Aug 22, 2023

The Hawaii wildfires.

The Hawaii wildfires.
US President Joe Biden visits an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Plus, another reader question about Social Security.

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: 11 minutes.

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We're breaking down the wildfires in Hawaii. Plus, another reader question about Social Security.

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Correction & typo.

There were two relatively small errors in yesterday's newsletter. First, we noted in a round-up of news last week that mortgage rates were the highest they had been since 2022. Obviously, that wouldn't be very newsy, and it should have been 2002. Second, in our numbers section, we accidentally swapped the explanation in our last bullet. It initially read like this:

  • 20. Based on those numbers, the drop in percentage points in the belief among Republicans that there is solid evidence to support the notion that the election was stolen from January 2021 (52% of 63% is 53%) to March 2023 (75% of 71% is 33%)."

We swapped those summary numbers. 52% of 63% is 33%, while 75% of 71% is 53%. I'm not sure where in the copy and pasting we messed that up, but we apologize for the error (and I was impressed how many people caught it!).

That was a not-so-nice welcome back from vacation, and we'll tally these two slip-ups as one full correction.

This is our 89th correction in Tangle's 213-week history and our first since July 31st. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. Former President Trump's bail was set at $200,000 in the Georgia case over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump said he will voluntarily surrender to authorities in Georgia on Thursday. (The bail)
  2. The Biden administration expanded Temporary Protected Status for Ukrainians already in the U.S., allowing over 180,000 to live and work here legally until April of 2025. (The extension)
  3. The FDA approved an RSV vaccine administered during pregnancy to protect newborn babies from the virus. (The approval)
  4. U.S. officials announced an additional $667 million in funding to expand rural broadband access in the U.S., with Alaska receiving just under $100 million of the new funds. (The funding)
  5. Firearm deaths among children in the U.S. rose 41.5% from 2018 to 2021, according to a new study. (The study)

Today's topic.

The Hawaii fires. On August 8, a series of deadly wildfires erupted on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The death toll has reached 114, with 850 people still missing and 85% of impacted areas in Maui searched.

The historic town of Lahaina has been completely destroyed, though several other areas of the island were also impacted. The fires are now the deadliest natural disaster in state history and the deadliest wildfires in modern U.S. history, surpassing 2018's Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which killed 85 people. An estimated $6 billion of damages has been done, with 3,000 homes and businesses destroyed or damaged.

The initial cause of the fire is still being investigated, and officials are looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric, the state's primary power company, played a part. Security footage from the Maui Bird Conservation Center showed a flash in the woods around 10:47 p.m. on August 7, which some believe was a tree falling on a power line during strong winds. "I think that is when a tree is falling on a power line," Jennifer Pribble, a research coordinator at the organization, said on Instagram. "The power goes out, our generator kicks in, the camera comes back online, and then the forest is on fire."

Before the fires broke out, much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning for fires due to high winds caused by Hurricane Dora, which was crossing the Pacific hundreds of miles south of Hawaii. Once the blaze began, it was fueled by a mix of dry land and atmospheric conditions that created so-called "fire weather." 

Some, like Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D), said the intensity of the fire was due to a combination of global warming, drought, and wind from a superstorm off the coast that contributed to the fires. Some news reports have also suggested that the material of the roofs of many homes in Maui being predominantly tar shingles and wood may have made them more flammable. Dry brush around homes was also identified as a major issue.

The government response to the fires has also been a source of controversy. President Biden, who visited Lahaina on Monday, was criticized for passing on a chance to comment about the fires. Kaleo Manuel, a state official in Hawaii, was blamed for not releasing water reserved for farmers to help fight the fires, while Maui's emergency chief — who has since resigned — was criticized for not activating a siren network to warn residents that the fires were spreading. Hawaiian Electric, which supplies 95% of the state's power, is now facing a class-action suit for keeping their power lines energized during high fire danger conditions.

Today, we're going to take a look at some commentary from the left and right about the fires, then my take.


