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Bad News: Britain's Army Keeps Shrinking

The National Interest - Thu, 13/05/2021 - 01:00

Peter Suciu

British Army, Europe

The British Army has never been the largest in the world, but its numbers are vastly smaller than those of its European partners.

Here's What You Need to Know: Britain's Army continues to scale back.

(This article first appeared in November 2020.)

During the First World War, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhem II was famously dismissive of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the opening stages of the conflict, and he allegedly issued orders to attack and destroy that “contemptible little army.” While it is debatable whether he ever issued such an order, those British troops of the regular army took his threat as a source of pride and dubbed themselves “The Old Contemptibles.”

Now some one hundred and six years later the British Army may not be so contemptible, but it could certainly be smaller if not entirely “little.” Cuts proposed by the Ministry of the Treasury could effectively reduce the number of soldiers by 10,000—making it smaller than Germany’s current standing army, which has some 62,000 soldiers in its ranks

Such cutbacks could actually help address recruiting shortfalls. At the current time, the British Army has about 74,000 troops—8,000 below its target of 82,000. That number is likely to fall to the low 60,000s, should recruitment efforts be halted as about 10,000 or so soldiers retire annually.

The British Army has never been the largest in the world, but its numbers are vastly smaller than those of its European partners. By comparison Spain currently fields some 70,000 soldiers while France has more than 115,000 in its ranks, the Express newspaper reported.

This move to downsize the British Army has been questioned by some in the nation’s government, including Tobias Ellwood, chairman of Parliament’s influential Defence Committee.

“If the MoD is being told simply to reduce troop numbers—before we’ve even confirmed what they are supposed to do—then the Review is back to front,” Ellwood told the Express. “It’s clear our Armed Forces are already over-stretched meeting current commitments. With threats over the next decade expected to increase and diversify now is not the time to let our guard down.”

A Smaller Fighting Force

As the British Treasury is on quite cost cutting crusade, to help save on spending, the British Ministry of Defense has not just announced plans to freeze recruitment, but also to close military bases and mostly notably even cut back on orders of fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

While the UK had agreed to buy forty-eight of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters—the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jet, which is designed for use on aircraft carriers—it may only buy half its initial target of 138 of the stealth aircraft. The 138 figure was confirmed as an ambition in the UK defense review in 2015; however the British military was not contractually obliged to buy more than forty-eight of the aircraft. Instead, Britain could buy only half of its initial target goal of F-35B fighters and acquire around seventy of the stealth aircraft, which would enable it to have sixty in service and keep an additional ten as back-ups in case of damage or malfunction.

Moreover, it isn’t just fewer aircraft that the UK may have in its arsenal.

Earlier this fall it was reported that the British military could scale back the number of tanks it operates—to around 148 tanks, which would reduce the British Army to just two tank regiments including the Royal Lancers and Royal Tank Regiment.

However, the British military has considered ways technology could be used to address the shortage of recruits while also remaining a viable fighting force. This could include the use of robots to fill the ranks and work alongside humans in and around the frontline of a modern battlefield. Mechanical soldiers marching to the front would no doubt be something the Kaiser would have considered quite contemptible.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

This article first appeared in November 2020.

Image: Reuters

Meet Russia’s "Terminator" Armored Fighting Vehicle

The National Interest - Thu, 13/05/2021 - 00:45

Peter Suciu

BMPT, Eurasia

First introduced more than twenty years ago the platform has never been fully embraced by the Russian Military, but it has gone through a number of upgrades.

Here's What You Need to Know: The vehicle proved its effectiveness during recent Russian combat operations in Syria.

(This article first appeared in December 2020.)

The Russian Federation’s BMPT (Tank Support Fighting Vehicle), known as the “Terminator,” has traveled back in time to ensure the future for the machines—but the vehicle has come back from “financial neglect.” First introduced more than twenty years ago the platform has never been fully embraced by the Russian Military, but it has gone through a number of upgrades.

The tracked armored fighting vehicle (AFVs) was developed and manufactured by the Russian-based defense contractor Uralvagonzavod; its primary role is to support tanks and other AFVs in urban areas. It was designed based on combat lessons gained during the Soviet-Afghan War and later the First Chechen War.

The Terminator moniker is unofficial, but it fits given its guardian/hunter role in urban environments, where it can provide fire support for the armor in an offensive, including the task of fighting enemy personnel armed with man-portable anti-tank weapon systems.

Heavily armed and armored for combat in close tight streets the original platform was built on the chassis of a T-72 main battle tank (MBT), and it was armed with four 9M120 Ataka missile launchers, two 30 mm 2A42 autocannons, two AG-17D grenade launchers and a single coaxial 7.62 mm PKTM machine gun. The anti-tank missile system can reach targets of up to six kilometers, while the Terminator is speedy for its size, and can reach speeds of up to 60 kpm. It is operated by a crew of five.

Despite its potential, in 2010 the Defense Ministry abandoned plans to financially support the platform’s development.

Terminator – Return of the Russian AFVs

This month, DefenseNews reported that the Russian military has received the latest batch of the support vehicles for testing after the Terminator had been previously neglected. It reportedly proved its effectiveness during recent Russian combat operations in Syria and the Russian Defense Ministry gave the platform another look.

Russian state television showed the latest version of the vehicles, which are reportedly based on the T-90 chassis, in service with the 90th Tank Division while deployed in the Chelyabinsk region of the Urals.

“The uniqueness of this car is its ability to follow three targets at once with all of its weaponry systems,” Col. Andrey Sigarev, the deputy commander of the tank division, told Channel One television.

Military experts were reported to suggest that a single Terminator could replace a motorized rifle platoon of forty soldiers and six armored vehicles. Whether that is pure bolster isn’t clear, but Russia’s military has only received eight of the updated vehicles, and those will be tested during military exercises.

It has already been described as a “universal soldier” and the Terminator AFV can fight independently against insurgent forces armed with weapons ranging from small arms to grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles, and hold its own against tank platoons equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Austrian accent not included.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

This article first appeared in December 2020.

Image: Reuters

Not Your Stimulus Check: Here’s When You Should Return It

The National Interest - Thu, 13/05/2021 - 00:43

Ethen Kim Lieser

Stimulus Check,

One particular situation that the IRS has taken time to point out is if a deceased person received a payment. In fact, the agency has sent out a notice that spouses or relatives will need to return the stimulus checks to one of its offices.

Amid another hectic tax season, the Internal Revenue Service has been working around the clock to disburse tens of millions of coronavirus stimulus checks to struggling Americans.

But in the effort to fast-track these $1,400 payments under the American Rescue Plan, some of the checks ended up heading into the bank accounts or mailboxes of certain individuals who didn’t necessarily deserve them.

