Hemp is Coming Back

Hemp will once again be a cash crop for the United States. There is a strong bipartisan push on Capitol Hill to legalize the plant, a close relative of marijuana with myriad industrial uses, and define it as an agricultural commodity.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is cosponsoring and fast-tracking a bill that would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. The legislation would allow states to regulate the plant’s cultivation and sale and it would make hemp farmers eligible for federal crop insurance. Continue reading “Hemp is Coming Back”

Donald Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde Approach to Syria

Keeping up with President Trump’s constantly evolving position on Syria isn’t easy. Just ask his generals.

Earlier this month, the president called for a quick end to America’s military involvement in Syria, arguing the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently in the country should be out within six months. Alarm bells sounded at the Pentagon, whose top brass informed the president such a drastic move would jeopardize the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. Continue reading “Donald Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde Approach to Syria”

Gasoline Prices Nearing Multiyear Highs

If you fill up your car’s gas tank with any regularity, you don’t need me to tell you that prices at the pump are on the rise. AAA reports that the national average price of regular unleaded now stands at $2.72 per gallon, up from $2.54 a month ago and $2.41 this time last year. (That national average contains a lot of regional variability. In California, for instance, regular sells for $3.55. In South Carolina, just $2.49.)

Will the run-up keep going? And just how high will prices get?

The answer to the first question is, almost certainly: Yes. Just as surely as winter turns to spring, gasoline prices tend to start climbing around the start of the year and peak several months later. Why? Partly because refineries begin making costlier, summer-blend gas. And partly because fuel demand perks up in the spring when more folks start vacationing.

This time around, the average price bottomed out at $2.45 per gallon a week before Christmas. It’s been mounting ever since. I expect the trend to continue a while longer.

Predicting how much higher prices will go is tricky, but recent history provides some useful guidance. Over the last five years, the magnitude of the winter-to-spring jump has averaged about 57 cents per gallon. So far this spring, the national average is up 27 cents. If this seasonal pattern holds, expect another 30-cent increase, topping $3 per gallon for the first time since late 2014.

What about crude oil’s role? All things being equal, the costlier oil is, the more expensive refined fuels, such as gas, are. But note that the seasonal gas-price hike tends to play out even when oil prices aren’t on the march. Last spring, gas prices climbed by 30 cents per gallon: A 14% increase. But crude only increased by 4%.

So, even if oil prices hold steady, gasoline can, and probably will, keep edging higher. If crude rallies beyond this winter’s boost, the resulting gas-price spike will be even sharper. For instance, the spring of 2015 saw oil prices rise by $20 per barrel, which helped fuel a 68-cent jump in gas prices. Such a scenario looks unlikely this year unless some sort of geopolitical crisis interrupts oil shipments somewhere in the world.

But under any realistic assumption, gasoline will cost more in a few weeks than it does now. If your tank is getting low, now might be a good time to fill it to the brim.

Paul Ryan’s Exit Upends House GOP

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pending retirement wasn’t unexpected. Given the raucous, de-centralized nature of the House Republican Conference, as well as the unpredictable, often strained relationship between GOP leaders and President Trump, his announcement this week that he won’t seek re-election was already in the works. The speakership, once the most coveted prize on Capitol Hill, has become a thankless job that some qualified potential candidates now shun. Ryan himself didn’t want the gig, reluctantly accepting the assignment in 2015 out of a sense of party loyalty after then-Speaker John Boehner’s ouster left the conference in turmoil.

Ryan’s self-imposed exile sets off a chain-reaction. For starters, Republicans are struggling to retain control of the House next year. Heading into its toughest campaign season in a decade with a lame-duck leader won’t make things easier for them. Continue reading “Paul Ryan’s Exit Upends House GOP”

How Facebook Will Cope with a Big Tech Crackdown

The backlash against big tech isn’t going anyway anytime soon. Of all the tech titans bracing for impact, Facebook has the most to lose from increased scrutiny and new regulations in the U.S. and around the world.

The most recent firestorm was sparked by a massive data leak that exposed up to 87 million users to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook was caught flatfooted by the intensity of condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Continue reading “How Facebook Will Cope with a Big Tech Crackdown”

Old Fault Lines Threaten Historic Trump-Kim Summit, Despite Optimism

The U.S. and North Korea are inching toward a historic summit to discuss the fate of North Korea’s nuclear program, one that could potentially see the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and North Korean supreme leader.

The idea originated through a game of diplomatic telephone. North Korea reportedly invited President Trump to meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un during an inter-Korean dialogue last month. South Korea in turn relayed the invitation to the White House, and Trump, to the surprise of many, accepted. The summit is scheduled to be held sometime in May. Continue reading “Old Fault Lines Threaten Historic Trump-Kim Summit, Despite Optimism”

Be on the Lookout for IRS Impersonators

Taxpayers, beware. While the tax filing season winds down, fraudsters continue duping unsuspecting taxpayers by posing as IRS officials. Seniors and newer immigrants are particular targets of the scam that the agency says is one of the most reported frauds in the nation.

In this scam, fraudsters contact victims via phone, mail or email pretending to be an IRS agent and demand immediate payment of allegedly owed back taxes. They frequently threaten victims with arrest, foreclosure or other adverse legal action. Scammers often instruct their victims to wire money or use a prepaid debit card. Continue reading “Be on the Lookout for IRS Impersonators”