THE THURSDAY SOOPER THREAD

ONE: Trade Deficit in Goods Jumps Past $1 Trillion For First Time Ever

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✪ The U.S. trade deficit in goods rose above $1 trillion for the first time ever in 2021, topping the record-high $893.5 billion hit in the prior year.

Running a trade deficit in goods means that the U.S. economy leaks income to the rest of the world, increasing sales abroad while decreasing sales from U.S. manufacturers.

The deficit in goods increased 3 percent in December to $101 billion from $98 billion, the largest ever monthly increase. Economists had forecast a decline in the trade deficit to $95 billion from November’s $98 billion.

The massive amount of debt-fueled government stimulus has helped pump up demand from U.S. households. A significant portion of that has leaked out to foreign goods producers of appliances, games, computers, smart phones, and similar items.

Demand for U.S. exports has lagged because other countries have not recovered as quickly and U.S. tariffs remain low by historical standards.

Exports climbed 1.4 percent to $157.3 billion in December. Imports rose two percent after climbing five percent in November. ✪

TWO: Pending Home Sales Shock With A 6.9% Collapse

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✪ Pending home sales defied predictions of a rebound at year-end, falling by 3.9 percent compared with a downwardly revised November estimate, data from the National Association of Realtors showed Thursday.

Compared with a year ago, pending home sales fell 6.9 percent. Sales were down by 10 percent or more in both the Northeast and the West. Sales fell in the Midwest and the South, as well.

The downturn largely reflects an extremely low supply of homes for sale, according to NAR economist Lawrence Yun.

“Pending home sales faded toward the end of 2021, as a diminished housing supply offered consumers very few options,” Yun said. “Mortgage rates have climbed steadily the last several weeks, which unfortunately will ultimately push aside marginal buyers.”

Home sales are expected to contract further this year. Sales are forecast to be down by three percent in 2022 compared with last year, according to Yun.

“The market will likely endure a minor reduction in sales as mortgage rates continue to edge higher,” Yun said. ✪

THREE: US Navy Discharges Sailors Who Refuse Coronavirus Vaccine

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✪ The US Navy announced Wednesday it has discharged 45 service members who refused to accept inoculation with the coronavirus vaccine.

The personnel were released after failing to meet the November 28 deadline set by the Pentagon for the injection. Twenty-three active duty sailors were amongst those let go.

UPI reports the Navy said in a statement of those discharged, 22 were considered entry-level separations as they occurred during the initial training periods within their first 180 days of active service.

“It is my responsibility to deliver the most capable force and this guidance helps us maximize mission readiness,” Vice Adm. Bill Merz, the deputy chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy, said in explaining the move. “The Navy continues to execute its mission around the world while we work through the challenges of this pandemic.”

People expelled for refusing the vaccine will receive a general honorable discharge, but could lose certain benefits or be forced to repay the cost of training and education in some cases, the Navy explained last year when announcing the compulsory vaccination program.

Navy personnel who can claim an exemption from mandatory vaccines, for health or other reasons, can be reassigned from their current duties.

As of Thursday, there were still 5,035 active-duty sailors and 2,860 reserve service members who were unvaccinated, the official notification read.

Of unvaccinated active-duty sailors, ten have permanent medical exemptions and 259 have temporary medical exemptions with 59 administrative exemptions awarded.

The Marine Corps, as of late last week, had discharged 334 Marines, and the Air Force, as of this week, had discharged 111 airmen for refusing to get the shots.

The Army is the only remaining service yet to have discharged any active duty personnel for refusing to have a mandatory shot, the Army Times notes.✪

FOUR: Kamala Harris Could Become First Black Female USSC Justice

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✪ Vice President Kamala Harris could be appointed as the first black and female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, following news Wednesday that liberal Justice Stephen Breyer is to retire, allowing President Joe Biden to appoint a successor.

The retirement is timely, and would maximize the chance that Biden’s pick would be confirmed, ahead of a possible Senate flip to the Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections, and amid plummeting opinion polls for the president ahead of 2024.

Biden promised before the South Carlolina primary in 2020 — the moment he seized control of the race, thanks to black voters — and again at one of the last Democrat Party presidential primary debates that his first nominee for the Court would be a black woman.

Unlike Donald Trump, who provided a list of potential appointees when he ran for president in 2016, Biden did not specify who his choices might be. There was speculation about Justice Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court; and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is a district judge in Washington, D.C., but no firm commitments.

However, Harris, who served as District Attorney of San Francisco and California Attorney General before being elected to the U.S. Senate and then as Vice President, would provide another option with a long, if rather controversial, legal résumé.

Nominating Harris could also help Biden and the Democrats solve the problem posed by Harris’s unpopularity. Biden faces questions about his mental and physical abilities, raising doubts about his ability to run for reelection in 2024, or even to serve out his term. Harris is even more unpopular than Biden, however, making her an unpalatable replacement for Biden.

By nominating Harris to the Court, Democrats could create an open slot in the Vice Presidency — and while they still have control of Congress, all it would take to confirm a successor to Harris would be a majority vote in both Houses, according to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

Likely contenders include Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who has struggled to deal with the basic responsibilities of his job but has been highly visible and is known to covet the presidency. ✪

FIVE: Pete Buttigieg Vows For More Bike & Bus Lanes, Lower Speed Limits

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg vowed Thursday to stem rising traffic fatalities by imposing a host of fresh restrictions on everyday drivers while boosting those who choose to walk or use bicycles.

To that end he seeks more dedicated bus and bike lanes to get people out of their cars, retimed signals to favor pedestrians, enhanced speed cameras, greater traffic law enforcement and lower speed limits as part of the plan.

Buttigieg told the Associated Press new federal data being released next week will show another increase in traffic fatalities through the third quarter of 2021.

He believes the third-quarter numbers were expected to point to another sizable increase in deaths compared with the same period in 2020, adding to a half-year traffic death total of 20,160 that already was the highest half-year figure since 2006.

“It doesn’t look good, and I continue to be extremely concerned about the trend,” Buttigieg said in a phone interview with AP ahead of the strategy’s release on Thursday.

“Somehow it has become over the years and decades as normal, sort of the cost of doing business,” he said. “Even through a pandemic that led to considerably less driving, we continue to see more danger on our roads.”

Buttigieg sees addressing those dangers as a top priority, and getting people out of their cars and into public transport or alternatively on their bikes is one way to start.

Over the next two years, he said, his department will provide guidance as well as $5 billion in grants to states to spur lower speed limits and embrace safer road design such as dedicated bike and bus lanes, better lighting and crosswalks.

When roads become safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, it opens up transit options overall and can lead to fewer dangerous cars on the road, he said.

Citing his experience as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg said he envisions cities and states taking interim steps with federal support.

He pointed to Hoboken, New Jersey, which has made roadway improvements such as curb extensions and retimed traffic signals to give pedestrians a head start in crosswalks.

The nationwide road safety strategy notes the rising trend of crash deaths, including a disproportionate deadly impact on nonwhite drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

It urges pilot programs to study and promote greater use of speed cameras, which the department says could provide more equitable enforcement than police traffic stops.

Automakers, meanwhile, will be prodded to adopt more crash avoidance features and publish detailed information about them for consumers on window stickers for new car sales. ✪

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