One particular situation that the IRS has taken time to point out is if a deceased person received a payment. In fact, the agency has sent out a notice that spouses or relatives will need to return the stimulus checks to one of its offices.

However, the IRS added that this notice only affects taxpayers who passed away before January 1, 2021. Moreover, the extra $1,400 per dependent is also not to be spent for a parent who died before that date.

If the deceased spouse, though, was part of a joint return, then the surviving individual may keep the cash. Keep in mind that the same holds true if the deceased was a married member of the U.S. military. And if a stimulus payment has both of the husband and wife’s names on it, the surviving spouse may keep the funds but must include a letter requesting a new check be reissued with only his or her name on it.

If one chooses to return the stimulus funds, it is relatively straightforward. Just write “void” in the endorsement section on the back of the check and then mail it via USPS to a local IRS location. Don’t forget that they should also write a brief explanation stating the reason for returning the payment.

If the money was already direct deposited into a bank account, then one can mail off a personal check or money order to an IRS location. Just make it payable to “U.S. Treasury” and write “Third EIP” and a personal taxpayer identification number on the check.

Also, take note that for the expanded child tax credits heading out in July, an overpayment of these funds may force taxpayers to pay up come tax season next year. Understand that these credits are advanced payments that are largely based off the IRS’ estimates on available data, such as overall income, marital status, and number and age of qualifying dependent children.

But if any outdated or inaccurate data are used, they could potentially generate an overpayment of credit—meaning that the impacted individual will be responsible for any difference in the final amount.

The IRS has announced that a portal will eventually be launched for the child tax credit payments so that taxpayers’ information can be added or updated more conveniently.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

More Stimulus Payments? Biden Has Stimulus Plans to Stop the Bleeding

The National Interest - Thu, 13/05/2021 - 00:33

Trevor Filseth

Stimulus Payments,

Biden’s future strategy can be broadly broken down into two plans.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Another interesting opportunity for Biden would be a minimum wage increase, which he supported as a candidate. The difficulty is that not all Democrats support this; notably, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have opposed similar proposals before. To win Congress over, Biden must first win them over.

President Joe Biden’s stimulus packages have not yet passed Congress – and, in their current forms, they are expected to meet significant Republican opposition. However, if most of the language in the bills survives intact, it would indicate a sweeping stimulus program, including significant payments to most working- and middle-class Americans and a large expansion of the welfare state.

Biden’s future strategy can be broadly broken down into two plans. The first, the “American Families Plan”, is a conventional expansion of the welfare state; it offers significant advances in childcare, including free pre-K, increased ability to write off childcare-related expenses on one’s taxes, and, perhaps most significantly, an expansion of the Child Tax Credit to around $3000 per child per year – effectively amounting to another stimulus check for middle-class parents.

Taken together, these two plans will cost approximately $3 trillion. Of that, at least $1 trillion will go directly to families, in the form of tax credits and other incentives designed to make their lives easier. The other $2 trillion, contained within the American Jobs Plan, is focused on COVID-19 economic recovery, enabling businesses to resume work faster amid the fallout from the pandemic.

It should be noted that neither of these two plans has been formally introduced to Congress yet. Given Congress’ tendency towards negotiations, and Senate Republicans’ broad opposition to Biden’s agenda, it remains unclear how much of it Biden will be able to pass by the end of the year. Still, the agenda appears to be popular with Americans, suggesting that political pressure could help to get some of it through the Senate.

If it can be supposed that Biden’s plans – whether mostly intact or in some slightly different form – are approved by Congress and signed into law, what would he do next?

One significant area of opportunity is in canceling student debt. Canceling debt, long a cause celebre on the American left, would do much to gain Biden goodwill with progressives and shore up his support within his own party. It is also an idea that Biden has proposed before; his suggestion has been to cancel $10,000 from all student loan debts.

However, it is unclear if the President has the legal authority to unilaterally cancel debt. If he put it to a vote through Congress, it seems likely that another partisan debacle would unfold.

Another interesting opportunity for Biden would be a minimum wage increase, which he supported as a candidate. The difficulty is that not all Democrats support this; notably, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have opposed similar proposals before. To win Congress over, Biden must first win them over.

Finally, there remains the possibility that Biden will send a fourth stimulus check – although, as noted elsewhere, the political hackles surrounding such a proposal would be extremely difficult to overcome.

Trevor Filseth is a news reporter and writer for the National Interest. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

China's Military Is Having More Than Just a Growth Spurt

The National Interest - Thu, 13/05/2021 - 00:00

Michael Peck

Chinese Military, Asia

The People's Liberation Army is embracing all those capabilities that make an army more deadly than mere numbers suggest.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Chinese military power is changing shape and expanding beyond its Western Pacific backyard.

Western media seized on a new Pentagon report that Chinese bombers are training to strike deep into the Western Pacific, including Guam, the Philippines and Japan.

But China's military is improving in numerous other ways, according to "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2018," a report that the Pentagon is required to deliver to Congress each year.

For example:

China's army is becoming more flexible: 

Forget the Cold War stereotype of Chinese human waves. The world's largest army is moving from a clumsy big-unit doctrine of corps-sized operations to a more Western (and now Russian) model of maneuver by brigades and battalions waging combined arms warfare. "Each group army now consists of multiple combined arms brigades, an artillery brigade, an air defense brigade, a SOF [special operations forces] brigade, an army aviation brigade, an engineer and chemical defense brigade, and a service support brigade," the report notes. "The subordinate service support brigades provide group armies an integrated ability to set up a command network and organize battlefield transportation and equipment repair for their tactical units."

China's army is using high-tech force multipliers:

The People's Liberation Army is embracing all those capabilities that make an army more deadly than mere numbers suggest. 2017 "saw increases and improvements in air defense, artillery, sustainment support, engineers, and chemical defense systems at all echelon levels. This selective modernization enables the shift to the brigade and battalion as the main operational echelons by giving their commanders critical organic force protection, firepower strike, reconnaissance, and sustainment capabilities."

China's military is becoming a joint force:

While the U.S. military is accustomed to joint land-air-sea operations, China's military has traditionally been centered on the army, with the air force and navy as supporting players. But China is revamping its armed force into a joint force capable of combined operations. Joint exercises have become more common, and new communications networks facilitate inter-service cooperation.

China is worried about U.S. missile defense:

China is developing multiple countermeasures to enable its ballistic missiles to penetrate the missile defense of the U.S. and its allies. These include maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) warheads, multiple nuclear warheads (MIRV), "decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and hypersonic glide vehicles," according to the Pentagon report. China's government also wants to make sure that it has control over its nuclear weapons: "the PLA will likely continue deploying more sophisticated C2 systems and refining C2 processes as growing numbers of mobile ICBMs and future SSBN [ballistic missile submarines] deterrence patrols require the PLA to safeguard the integrity of nuclear release authority for a larger, more dispersed force."