Agreed.

  • Many commentators on both the left and right agree that Hawaii officials should have notified residents about the fires sooner and been more organized in their response.
  • Pundits also point to Maui’s infrastructure as a significant contributor to the severity of the fires.
  • Commentators on both sides also acknowledge the increased risk caused by the weather and brush, though they differ on the impact climate change had on that risk.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left call out inadequate response from the government and climate change as the main causes behind the fire.
  • Some argue that fossil fuel companies will once again avoid incurring any costs for problems they are causing.
  • Others suggest that the local government knew about the increased risk but didn’t make proper changes to mitigate it.

In The New York Times, Dr. Costas Synolakis and George Karagiannis asked why Hawaii didn't use its sophisticated tsunami warning system to alert residents.

Independent investigations will tell us if this fire was preventable, "but there is no question that had there been better planning and a timely warning, lives could have been spared." The warning system with sirens "was never fully activated" because the administrator of the emergency system feared "sending people toward the flames, and said that looking back, his agency wouldn’t do anything differently... We do not agree. If the agency doesn’t do things differently in a similar disaster in the future, the outcome will be just as ghastly."

"So far, it appears that the Maui wildfire quickly got out of control in part because of a combination of high winds, dry vegetation and firefighting resources spread thin across several simultaneous blazes," they wrote. "Maui officials said text alerts were sent out, but it's unclear how many people received them." In Mati, Greece in 2018, a similar fire in similar conditions killed 104 people after there was no warning. "With an alert system, those lives might not have been lost. It was another tragedy that could have been prevented."

In the Los Angeles Times, Caroline Levine said some of the people responsible "won't pay a cent."

Rebuilding Maui and cleaning up the toxic remnants could cost $5.5 billion. "Who will pay for this? Most of us will, to varying degrees, but some of those most responsible — the fossil fuel companies that play a key role in such climate-related disasters — won’t," Levine wrote. "Extreme weather events always take their highest economic toll on the communities directly hit. Maui’s families, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, have suddenly lost both jobs and homes. They’ll now struggle to meet their most basic needs." Taxpayers will cover emergency shelter, insurance companies will cover much of the property damage, and Hawaii electric already faces a lawsuit.

"The fossil fuel companies, however, won’t be paying a cent. That’s despite the fact that their products created the climate conditions that made such fires more likely and more catastrophic. Less rain, higher temperatures and other factors related to climate change have made Hawaii, like California, more vulnerable to wildfires," Levine said. "As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have shown, major oil, gas and coal companies foresaw the catastrophic climatic consequences of fossil fuel use. But instead of leading an energy transition, they opted to sow public doubt about the link between fossil fuels and global warming and continued to invest in new mines and oilfields."

In Counterpunch, Bill Wolfe said opposition to government regulation and funding contributed to the fires.

"Hawaiian and federal government officials were fully aware of wildfire risks and the fact that current wildfire prevention and response programs were totally inadequate to protect public safety from increasingly frequent and severe wildfires. Those same officials were fully aware of the science and management approach required to prevent wildfires and reduce wildfire risks," Wolfe wrote. But "officials consciously chose not to act due to political opposition to government regulatory mandates and funding.

"Of course, you will not read much about these underlying and deeply negligent causes in corporate media.” Specifically, a July 2021 report shows officials acknowledging increased fire threats but rejecting any new regulations or revenues. "This insanely irresponsible recommendation directly contradicted a major finding of the Report that prevention efforts were ignored." The report states plainly that the department "fails to address fire prevention as a mission or goal, a significant oversight," yet nothing was done to address this oversight. 


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right downplay the role of climate change, instead pointing to the specifics of Hawaii’s grasslands and the government’s focus on renewable energy.
  • Some argue Hawaii officials mismanaged the response.
  • Others blame focusing on green energy rather than funding existing power lines and electric grid safety measures. 

In Townhall, William D. Balgord said climate change "is not" one of the reasons for the deadly Maui fires.

