy of past presidents who understood the need to preserve the Grand Canyon in its natural state. 
  • Others argue the designation could have been moderated to advance both environmental and energy interests. 

The Arizona Republic editorial board praised Biden for joining "a long line of presidents" who have used their power to protect the Grand Canyon.

U.S. presidents have a history of leveraging executive power to preserve the "magnificent crosscut of prehistoric time" that is the Grand Canyon, the board wrote. Like his predecessors, Biden understands that the area is "our greatest natural treasure" whose beauty we must preserve “for posterity." By taking "extraordinary steps" to protect the Canyon, Biden has "assured that future generations of Americans and citizens of the world can experience the same astonishment as the first Spanish conquistadors to reach the canyon’s rim in 1540."

Republicans who oppose the move argue it would "cut the nation off from its richest reserves of uranium, an element essential to producing nuclear energy." But "it will not close valid existing mineral claims" like the Pinyon Plain Mine that extracts uranium south of Tusayan. Further, "the uranium reserves near the canyon represent but a tiny fraction of the U.S. total. The canyon was never going to solve the nation’s need to import uranium."

In The New Republic, Tori Otten called the new monument “a big freaking deal.”

The monument is a "massive win" for Biden’s environmental agenda and Indigenous rights, Otten said. "Although existing uranium mining claims on the Arizona land will be allowed to continue, the new designation protects the land from any future mining claims. Native tribes will be able to use the land for religious ceremonies, as well as for hunting and gathering. The designation is also an important sign, not just for Indigenous people, but for everyone."

Biden honored calls from tribal nations and conservationists to protect the land, which "contains some of the most biodiverse habitats in the region and is home to bighorn sheep, bison, and bald eagles. Many of the streams in the area contribute to the Colorado River, a critical water source for the Southwest that is at an all-time low due to climate change," she added. The move also bolsters Biden’s environmental track record, which includes the restoration of national monuments in Minnesota and Utah that President Trump had "stripped [of] their protective status."

The editorial board for the Western Arizona-based Havasu News said the national monument designation is "undeniably valuable" but should have been narrower in scope.

While the move helps safeguard "treasured landscapes and historical legacy," it’s also a missed opportunity for Biden to strike a balance between "conservation and responsible resource utilization," the board said. Uranium mining is a key issue for the region, and despite the "potential ecological implications" associated with it, a "complete ban on this industry might not be the most prudent course of action. The role of nuclear energy within the larger context of clean fuel alternatives underscores the strategic significance of maintaining a stable uranium supply, especially in terms of national defense requirements."

Biden’s "expansive" monument risks rushing into an "irreversible decision that could shape the future for generations to come." Instead, a "more measured approach, marked by the creation of a scaled-down monument and the implementation of safeguards for responsible uranium extraction elsewhere," would benefit all parties involved. "Now is the time for collaboration and compromise—a chance to preserve our natural heritage while simultaneously securing our energy future," they wrote.


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I always have a knee-jerk reaction toward conservation, but this story is definitely complicated.
  • Biden is fulfilling a promise to some tribes and, of course, Democrats in Arizona.
  • In the larger context, this seems like a pretty moderate move, even if the concerns over how this impacts our uranium supply are legitimate.

I'm genuinely torn.

My knee-jerk reaction is typically toward conservation. Having spent so much time in the southwest, it's hard to really describe the beauty of these untouched desert lands, canyons, and rivers. It's equally difficult to explain how hard it is to see some of them get polluted — either by tourists or by big industries like mining. So when you hear about "protecting" these lands and visualize pristine waters and wildlife galore, it's easy to give a hearty thumbs up.

Equally compelling is the case made by some of the local tribal leaders. We've written in the past about the fascinating history of American Indian reservations. Part of that history includes the way the American government has repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain in treaties with Native Americans, including through land grabs in states like Arizona. One of the upsides of this agreement is in the notion that we'd be righting some historical wrongs by ensuring these traditional tribal lands are protected from overrun development in the future. I think that is a good thing.