China is developing a deadly drone force:

"In 2017, Chinese defense industry representatives claimed to be developing long-range stealthy and near-space UAVs, and the PLA may soon begin receiving the long-range, high-altitude Xianglong UAV," the Pentagon said.

Taiwan is in trouble: 

"Taiwan’s military spending remains at approximately 2 percent of its GDP," the report noted. "Taiwan’s President Tsai recently pledged to increase the island’s defense budget at a pace at least equal to overall economic growth, not including an additional special fund reserved for major defense procurements. Meanwhile, China’s official defense budget has grown to roughly 15 times that of Taiwan, with much of it focused on developing the capability to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force."

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Recommended: Would China Really Invade Taiwan?

China's military is going global: 

Chinese military power is expanding beyond its Western Pacific backyard. "In August 2017, China officially opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, deploying a company of marines and equipment to the base," said the Pentagon report. "China likely will seek to establish additional military logistics facilities in countries with which it has longstanding, friendly relationships."

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared in 2018.

Image: Reuters.

Taxes and Unemployment Benefits This Year: What You Need to Know

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 23:17

Peter Suciu

Politics,

Those people who were on unemployment benefits in 2020 could see a tax refund instead of owing money.

If a person has ever received unemployment benefits in the past after being laid off from a job, then they likely know that the money was typically just a percentage of their take-home pay and not always enough to make ends meet. Also, they may have gotten an unpleasant surprise when you discovered that not enough taxes were withheld.

The coronavirus changed unemployment and some would argue for the better while some would say for the worse. Unemployment benefits were meant to be a lifeline to help individuals receive a steady but small influx of cash while actively looking for work.

An estimated forty million Americans collected a combined $580 billion in unemployment insurance benefits last year, according to an April report from The Century Foundation. That included people who were laid off as well as so-called “gig workers,” contractors and self-employed individuals who don’t normally qualify for unemployment insurance.

Those people who were on unemployment benefits in 2020 could see a tax refund instead of owing money.

It was reported just this week that 7.3 million who received unemployment checks during the coronavirus pandemic could get refunds due to the $10,200 tax break that came about as part of the American Rescue Plan Act from March. Essentially it means that unemployment paid out last year does not count as earned income for the year, and individuals couldn’t be taxed on it, while married couples filing jointing were eligible for up to a $20,400 exclusion.

For those people who haven’t yet filed their taxes yet, that essentially means they don’t have to pay taxes on unemployment benefits up to that amount.

“If your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $150,000, the American Rescue Plan enacted on March 11, 2021, excludes from income up to $10,200 of unemployment compensation paid in 2020, which means you don’t have to pay tax on unemployment compensation of up to $10,200. If you are married, each spouse receiving unemployment compensation doesn’t have to pay tax on unemployment compensation of up to $10,200. Amounts over $10,200 for each individual are still taxable,” the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) explained on its website.

“This new clarification from the IRS is good news for the millions of taxpayers impacted, but may still be confusing,” Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt told Cnet.com. “Some taxpayers may have questions as to the timing of any payment and whether it will come in a check or other form.”

As many Americans have already filed their taxes prior to the American Rescue Plan being signed into law by President Joe Biden, the IRS announced that it would refund the overpaid taxes. If the IRS determines the taxpayer is owed a refund, then it will send a check automatically.

The refunds have begun to be sent out and will continue through the summer.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters

Why a Tesla Driver Arrested for Backseat Driving. Really.

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 22:57

Stephen Silver

Tesla, Americas

Believe it or not, this is not the first time this has happened with a Tesla.

Nobody likes a backseat driver. New technology, however, has actually made it possible to literally drive from the back seat. But that doesn’t mean that doing so is safe, advisable, or legal. 

A twenty-five-year-old California man was arrested for reckless driving on May 10 because he had been driving his Tesla from the back seat, likely using Tesla’s autopilot feature, according to the Associated Press, which cited a Facebook post by the California Highway Patrol.

“On May 10 at approximately 6:34 p.m., the CHP’s Golden Gate Division Communications Center received multiple 9-1-1 calls regarding an individual seated in the backseat of a Tesla Model 3 without anyone seated in the driver’s seat,” the Facebook post said. “The vehicle was reported to be traveling eastbound on I-80 across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toward the city of Oakland.” 

A CHP officer followed the car and saw the driver move from the back seat to the front. The man was arrested on two counts of reckless driving and disobeying a Peace Officer.

Tesla has only offered a “limited number of owners” to test out the self-driving feature and it’s not clear if the man arrested was one of them, according to the Associated Press.

Believe it or not, this is not the first time this has happened with a Tesla. In 2015, per Business Insider, a video surfaced on YouTube of a driver “[sitting] in the backseat while filming the Autopilot feature doing all of the work.” The video, which was filmed on a highway in The Netherlands, surfaced just weeks after the Autopilot feature was first introduced; the video is no longer available on YouTube. 

“There’s been some fairly crazy videos on YouTube . . . this is not good,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the time, per the report. “And we will be putting some additional constraints on when Autopilot can be activated to minimize the possibility of people doing crazy things with it.”

But five years later, in September of 2020, a Tesla owner in Canada was arrested for driving ninety miles per hour, while asleep.

The man’s 2019 Tesla Model S “appeared to be self-driving,” per the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “traveling over 140 km/h, with both front seats completely reclined and both occupants appearing to be asleep.” The car even accelerated while police were chasing it, according to The Verge.

“Although manufacturers of new vehicles have built-in safeguards to prevent drivers from taking advantage of the new safety systems in vehicles, those systems are just that—supplemental safety systems,” Superintendent Gary Graham of Alberta RCMP Traffic Services said in a statement. “They are not self-driving systems, they still come with the responsibility of driving.”

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for the National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Image: Reuters

Can't Find Gas? What Joe Biden is Doing about the Pipeline Crisis.

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 22:43

Stephen Silver

Colonial Pipeline,

"I think you're going to hear some good news in the next 24 hours,” Biden said Wednesday afternoon, of the pipeline issue. “I think we’ll be getting back on under control.”

Last Friday, the Colonial Pipeline, one of the most important in the country, suffered a ransomware cyberattack, which caused the pipeline itself to shut down. This has caused shortages, higher prices, and even closed gas stations in some parts of the Southeastern United States. The Russian ransomware group known as Darkside has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the FBI agrees that they are responsible.