Maui's agriculture sector "gave way to (non-native) population growth, real-estate development and the tourism industry," Balgord wrote. "The former fields of Maui converted to home development, close by the shore, with much of the once-cultivated upland slopes transitioned to open grassy fields. The abandoned native grassland subsequently became colonized by invasive, annual grasses (particularly guinea-grass of African origins). The [invasive] grass grows prolifically during Hawaii’s wet winter and spring seasons, then typically it dies off by mid-summer and autumn, leaving head-high tinder standing in copious amounts with high fire potential."

The national media are again trying to blame climate change.  “The reasoning goes as follows: a warmer climate (warmer than average seasonal temperatures) leads to a drier climate, that in turn contributes to prolonged drought that generates more numerous and severe wildfires," Balgord wrote. "But the underlying premise is false. A warmer global temperature would necessarily cause more evaporation of ocean surface water, leading to a wetter atmosphere thus generating more precipitation that should tend to restrict episodes of drought." Instead the "lush spring growth of the grasslands had died and dried out enough to form abundant tinder, ready to ignite into the wind-driven firestorms that happened on August 8-12."

In the Daily Caller, Kristen Walker argued that Americans deserve to know “what really caused the Maui wildfires.”

Democratic leaders “began spouting climate change rhetoric” before the fires had even run their course with a unified message that climate change was to blame. “Missing from most of these claims are facts based on reality,” Walker said. “And reality says there is so much more to the story.” Maui was at “great risk” of wildfires because of its “vast areas of unmanaged, nonnative grasslands from decades of declining agriculture” combined with the island’s ongoing severe drought. Further, wildfires have “quadrupled in Hawaii in recent decades, and Hawaii is considered very fire-prone.”

“Instead of pointing the finger at climate change, we ought to look at the real threat on the ground: a poorly-managed, out-of-control landscape,” Walker added. “Citizens would be better served by mitigating against potential damage from wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. In fact, according to FEMA, mitigation has a payback of six to seven dollars saved for every dollar invested.” We “need not let history repeat itself” in Maui by focusing on climate change over improving fire resilience and land management practices. 

In the New York Post, Betsy McCaughey said the wildfires are “proof that carbon zealotry can kill.”

While the media and Democrats point to climate change as the cause of the fires, “the evidence is piling up that the opposite is true,” McCaughey said. “Zero carbon extremism diverted the island’s main electrical producer, Hawaiian Electric, from insulating wires, clearing areas around vulnerable transmission sites and taking other precautions to prevent wildfires it knew were likely to occur.” It’s the same story that has played out in Texas, Colorado, and California, where “wildfires ignited by inadequately maintained electrical transmission systems — uninsulated wires, flimsy poles, out-of-control plant growth” have also caused devastation. 

“Hawaiian Electric’s priorities — in hindsight, lethal priorities — reflected the overwhelmingly Democratic, woke political culture of the state,” she added. These kinds of events will continue to happen, too, as long as they continue “pursuing zero carbon by sacrificing safety and the production of a reliable electricity supply.” Across the U.S., “leftist politicians are pushing for net-zero on a reckless timetable that sacrifices the safety of ordinary people. Wildfires are among the worst side effects.”


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.

  • This is a horrific tragedy, and I'm sending my thoughts to the people (including our readers) in Hawaii who are impacted.
  • Nearly every argument I read about what worsened these fires resonates with me.
  • That being said, climate change is probably the least relevant to this specific fire.

There are some days when my job is easy, because I get to sit back and agree with everyone. There are also days when my job is hard, because covering something like this is just so tragic it's tough to pull yourself out of the funk.

Today is both of those days.

For starters, playing the blame game and politics in the midst of a tragedy like this is always difficult for me. The images from Maui are so hard to process, and imagining even for a moment something like this happening in your own neighborhood is enough to break your heart. Like Alaska, I think there are times Hawaii feels to us in the continental U.S. like some kind of "auxiliary" state that is far away and out of mind — unless we're planning a vacation. But I'm thinking of and praying for all the Hawaiians, including many readers of Tangle, who are living through this horror right now.