But it's also complicated.

For starters, we should always be skeptical of further regulating tribal land. Tribal governments are bound within a territory, but are often not granted autonomy to use resources in that territory. In this case, the land was probably going to be gobbled up by industry or private owners once the Obama-era prohibitions expired, so it's probably a wash. I couldn't find any tribal leaders opposing this action, which makes me think it was worthwhile to anyone who cares about balancing those scales. 

As for the legality of this move, I’m not entirely sure what to think. As some commentators noted under “What the right is saying,” Biden seems to be stretching the Antiquities Act as far as it can go — and I suspect he’ll face some serious legal challenges. There is enough ambiguity in the law and the precedent set by past presidents that I genuinely am not sure how those legal challenges will play out. 

Putting them aside for a moment, it’s true that this area makes up just 1.3% of the known uranium reserves in the United States. It's also true, as the Wall Street Journal put it, that this specific land includes "America’s only source of high-grade uranium ore that is economically competitive on the global market." Given that about 95% of our uranium used for nuclear power reactors is imported (typically from Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Australia), there's a good argument that this 1.3% is a very valuable 1.3%, and one we may want to prioritize. If the last few years have taught us anything, it's that relying on adversarial nations — whether it's China for medical supplies or Russia for oil — is a dangerous tactic for our economic independence and national security.

Ultimately, there is something about this move that I think is fairly moderate — and perhaps makes a nice balance between these two competing ideas. As Bloomberg Law put it in a headline, "Biden Protects Land by Grand Canyon but Will Still Allow Mining." Despite protecting a land mass nearly three times the size of Los Angeles, the designation won't stop companies like Energy Fuels Inc. from mining at its existing Pinyon Plain Mine within the monument.

At the same time, this action comes in the larger context of Biden's fairly balanced efforts to weigh economic realities with environmentalism (efforts The New York Times characterized as "inconsistent"). Under his watch, he's approved more oil and gas permits than President Trump did at the same point in his term, including the controversial Willow project in Alaska. And he made numerous concessions in pushing through the Inflation Reduction Act to allow offshore oil and gas leasing.

Likewise, the "gift to Putin" narrative just seems silly given everything else this administration has done since Biden entered office. It'd be one thing if this were the latest in a series of actions that have given Russia economic leverage over us, but the reality is nearly the opposite. Biden has led the U.S. and European allies away from Russian-supplied energy sources — sometimes at great cost to the American and European consumer — and continues to help hold Europe together in its support for Ukraine in the war. There's a much better argument that Biden is waging an effective and cold-hearted economic war on Russia than there is that he's gift-wrapping legislative decisions for Putin.

In the grand scheme of those actions, taking 1.3% of our domestic uranium supply off the playing field is a drop in the bucket. I've made my personal support for nuclear energy development clear, and I think Republicans are right to push this administration to source uranium domestically. At the same time, though, there are numerous benefits to this kind of conservation and plenty of other options for the U.S. to expand its domestic energy supply. It might be a sweeping declaration in Arizona, but in the national context this reads much more like the latest in a balancing act between economic realities and pressure from the left than any kind of environmentalism run amok. 


Don't forget: One of the most common questions I get in Tangle is "can you do more international news?" or "what about a Tangle for Country X?" While we focus primarily on politics in the United States, I am thrilled that we have recently partnered with DailyChatter, an international news organization built in the same ethos as Tangle. DailyChatter has been plugging us to its readers and vice versa, and so far, the feedback from Tangle readers has been great. You can try it for 2 weeks for free, and it's just $29.95 a year after that. 84% of all users who try DailyChatter for free stick around after their trial. Sign up here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Why is social security always being referred to as an entitlement program? I have worked and paid into it for 45 years. Perhaps if the government had kept their mitts out of it and I say this because there was a time it had more than enough money. I feel they keep raising the age limit hoping people die and don't use it.