What is the Biden Administration doing to deal with the crisis?

"I think you're going to hear some good news in the next 24 hours,” Biden said Wednesday afternoon, of the pipeline issue. “I think we’ll be getting back on under control.” He added that he has been in close contact with the owners of the Colonial Pipeline, and that “I think we have to make a greater investment in education as it relates to being able to train and graduate more people proficient in cybersecurity.”

The president had earlier in the day announced a new lifting of restrictions on the transportation of fuel.

Biden had addressed the issue in a briefing earlier this week, which was ostensibly about discussing economic policy.

“I’d like to start by saying a few words about the ransomware cyberattack currently impacting Colonial Pipeline.  This is something that my administration — our administration have been tracking extremely carefully.  And I have been perfectly — personally briefed every day,” the president said, per a White House transcript.

“The Department of Energy is working directly with Colonial to get the pipelines back online and operating at full capacity as quickly and safely as possible. The FBI also is engaged to assess the — and address this attack.  The agencies across the government have attacked [quickly] — quickly to mitigate any impact on our fuel supply.”

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Tuesday alleged on his show that the Biden Administration “approves of” the pipeline shutdown, because of the administration’s policies that support a transition to clean energy. However, it’s very clear that the pipeline attack is a major political headache for the administration, which hopes to resolve the crisis as soon as possible.

The Biden Administration has come out in support of transitioning long-term into greener energy, but it has not advocated for immediately shutting down gas stations or fuel pipelines.

The pipeline disaster has helped lead the average price of gasoline over $3 for the first time in seven years. However, GasBuddy predicted that gas prices are unlikely to hit record levels this summer, and are probably mostly a result of rising demand for gasoline as the coronavirus pandemic recedes. One reason why gas prices are so much higher than they were this time last year is because gas prices were at historical lows in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Gasoline Crisis? Panic Triggers Insane Gas Shortages Across U.S. Southeast

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 22:19

Rachel Bucchino

Gas Crisis,

Panic-buying has emptied gas stations and has triggered intense fuel shortages across the Southeast, as the shutdown of the major gasoline and jet fuel pipeline entered its sixth day and prompted several governors to declare states of emergency.

Panic-buying has emptied gas stations and has triggered intense fuel shortages across the Southeast, as the shutdown of the major gasoline and jet fuel pipeline entered its sixth day and prompted several governors to declare states of emergency.

A ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline disabled computer systems that were responsible for fuel production from Texas to the Northeast, and now a number of states are running out of gas supply. In some cases, some drivers can’t even access a gas-pump that has fuel readily available.

About 65 percent of North Carolina’s gas stations have emptied as of Wednesday, and 43 percent of the stations in South Carolina were dry, according to GasBuddy. Georgia and Virginia stations are also experiencing shortages, at 43 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Other states as far as West Virginia and Kentucky are also seeing instances of panic-buying.

Major metropolitan areas have also seen vast gas shortages, including Charlotte, Raleigh and Greenville, as well as in Norfolk and Atlanta, according to Patrick De Haan, GasBuddy’s head oil analyst.

The overall panic has also prompted the price of gas to jump.

“We've already seen higher gas prices,” Tiffany Wright, a spokeswoman for AAA in the Carolinas, said on Tuesday.

“They have gone up as high from anywhere from 3 to 10 cents overnight,” she added.

The governors in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have declared states of emergency as of Wednesday, and have moved to ease gas transportation guidance. For example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) temporarily cut the gas tax in his state, while also suspending any weight restrictions on trucks that would be moving fuel. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued an executive order that indicates that he would call on the National Guard if needed.

But with another crisis brewing—labor shortage—gas stations have bumped into logistical hurdles in getting fuel, as there is a massive scarcity of truck drivers.

The White House said that federal agencies are working to swiftly respond to the fuel disaster, urging drivers to only get gas if they need it. Some consumers, however, are panic-buying and hoarding gas in the event that fuel grows completely depleted.

But the Biden administration confirmed that the pipeline will be operating normally soon.

“Our top priority right now is getting the fuel [to] the communities that need it, and we will continue doing everything that we can to meet that goal in the coming days,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters.

“We're working around the clock with our federal, state, local and industry partners to respond to the Colonial Pipeline cybersecurity incident,” Deputy Energy Secretary Dave Turk said in a video statement on Tuesday.

The Department of Energy said that officials will transport fuel by train or ship if necessary.

Experts noted that pipeline production and operations should return to full capacity by the end of the week. Gas prices, however, may continue to surge as consumers turn to driving during the summer months.

Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.

NATO's Trillion Dollar Budget Can't Buy Enough Firepower to Save The Baltics From Russia

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 22:14

Michael Peck

Nuclear War, Europe

If nuclear weapons won't do it what will?

Here's What You Need To Remember: Russian forces would likely conduct a well-dispersed, fast-moving advance into the Baltic States, which would mean NATO tactical nuclear weapons wouldn’t hit concentrated troop formations, but would instead land on the civilian populations the alliance is supposed to be defending.

Even if NATO resorts to tactical nuclear weapons, it still can’t save the Baltic States from a Russian invasion.

One reason? The Warsaw Pact—the Eastern European satellites of the Soviet empire—can’t be held hostage anymore.

That’s the conclusion of a wargame by the RAND Corporation. In RAND’s view, NATO’s nukes are not a deterrent to Russia because Europe would have far more to lose from a tactical nuclear exchange than Russia.

“The biggest takeaway from the wargame exercise is that NATO lacks escalation dominance, and Russia has the benefit of it,” the study found. “In contemplating war in the Baltic states, once nuclear attacks commence, NATO would have much stronger military incentives to terminate nuclear operations, if not all of its operations, than Russia would.”

Indeed, the NATO players grappled with the utility of using nukes in the first place. “In our wargame exercise, NATO commanders knew that they would be rapidly overwhelmed by the Russian forces and considered early first use of NSNW [non-strategic nuclear weapons] to prevent that outcome,” noted the report. “But, the commanders wondered, what would NATO target?”

Russian forces would likely conduct a well-dispersed, fast-moving advance into the Baltic States, which would mean NATO tactical nuclear weapons wouldn’t hit concentrated troop formations, but would instead land on the civilian populations the alliance is supposed to be defending. Or, they could attack Russian units forming up in Russia, which would risk a strategic nuclear exchange. The NATO players ultimately chose to send a signal to Russia by dropping five tactical nukes on a Russian mobile air defense missile battery just inside the Latvian border.

Unfortunately, the wargame estimated that the most likely Russian response would be a tit-for-tat that dropped tactical nuclear weapons on five NATO airbases. “NATO’s infrastructure is vulnerable, and damage to it caused by even limited numbers of nuclear attacks can substantially degrade NATO’s military capabilities; meanwhile, Russia is able to withstand comparable levels of nuclear strikes against its forces.”