While it is tough to bring logic and pragmatism into a devastating tragedy like this one, it's also my job. And that's where I have to concede that just about everything I've read on this topic — and who or what is at fault — has resonated with me.

Bill Wolfe's piece (under "what the left is saying") is a convincing condemnation of government mismanagement, showing Hawaii officials knew of the very kind of wildfire threats we saw come to fruition but opted not to fund appropriate prevention methods. The real-time response, of course, was also inadequate. Yes, alarms should have been sounded — and alerts about road closures and fire spreading could have gone out much earlier. It is dumbfounding that the systems Hawaii had in place for other emergencies weren't used for this one. The way Maui was built and the construction of homes also almost certainly worsened the blaze.

Similarly, I thought William Balgord's piece (under "What the right is saying") was also very compelling. The changes in Maui's landscape and the proliferation of invasive grass that dries out in months like August is obviously going to play a huge role in a fire like this. He did contradict himself in one moment, though, when he dismissed climate change effects by noting that warmer temperatures would cause more ocean evaporation which would cause better growth conditions during the wet season. Then, a few sentences later, he attributed the "lush growth of grasslands" drying out as the reason for the fire, without addressing that those same warmer temperatures may have caused that lush growth in the first place.

Some other arguments from the right about a lack of fire mitigation are also apt, and at this point it's hard to understand why poorly managed, dry landscapes aren't the main focus of every government agency responsible for wildfire prevention and response. At the same time, claims that "zero-carbon extremism" led to Hawaiian Electric focusing on the wrong things are less convincing, but still plausible — it's just hard to parse exactly why a company like that did such a poor job shoring up its electric lines. Corporate greed, I’m sure, is just as relevant as any green initiative.

The most divisive debate in all this is over how much to blame climate change. ABC News did a controversial write-up about that, which I thought was stellar. Here is a piece from it:

Not only do “fire hurricanes” not exist, but climate change can’t be blamed for the number of people who died in the wildfires.

Globally, climate change “nudged” the conditions that contribute to making wildfires more severe, but it is unclear how much of a role that played in the Maui fire event, Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told ABC News.

Moreover, wildfires have the “lowest confidence” among natural disasters that researchers attribute to climate change, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This doesn't mean wildfires have nothing to do with climate change. Climate change, for instance, does appear to be a driving factor behind the devastation we are seeing in Canada. It doesn't take a climatologist to understand that, in some places, more warm weather leads to more drought which leads to more dry land which makes it easier for fires to spread. Throw in high wind storms that knock down power lines and push flames around so rapidly, and connecting the dots is easy. But this specific fire was probably intensified much more by other factors, such as how Maui was built, how officials prepared (or didn’t) for wildfires, and how they responded in real time as these fires spread.

That is no reason not to discuss climate change here. When you zoom out broadly, the number of bizarre and scary weather events we're seeing — not just unusually bad wildfires but droughts, floods, strong hurricanes, tropical storms in California, and so on — should get our attention about the regional environmental effects of climate change. But that’s the wide view. With a narrow focus, climate change doesn’t appear to be the driving factor of this wildfire, and it’s irresponsible of many in the media to try to tie it to every single natural disaster. For now, the impact of one invasive species of grass in Maui seems to be the primary cause of this devastation.

If you are in Hawaii, please feel free to write in and let us know how you are doing and what you are experiencing.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Since there is a cap on the amount of tax each person contributes to Social Security, ($160,200 for 2023), anyone who makes over that amount stops paying into the program when they "reach the cap". A greater percentage of workers make more than the cap every year. So each year lower wage workers continue to pay into SS, while higher wage earners do not. Why is lifting the cap not being considered?