— Debbie from Pendleton, Oregon

Tangle: Anytime I write about Social Security, I get frustrated emails like this one. I'm fairly certain people get upset because they misunderstand the meaning of "entitlement," and I get so many emails like this that I'd like to settle this point simply and thoroughly (so I can refer back to it later).

Social Security is an entitlement program. As Elizabeth Bauer explained in Forbes, "An 'entitlement,' as a type of federal spending, is a government program in which recipients automatically receive benefits that they're eligible for based on the applicable legislation. Social Security is an entitlement because everyone who meets the eligibility criteria (40 'quarters' of eligible earnings) is entitled to a benefit." In other words: "entitlement" sounds pejorative, but in this context it is not — it defines any program that Congress is required to fund, where people receive money from the government that they're entitled to.Entitlements include, in order of size, Social Security, Medicare, Welfare, Medicaid, and Unemployment. Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment are 'contributory' programs, meaning they are funded by taxes from people who will receive their benefits. Entitlements makeup 52% of the federal budget, or $3.3 trillion out of $6.2 trillion in 2022. Last year, Social Security cost $1.2 trillion.

The money you get from Social Security is money you're entitled to, but it isn't actually your money. What you pay in is immediately granted to current beneficiaries, and then you depend on future payers for your benefits. Right now, there are just more retirees entitled to funds than there are workers to pay them.

And lastly, Congress hasn't stolen money from Social Security. This is a very common belief, but actually isn't true. The Treasury has borrowed from Social Security, but has never failed to pay back the funds with interest. We simply need to either curtail the payments going out or increase the taxes going in to fund the program.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

The FBI killed a Utah man while executing a search warrant of his home after he posted threats against President Biden and Vice President Harris on social media. The man, identified as Craig Robertson, posted on social media that he was digging out an "M24 sniper rifle" ahead of Biden's visit to Utah, and made several other posts calling for the assassination of Biden, Harris, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The FBI said Robertson was armed when they searched his home, though the law enforcement agency released few details about how he was killed. Robertson also made threatening posts directed at Attorney General Merrick Garland, saying “Why are your FBI cowards not kicking in my door? Know this ‘they will die,’” according to an FBI complaint. Biden arrived in Salt Lake City to deliver remarks on Thursday. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) has the story.


Numbers.

  • 917,618. The amount of land, in acres, the new monument in Arizona will span.
  • 1.2 million. The amount of land, in acres, that was already declared as the Grand Canyon National Park.
  • 20%. The percentage of electricity in the United States provided by nuclear energy.
  • 50%. The percentage of carbon-free electricity in the United States provided by nuclear energy.
  • $1 billion. The estimated amount of money annually that the U.S. spends on Russian uranium.
  • 2032. The year that the previous Obama-era moratorium on mining in this land was set to expire.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote our first piece covering the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the video of what happens if you don't put your phone in airplane mode.
  • Poll results: 653 readers answered our poll asking if 50% of the electorate is the right threshold for amending a state constitution. 67% said 'no, the threshold should be higher' and 29% said 'yes, a majority is sufficient.' "I would use 2/3 approval to change a constitution. That way, flavor of the day initiatives have a smaller chance to change an overarching document," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Spotify's most-played wedding songs.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of this new national monument? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

In 2005, Calvin Echevarria was on top of his game. He had two jobs, had bought a house, and was raising a 3-year-old daughter with his wife. But suddenly, it felt like it was all being taken away. He could no longer work as a FedEx driver because he was going blind. That's when he found Lighthouse Works in Orlando, a company that creates jobs for the visually impaired and blind. The company provides a fully accessible workplace, where the visually impaired provide services like call center contract work and supply chain management. "It gives me a purpose," Echevarria said. "It makes me feel better because I can actually be proud of myself, saying, 'I provide for my family.'" CBS News has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.