The study focused on whether non-strategic nuclear weapons or NSNW, could deter a Russian attack on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It also illustrated how the strategic picture has changed since the Cold War. Back then, NATO could muster fairly large conventional forces, backed by tactical nuclear weapons and ultimately American strategic nuclear forces. But times have changed. “A NATO and U.S. threat to escalate to general nuclear war over a Russian invasion of the Baltic states has doubtful credibility,” RAND notes.

Ironically, while the breakup of the Warsaw Pact was a victory for NATO, it also makes dealing with today’s Russia more complicated. During the Cold War, if NATO wanted to send a signal to Russia to back off, it could—in theory—drop a nuke on a Warsaw Pact nation without attacking Russian territory and thus triggering a strategic nuclear war. That bargaining chip is gone. “Targets attacked by NATO using non-strategic nuclear weapons would, from the outset of the war, be either in Russia proper or in NATO countries (i.e., the Baltic states),” RAND noted. “During the Cold War, NATO could (if it chose) conduct limited nuclear attacks against lucrative military targets in Warsaw Pact countries other than Russia throughout the conflict.”

Ultimately, NATO will need to muster sufficient conventional forces because tactical nuclear weapons are not a credible deterrent, RAND concluded. “Even if it chose not to escalate to general war or conduct a wider attack on targets throughout Europe, Russia could continue limited attacks on lucrative NATO military targets. The problem, then, is that NATO lacks the conventional forces required to slow or stop the rapid Russian advance. NSNW forces alone cannot substitute for NATO’s lack of those conventional forces.”

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared last year.

Image: Reuters.

How a Fourth Stimulus Check Could Still Happen

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 21:56

Eli Fuhrman

Stimulus Payment,

If a bill calling for a fourth-round of stimulus payments does come to fruition, either as part of the Biden administration’s current proposals or included in a future piece of legislation, it will come as welcome relief for many Americans.

The campaign to distribute the third-round of federal stimulus payments appears to be coming to an end, with the most recent batch of payments distributed by the IRS now meaning that 85 percent of the funds earmarked for use in stimulus payments has been used up. This most recent batch was also the smallest so far, and indicated that the IRS is now focusing on sending payments to those Americans whose stimulus money was dependent on information contained in their 2020 tax returns.

There are currently no definitive plans in place to follow up the third stimulus payments with a further round of payments, even as the current distribution has proven incredibly important for generating an economic revival across the country. The Biden administration is instead focusing its efforts on generating support for its two proposed tax and spending bills which, while not including direct stimulus payments, it argues will support long-term economic revival and growth, and the White House has indicated that any additional payments will be up to Congress. Support for future payments does exist in Congress, with a growing number of Congressional Democrats calling for such a measure, though it would likely not generate sufficient support from Republicans.

If a bill calling for a fourth-round of stimulus payments does come to fruition, either as part of the Biden administration’s current proposals or included in a future piece of legislation, it will come as welcome relief for many Americans. Over two million people have now signed a number of online petitions calling for further rounds of stimulus payments.

If future stimulus payments do come to pass, it will be important that they are designed in such a way that they provide the maximum benefit to Americans who need it the most. While nearly two thirds of respondent to a recent Bankrate survey indicated that their stimulus payments would not support their financial well-being for more than three months, the data further indicated that women, minorities, and low-income workers were particularly likely to respond that they were reliant on stimulus payments.

Other data has indicated that the number of Black-owned and Latinx businesses fell during the pandemic, with unemployment also particularly high among these communities. They were also not able to benefit fully from COVID-relief measures, with fewer eligible Black and Latinx adults receiving their initial stimulus checks because their income levels did not require them to file tax returns. A recovery rebate credit has allowed those who did not claim earlier stimulus money to do so by filing their 2020 tax returns, but the delay in receiving money would still have been a serious problem for many people. 

Future rounds of stimulus payments should also keep in mind that Black and Latinx Americans on average hold larger consumer debt burdens. The third-round of stimulus payments were not protected from garnishments, meaning they could be claimed by debt collectors. Additional payments in the future should include language preventing this from happening.

Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.

1,000,000 Americans Did Not Claim Their 2017 Tax Refund

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 21:23

Peter Suciu

Tax Refund Problems,

U.S. law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity to claim a tax refund.

Here's What You Need to Remember: By failing to file a tax return, the IRS warns that people stand to lose more than just their refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2017.

Currently, the Internal Revenue Service has tax refunds for an estimated 1.3 million taxpayers who did not file a 2017 Form 1040 federal income tax return – worth more than $1.3 billion, or an average of $865 per person. U.S. law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity to claim a tax refund. However, American taxpayers now only have until "Tax Day," May 17, 2021 to file a claim.

After that, the money will become the property of the United States Treasury.

"The IRS wants to help taxpayers who are due refunds but haven't filed their 2017 tax returns yet," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig via a statement. "Time is quickly running out for these taxpayers. There's only a three-year window to claim these refunds, and the window closes on May 17. We want to help people get these refunds, but they will need to quickly file a 2017 tax return."

However, there are a few catches for those who think they're owed some of that money.

The only way to actually know if the IRS is holding a refund is to file a return for the year, and while the agency can estimate the dollar amount of unreported tax returns, it is unable to determine if an individual taxpayer is due a refund until they actually file a tax return.

The IRS reminds any taxpayers seeking a 2017 tax refund that their checks could still be held if they have not filed tax returns for 2018 and/or 2019. Additionally, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS or state agency, while the money could also be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts, including student loans.

For those who plan to file, it is important to have the paperwork in order, and if you're missing a W-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 from 2017, the IRS recommended that you request a copy from your employer and/or bank. Moreover, you can file Form 4506-T to request a free wage and income transcript from the IRS and then use that information on the transcript to file your tax return. To receive an income transcript you'll need to provide your Social Security number (SSN), date of birth, filing status and mailing address from the latest tax return.

By failing to file a tax return, the IRS warns that people stand to lose more than just their refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2017. "Many low- and moderate-income workers may be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)," the IRS noted. "For 2017, the credit was worth as much as $6,318. The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds."

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.comThis article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

Dodging Death: America’s Mission to Find and Destroy Syria’s Chemical Weapons

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 21:21

Doreen Horschig

History, Middle East

Joby Warrick argues in his new book Red Line the international effort to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was unprecedented and a story of multilateral success.

The Syrian regime attacked the town of Ghouta in southwestern Syria with sarin, a nerve agent, that killed hundreds of civilians on August 21, 2013. With that, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad crossed a red line set by President Barack Obama, accelerating an effort to eliminate Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. 