—Pat from Strongsville, Ohio

Tangle: For readers catching up, before our break last week I answered a question about Social Security, and I ended it by saying, "We simply need to either curtail the payments going out or increase the taxes going in to fund the program." So, in that vein, this is a suggestion of how to better fund the program. 

And for the readers who are unfamiliar, this cap is called the "taxable maximum," and it is set at $160,200 (up from $147,000 in 2022). This number is calculated from the "average wage index" in a pretty complicated way that involves this year's current average wage, the average wage in 1994, and the average from two years ago (2021). People making over that amount still pay into social security, but every dollar over the taxable maximum is not taxed by the SSA. 6.2% of every dollar under that amount is paid by employees into social security, while a matching 6.2% is paid by employers.

So, why is no one suggesting we adjust the formula to raise (or eliminate) that limit? The basic answer: People are suggesting that. A lot of them. 

Here is the Bipartisan Policy Center's suggestion to increase the cap. Here are the Congressional Budget Office's suggestions. Here is the Peterson Foundation's suggestion. Here is the Economic Policy Institute's. They all differ slightly, but they all recognize the same root cause: Wages have grown faster for top earners than for the rest of the country.

Ok, so lobbyists and think tanks are talking about it, but is anyone introducing legislation to make any of those proposed changes? Yep! Here's a bill Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced in the Senate, and here's one Linda Sánchez (D-CA) introduced in the House. Think those bills are good solutions? Think they're bad solutions? Want to see them debated? I don't have my mind made up, but I'm always open to good arguments!

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.

There are tens of thousands of teacher vacancies in the U.S. and 160,000 jobs filled by under-qualified teachers, according to new research from Kansas State University's College of Education. Shortages are worst in the South and Southwest, where districts are trying new approaches to bring in talent. In St. Paul, Minnesota, public schools are offering $10,000 bonuses. In Midland, Texas, districts are working with local colleges to "grow" their own teachers, offering paid residencies and apprenticeships. Other districts are focusing on keeping who they have, offering massive payouts to teachers considering retirement in order for them to stay on. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 1918. The last time there was a wildfire as deadly as the one in Maui, when northern Minnesota's Cloquet Fire killed 453 people.
  • 1,152. The number of people killed in the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire in 1871.
  • 850. The estimated number of people still missing in Maui.
  • 165,000. The population of Maui County.
  • 2,170. The number of acres that burned in the fire.
  • $8.6 million. The amount of money the Biden administration has committed to helping individual families with immediate needs in Hawaii. 
  • 45. The number of consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees in Austin, TX.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered the changes at the CDC.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was once again what happens if you don't put your phone in airplane mode.
  • Will he or won't he: 736 Tangle readers answered our poll asking what the most likely result of Trump's new indictment would be, if decided before 2024. 37% predicted Trump will be found guilty but still be able to run for president, while 23% said he'll take a plea deal and run for president, 17% said he'll be found guilty and won't be able to run, 15% said he'll take a plea and won't be able to run, 5% said he'll beat the charges in court, while 3% said the charges will be thrown out. "I don't think this will get done before the election," one respondent said, echoing the sentiments of many others.
  • Nothing to do with politics: A penguin got promoted from Brigadier General to Major General in the Norwegian Army. 
  • Take the poll. What do you think caused the wildfires on Maui? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Brian Dooley is a college football player at Eastern Michigan University, where he noticed his teammate was struggling financially.  "Zack Conti has had to pay his way to school for four years. And in the fall, the guy was selling his plasma to be able to pay the bills," Head Coach Chris Creighton told the team during a meeting on August 3. Unfortunately, Creighton explained to the players, there were no more scholarships to offer. "Until Brian Dooley comes into my office," Creighton said. "And he says, 'Coach, that guy has earned it. And I've talked this over with my family. And if there's a way to make this happen, I am willing to give up my scholarship as a gift to Zack Conti.'" After the now-viral moment when Creighton presented Conti with the scholarship, Conti said he was "so honored and so thankful." USA Today has the story.


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