Joby Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, recently discussed this historic undertaking to deprive Assad of the bulk of his nerve agents and production equipment. He joined Press the Button, a podcast from the Ploughshares Fund, to talk about his newest book Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America's Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

In his book, Warrick reflects on America’s mission to find and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and keep them out of the hands of the Islamic State.  

While the United States and others had already been working to respond to the limited use of chemical weapons before that moment, after the large attack in Ghouta, the United States was faced with a choice of whether to pursue military action. Interestingly, a Russian initiative paved the way for a diplomatic resolution instead. In September 2013, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2118 that required Syria to destroy all chemical weapons until mid-2014. Warrick highlights that it was the first time in history that a stockpile was removed in the middle of a war.  

In his book, he reconstructs the history of the Syrian chemical weapons program, as well as key decision points to avoid a catastrophic leakage of deadly nerve agents to Syrian combatants and terrorist groups. Warrick was struck by how close Al Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, or the Islamic State, came to gaining hold of Syria’s chemical weapons and material.  

He further explained how challenging it was to remove the material. Syrian citizens had been risking their lives to bring evidence of the use of chemical agents to the outside world, according to Warrick. Further, “the Pentagon, the people who put together the plan to get the chemicals out and destroy them, they took part in what was for some of them, the most important mission of their lives and it happened in a flash in historical terms,” Warrick said.  

Despite the success to remove some chemical weapons during the war, the Syrian regime preserved a part of its arsenal and conducted several more large-scale attacks, including those in Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 and Douma in April 2018. It has been challenging to find justice. Warrick argued that Assad “wasn't really held accountable. To this day he’s never had to admit to using chemical weapons against his own people. He always denies it. Russia supports them at the UN. Any action that's meaningful is always blocked by Russia.” 

Warrick suggested that more needs to be done. “The evidence is continuing to mount, and one can envision a dayand it might not be this year or next, but somedaywhen Syria will be held accountable in some way before the world court or before the UN,” he said.

This delayed accountability is not new in international conflict. Warrick reminded the listeners of the Balkan conflict in the 1990s where it took twenty years until justice was served. “It’s important not to give up, not to think that, just because time has passed that it's not relevant anymore, but to keep pushing that boulder up the hill to hopefully one day see that Syrian victims have their moment of justice,” he said. 

Despite all the challenges, Warrick succeeded in recapturing the story of the Syrian regime crossing the red line and subsequent international action. Removing thirteen hundred tons of the chemical weapons stockpile and manufacturing equipment is a story of an unprecedented international effort. Albeit imperfect—as Assad’s intentions weren’t changed and he used the chemical agents again—the diplomatic path and consequent removal of some of the weapons showed what multilateral success can look like.  

The entire interview with Joby Warrick is available here on Press the Button.  

Doreen Horschig is the current Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. She received her PhD in security studies from the University of Central Florida and studies nuclear policy, specifically public opinion and counter-proliferation, as well as norms of nuclear and chemical weapons. You can follow her on Twitter @doreen__h. 

How Hard Will Democrats Push for Another Stimulus Payment?

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 20:56

Ethen Kim Lieser

Stimulus Payments,

ongress has already approved the delivery of three stimulus cash payments to most Americans—a $1,200 check in April 2020, $600 in December, and the current $1,400 payments under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Dozens of Democratic senators have pressed the president for much of the year to quickly green-light recurring stimulus payments. In one particular letter, they pointed to polling data that revealed that a majority of Americans strongly support recurring checks.

As the disbursement of third round of coronavirus stimulus checks begins to wind down, there appears to be more chatter in Washington regarding more direct payments to assist financially struggling Americans amid the ongoing pandemic.

Keep in mind that to date, Congress has already approved the delivery of three stimulus cash payments to most Americans—a $1,200 check in April 2020, $600 in December, and the current $1,400 payments under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

One such individual pushing for $2,000 monthly stimulus payments is Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.

“I always think that we ought not overthink getting people out of poverty. It’s vitally important. It helps put food on the table. It helps stave off the prospect of losing your housing,” she recently told NJ.com.

“I think there certainly can be a case made for it. It gave people some breathing room and it gave people a sense of some stability, something that they could count on. This has been a very frightening period for people. They lost jobs or lost the hours. Women had to leave the workforce to take care of children. This has been devastating so we need to recognize what this means for struggling families.”

Watson Coleman’s comments are consistent with Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statement back in January: “A one-time payment of $2,000 is simply not enough. The American people are counting on us to deliver transformative change, and we need to meet the moment by delivering monthly payments of $2,000.” 

Moreover, dozens of Democratic senators have pressed the president for much of the year to quickly green-light recurring stimulus payments. In one particular letter, they pointed to polling data that revealed that a majority of Americans strongly support recurring checks.

“Polling shows 65 percent of Americans support recurring cash payments ‘for the duration of the pandemic.’ This includes support from 54 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents. Economists support the idea too,” the letter said. 

The senators continued: “A single direct payment will not last long for most families. … This crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.”

More recently, about two million people already have signed a Change.org petition that calls for $2,000 recurring monthly stimulus checks.

“I’m calling on Congress to support families with a $2,000 payment for adults and a $1,000 payment for kids immediately, and continuing regular checks for the duration of the crisis,” the petition wrote.

According to a recent TransUnion research, roughly four in ten Americans are still continuing to experience income loss compared to before the start of the pandemic.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

Received Unemployment This Past Year? Expect a Boosted Tax Return

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 20:55

Ethen Kim Lieser

Stimulus Payments,

The Internal Revenue Service recently announced that tax refunds on 2020 unemployment benefits are expected to start landing in eligible U.S. bank accounts this month.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Take note that the IRS has given notice that there is a high likelihood that the processing of tax returns and the associated refund deliveries will be delayed for both individuals and married couples. The average wait time for a tax refund this year has ranged from six weeks to eight weeks—far longer than the typical wait time of three weeks or less.

For many cash-strapped Americans struggling to keep their heads above water amid the ongoing pandemic, it now appears that the $1,400 coronavirus stimulus checks aren’t the only monetary assistance that they can look forward to receiving.

The Internal Revenue Service recently announced that tax refunds on 2020 unemployment benefits are expected to start landing in eligible U.S. bank accounts this month. These newest sizeable payments are part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was able to waive federal tax on up to $10,200 of unemployment benefits—or $20,400 for married couples filing jointly—that were collected last year.

According to the IRS, unemployment benefits are typically treated as taxable income.

The agency added that the refunds will be issued automatically to all eligible U.S. taxpayers. Keep in mind that many of those unemployed individuals who are eligible for the tax break had already filed their tax returns by the time Biden signed the legislation. Due to this, the IRS is taking the time to recalculate tax liabilities for each taxpayer.

“Because the change occurred after some people filed their taxes, the IRS will take steps in the spring and summer to make the appropriate change to their return, which may result in a refund. The first refunds are expected to be made in May and will continue into the summer,” the IRS said.

“Any resulting overpayment of tax will be either refunded or applied to other outstanding taxes owed,” the agency added.

The IRS has also acknowledged that there is no need to file an amended return, but it did admit that some early filers may still need to—especially if their recalculated income qualifies them for additional credits and deductions.

Adding another wrinkle is the fact that married couples who file a joint tax return may have to wait longer than individual taxpayers to bag that refund on unemployment benefits. According to IRS officials, this is largely due to the higher complexity of calculating their refunds.

The agency is slated to issue refunds in two phases—and it appears that most married couples who filed jointly will be part of the second phase. There has been no official announcement on when the second phase will start.

Also, take note that the IRS has given notice that there is a high likelihood that the processing of tax returns and the associated refund deliveries will be delayed for both individuals and married couples. The average wait time for a tax refund this year has ranged from six weeks to eight weeks—far longer than the typical wait time of three weeks or less.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

Did You Just Move? Tell the IRS If You Want Your Stimulus Check, Refunds, and Credits

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 20:24

Ethen Kim Lieser

Stimulus Payment,

Before moving, most people already know that they should inform the USPS of their new address so that they can have their mail forwarded. But what is less well known is that one should also tell the Internal Revenue Service.

Before moving, most people already know that they should inform the USPS of their new address so that they can have their mail forwarded.

But what is less well known is that one should also tell the Internal Revenue Service, as that will make sure that eligible Americans can still smoothly receive their coronavirus stimulus checks, tax refunds, and credits.

“Changes of address through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) may update your address of record on file with us based on what they retain in their National Change of Address (NCOA) database,” the IRS website says.

“However, even when you notify the USPS, not all post offices forward government checks, so you should still notify us,” it added.

Here are the ways to inform the IRS about the move: oral notification via telephone at 800-829-1040, filling out an appropriate IRS form, completing tax return (use new address when filing), or sending off a written statement that includes full name, old address, new address, and social security number, ITIN, or EIN.

Do take note, though, that it can take four to six weeks for the change of address to be processed by the agency.

As for the types of payments that one can expect to receive at the new address, here are some examples.

In what already has been called as essentially a “fourth” stimulus check, know that beginning in July, millions of eligible parents will be able to receive $250 or $300 payment each month under the expanded child tax credit.

Furthermore, thousands of “plus-up” or supplemental checks are still heading out to eligible Americans. According to the IRS, these funds are “for people who earlier in March received payments based on their 2019 tax returns but are eligible for a new or larger payment based on their recently processed 2020 tax returns.”

For example, it “could include a situation where a person’s income dropped in 2020 compared to 2019, or a person had a new child or dependent on their 2020 tax return, and other situations,” the agency added.

Another notable cash payment many Americans are in line to receive is from the 2020 unemployment benefits, which are slated to be sent out this month. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan was able to waive federal tax on up to $10,200 of unemployment benefits, or $20,400 for married couples filing jointly, that were collected last year.

A recent Treasury report stated that about 7.3 million tax returns processed by the IRS appear to qualify for these tax refunds. Those returns reported a total of $87 billion in unemployment benefits.

The IRS has confirmed that it will issue the refunds automatically to taxpayers who qualify.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

$25,000 Stimulus Payment? First-Time Homebuyers Might Get It.

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 20:11

Stephen Silver

Stimulus for Homes,

The bill proposes $25,000 for some first-time homebuyers, but only those who are first-generation homebuyers, and are economically disadvantaged.

Here's What You Need to Remember: To be eligible, the homebuyers must have either never owned a home before, have parents or guardians who never owned a home in the buyer’s lifetime, or had parents or guardians who had a home but lost it to foreclosure.

President Joe Biden has proposed a piece of legislation called the Downpayment Toward Equity Act of 2021. The bill proposes $25,000 for some first-time homebuyers, but only those who are first-generation homebuyers, and are economically disadvantaged.

According to an overview of the legislation by the National Council of State Housing Agencies, the Downpayment Toward Equity Act takes the form of a grant program for states, while it’s not been determined exactly how much funding the program will receive. The program, if the bill is passed, would be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To become eligible for the aid the buyers “must have an income at or below 120 percent of area median income (AMI) for either the area where the home being purchased is located or the area where the home buyer’s place of residence is located.”

Also to be eligible, the homebuyers must have either never owned a home before, have parents or guardians who never owned a home in the buyer’s lifetime, or had parents or guardians who had a home but lost it to foreclosure. Buyers will also qualify if they were raised in foster care.

Buyers can receive up to $20,000, a number that rises to $25,000 if the person in question is a “socially and economically disadvantaged individual.” The former is defined as “those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.”

The money is not a tax credit, but the money is available at closing.

Not everyone thinks the proposed legislation is a good idea.

RealTrends argued last month that the proposal runs the risk of failing to learn some of the lessons of the housing crash of 2008.

“There’s a forest fire burning, so let’s pour gasoline on it,” Steve Murray, a RealTrends real estate expert, said. “Demand is not the problem right now. Access to capital is not the problem right now. There are numerous low-downpayment programs from the U.S. Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and other entities offered to anyone who qualifies based on income.”

“The federal government is missing the most important thing, which is, instead of pouring billions of dollars into a first-time homebuyer program, what they ought to be doing is finding a way to focus that money on affordable first-time houses,” he added.

It’s not clear how likely the bill, which is currently under consideration by the House Financial Services Committee, is to pass through Congress. Reuters reported that some social media posts had falsely claimed the bill had already passed into law.

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

No More Stimulus Payments? Americans Want Biden to Send More Aid

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 20:11

Ethen Kim Lieser

Stimulus Payments,

Not surprisingly, the anxiety levels of millions of financially strapped Americans are ticking up daily, pushing them to quickly find solutions on how to pay for groceries, the mortgage, and rent in the coming months.

Here's What You Need to Remember: If Biden’s highly ambitious $1.8 trillion American Families Plan—which aims to increase funding by the billions for education, child care, and paid family leave—eventually gets passed, it will further extend the child tax credit.

Know that it could be only weeks away when the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department send out the final batch of $1,400 coronavirus stimulus checks under the American Rescue Plan.

And not surprisingly, the anxiety levels of millions of financially strapped Americans are ticking up daily, pushing them to quickly find solutions on how to pay for groceries, the mortgage, and rent in the coming months.

Last week, many of these Americans were certainly disappointed to hear that President Joe Biden, in addressing a joint session of Congress, did not directly press for a fourth or even a fifth round of stimulus checks. However, he did take time to note that the latest $1,400 stimulus checks have provided critical and timely support to struggling American families.

“A single mom in Texas who wrote me, she said she couldn’t work,” Biden said. “She said the relief check put food on the table and saved her and her son from eviction from their apartment.”

He added: “We kept our commitment, and we are sending $1,400 rescue checks to 85 percent of all American households. We’ve already sent more than one hundred sixty million checks out the door. It’s making a difference. For many people, it’s making all the difference in the world.”

But there are those in Washington who are mostly unenthusiastic about offering more monetary assistance to Americans, as they have pointed out that Congress has already approved the delivery of three stimulus cash payments—a $1,200 check in April 2020, $600 in December, and the current $1,400 payments under Biden’s $1.9 trillion legislation.

Earlier this week during a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki appeared to be noncommittal regarding future stimulus payments. When asked if there would indeed be another round to assist Americans, she responded: “We’ll see what members of Congress propose, but those are not free.”

Psaki, though, did touch upon the potential benefits of the expanded child tax credit, which will give millions of cash-strapped parents a $250 or $300 payment each month. These payments—seen by some as essentially “fourth” stimulus checks—are slated to head out beginning in July, the IRS has confirmed.

Also, if Biden’s highly ambitious $1.8 trillion American Families Plan—which aims to increase funding by the billions for education, child care, and paid family leave—eventually gets passed, it will further extend the child tax credit.

Under the legislation, the enhanced credit will potentially give parents and legal guardians a total of up to $16,200 of cash per child. And those with children living at their residence could be the beneficiaries of a monthly $300 check per each child for about four more years—through the year 2025.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

Good News: Forbearance Numbers on U.S. Mortgages Are Dropping

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 19:51

Rachel Bucchino

Forebarance,

The measure of loans in forbearance in servicer portfolios dropped to 4.36 percent for the week ending May 2, an 11-point basis point decrease from the 4.47 percent reported the week prior, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

The number of U.S. homeowners in forbearance shrunk during the last week of April, sustaining a 10-week trend of borrowers who enrolled in a forbearance program due to the financial turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic exiting at a faster rate than expected.

The measure of loans in forbearance in servicer portfolios dropped to 4.36 percent for the week ending May 2, an 11-point basis point decrease from the 4.47 percent reported the week prior, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

Nearly all “investor types” saw a drop in forbearance for the week ending May 2, as Ginnie Mae loans fell by 20 basis points to 5.82 percent, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans decreased another 10 basis points, reaching 2.32 percent.

Independent mortgage bank servicers also experienced a decline in forbearance, hitting 4.58 percent, but private label securities and portfolio loans stayed at 8.55 percent. Depositories, however, saw a 15-point basis decrease with only a 4.47 percent share of loans in forbearance.

“This 10th week of decreases reflected a faster rate of exits and a steady, low level of new requests,” Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s senior vice president and chief economist, said. “Homeowners who have exited forbearance and been able to take up their original payment again are performing at almost the same rate as the overall mortgage servicing portfolio.”

Roughly 25.3 percent number of forbearance exits from June 1, 2020 through May 2, 2021 represent borrowers who still made monthly mortgage payments during the forbearance period. But the majority of forbearance exits, or 26.9 percent, represent homeowners who need some form of loan deferral or partial claim.

Another 14.8 percent of borrowers who exited forbearance programs are still unable to make monthly payments on time.

The association estimated that 2.2 million American homeowners are still enrolled in some form of a forbearance program, suggesting that there is a heated urgency for additional relief.

“More than 47 percent of borrowers in forbearance extensions are past the 12-month mark as of the end of April,” said Fratantoni. “Many homeowners continue to struggle and are falling farther behind on their obligations each month.”

The MBA’s report comes as the White House set aside $10 billion from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue bill for homeowners to help with housing-related payments like mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance and homeowners association dues, which was incorporated into the same law that sent eligible Americans $1,400 stimulus payments and unemployed workers $300 weekly benefits.

The Biden administration reported that one in five renters are behind on rent, while more than 10 million homeowners are struggling to make mortgage payments.

Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.

Another Side Effect of the Lousy Jobs Report: Companies Could Raise Wages?

The National Interest - Wed, 12/05/2021 - 19:40

Stephen Silver

Jobs Report,

Another news report this week looked at another possible effect of the jobs report: Companies seem to be raising wages, and they may end up raising them even further.

The jobs report issued last week was widely seen as disappointing, as the economy added 266,000 jobs in April. Per Reuters, the report was expected to add as many as 1 million due to the effects of the American Rescue Plan. Another government report this week found that job openings had reached a new record total of 8.1 million.

“The April report instead raised a broad set of questions about the complicated interplay among peoples' decisions about whether to work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, constraints stemming from the lack of child care and closed schools, the slowing pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, global supply bottlenecks for critical goods like semiconductors, and the enhanced federal unemployment benefits that may be encouraging some potential workers to stay home,” the Reuters analysis said.

Another news report this week looked at another possible effect of the jobs report: Companies seem to be raising wages, and they may end up raising them even further.

According to Business Insider, some large companies have begun to raise hourly pay in order to incentivize people to return to work. Chipotle recently announced that it will raise worker pay by $2 an hour, joining other companies like Amazon and Walmart. And since the crunch appears to be affecting the food industry greatly, some restaurants have begun offering greater incentives, including everything from “signing bonuses to leadership conferences to 401(k) matching,” Business Insider said.

“My expectation is that, as our economy comes back, these companies will provide fair wages and safe work environments," the president said this week at the White House. "And if they do, they'll find plenty of workers and we're all going to come out of this together better than before.”

The extended unemployment benefits, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, are scheduled to run out in September.

Whether it’s the unemployment benefits that are directly causing the labor shortage is a matter of some dispute, with some arguing that other factors — including the fast reopening, and accompanying quick rise in demand — are at play. In addition, some workers are skittish about returning to work in an environment where the pandemic is still not entirely over, especially in the food service industry.

“In the absence of the benefits there would probably be a little bit more applications and hiring would be a little bit easier, but the main drive of the recent change in sentiment is that hiring is accelerating,” University of Pennsylvania economist Ioana Marinescu told the Guardian in a report this week.

“You had a tight enough labor market which led to broad-based wage growth of the sort we hadn’t really seen since maybe the 70s,” University of Massachusetts Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube told the Guardian. “And that was unusual and yes, employers had a hard time filling vacancies and they had to raise wages a lot and that’s OK.”

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

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