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Why your credit card company wants to give you crypto
Mastercard is making it easier for credit card holders to earn rewards in bitcoin. | Velishchuk/iStock Mastercard credit card holders can soon be rewarded with bitcoin. Huh? Cryptocurrency was first created as an alternative to traditional financial institutions. Now, it’s gone mainstream enough that the more than 50-year-old credit card company Mastercard is offering its customers access to cryptocurrency digital wallets, cryptocurrency-branded debit and credit cards, and even cryptocurrency-based loyalty rewards programs. These tools are part of the partnership Mastercard announced on Monday with Bakkt, a platform for buying and selling digital assets like crypto. Banks and financial institutions that offer Mastercard credit and debit cards can now enable customers to pay down their balance and earn loyalty points with bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that the Bakkt platform supports. As part of Mastercard’s agreement with Bakkt, merchants including restaurants and retailers will be able to offer bitcoin as an alternative to the traditional loyalty points that credit cards often offer users. At the same time, these Mastercard customers will have the option to convert rewards points they already have into bitcoin and store it in a Bakkt digital wallet. This will give the holders of more than 2.8 billion Mastercards in circulation a potential on-ramp into the crypto investment world. While people who opt to convert or accumulate rewards points in crypto will still be taking a risk because cryptocurrency’s value is mostly determined by the volatile crypto market, Mastercard’s offerings will make taking that risk a little easier and less daunting than having to sign up separately for a crypto platform. This isn’t Mastercard’s first cryptocurrency pursuit. There are already several Mastercard credit and debit cards for people who want to use cryptocurrency. Mastercard debit and prepaid cards offered by the platforms Uphold and BitPay allow people to quickly convert their cryptocurrency holdings into traditional currency, while a Mastercard credit card offered by the crypto company Gemini allows customers to earn rewards in cryptocurrency based on their spending activity. In September, Mastercard also created its first-ever non-fungible token, or NFT, (an animated ball signed by soccer coach José Mourinho) as part of a credit card loyalty sweepstakes. Now, Mastercard’s decision to integrate support for bitcoin throughout its payments network means even more people will not just be exposed to cryptocurrency, but rewarded with it. Mastercard said this latest expansion will impact more than 20,000 financial institutions, including banks and credit unions, that work with the company. More information about when these new capabilities will be available to customers will be shared at a later date, according to Mastercard. “As brands and merchants look to appeal to younger consumers and their transaction preferences, these new offerings represent a unique opportunity to satisfy increasing demand for crypto, payment, and rewards flexibility,” Nancy Gordon, Bakkt’s vice president of rewards and payments, said in a statement. The announcement comes as credit card companies have slowly let go of some of their apprehension about cryptocurrency and looked for ways to cash in on its growing popularity. In the first half of 2021, Visa customers spent more than $1 billion in cryptocurrency with credit cards that the company offers through partnerships with three different crypto platforms: Circle, BlockFi, and Coinbase. Other credit companies have signaled they could start offering cryptocurrencies soon, too. Late last year, American Express invested in a cryptocurrency trading platform called FalconX; around the same time, Discover Financial, which operates Discover Card, has begun to hire staff to build cryptocurrency capabilities too. Credit card companies are just one example of traditional financial institutions making more room for regular people to acquire and use crypto. In April, Coinbase— a platform for buying and selling cryptocurrencies — became the first crypto company to go public — which effectively allows people to invest in cryptocurrency without having to actually buy any particular coin. Bakkt, the platform working with Mastercard, also went public earlier this month. And just last week, the first cryptocurrency-linked exchange-traded fund, or ETF, which is a basket of securities tied to the future price of bitcoin, began trading. Payment platforms like Paypal, Venmo (which is owned by Paypal), and Square all support cryptocurrency-based transactions, and Square is even considering building out a bitcoin mining business, which is a way of using lots of computing power to create new bitcoins. Another sign that cryptocurrency is here to stay: growing investment in new fraud and security tech to keep track of cryptocurrency-based credit card scams and crimes. Unlike traditional currency, digital assets like bitcoin aren’t controlled or regulated by any one government, and their cryptography makes it much harder to track and reverse cryptocurrency-based transactions. Because of that, crypto is vulnerable to theft and embraced by money-launderers. Just days before announcing its cryptocurrency expansion, Mastercard bought CipherTrace, a cryptocurrency firm backed by the Department of Homeland Security that advertises itself as the “world’s first blockchain forensics team.” Paypal has also sought to hire cryptocurrency experts to focus on security issues like money laundering and counterterrorism. Cryptocurrency has become so popular, including among criminals, that the US Marshals Service, the government branch that manages seized assets, hired a cryptocurrency bank to store all the seized cryptocurrency that it holds after criminal investigations. Those developments are a reminder that as credit card companies try to make these digital assets more popular among traditional credit card holders, cryptocurrency comes with risks. Still, most cryptocurrency holders don’t seem to be complaining that some of the biggest financial services are slowly becoming more friendly to crypto. After all, it’s hard to ignore that the growing effort to mainstream cryptocurrency has had the convenient effect of boosting the value of the cryptocurrency investments they already have.
Welcome to the Horror Issue
Doug Chayka for Vox How a century of horror movies reflects our existential fears, the surreal real estate market for ghostly homes, and visiting a haunted house in 2021. When the pandemic began in March 2020, a nation shut itself indoors, flipped on the television, and began streaming scary movies. Bird Box and I Am Legend let us live out our survivalist nightmares; Contagion felt like a prophecy. Unexpected global catastrophe had long been the stuff of horror movies; suddenly, horror was real. It was knocking on our doors. The question of what we have to fear after a pandemic has upended our way of life, after many have dulled to the reality of hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans dead, haunted us as we conceived this month’s issue of the Highlight. Should we fear a few onscreen sociopaths anymore? Or the telltale fires and floods of climate change? Or only our feral, unpredictable selves? In our cover story, Aja Romano looks to the movies to root out American fear. Films have long served as a mirror for our collective anxieties about the unfamiliar, powerlessness, and environmental breakdown. From Godzilla and other monsters of our own making to Psycho’s Norman Bates to Get Out’s unsuspecting boyfriend Chris, the villains and protagonists of our favorite horror movies serve as a proxy for us, lumbering through a century of war, social unrest, and tectonic change. Housing reporter Jerusalem Demsas asks what it means that things that go bump in the night have the power to affect housing prices (even if they’re only in our heads), creating a cottage industry of businesses that “cleanse” homes of untoward spirits and warn homebuyers of a house’s unseemly past. And Luke Winkie went to another sort of haunted house: New York’s Blood Manor, a seasonal scare-fest where he sought to learn what it feels like to venture out in search of thrills when one’s year has already been defined by fear. Finally, Terry Nguyen traces the culture’s voyeuristic obsession with “botched” plastic surgery that punishes women for bad work even as it demands artificiality, and Chris Chafin relives the mainstreaming of scary thrills for kids in the ’80s and ’90s. This month’s issue is fun, funny, and tinged with the idea that fear is an American obsession. We hope you enjoy it. Carlos Basabe for Vox The horror century The scariest movies have always been a dark mirror on Americans’ deepest fears and anxieties. By Aja Romano Zac Freeland/Vox House isn’t selling? Blame the ghosts. (coming Tuesday) Realtor? Check. Appraiser? Check. Ghostbuster? Check. By Jerusalem Demsas Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor Can a haunted house even scare us in 2021? (coming Wednesday) When a pandemic rages just outside our doors, maybe escapism is all we can hope for. By Luke Winkie Beth Hoeckel for Vox The morbid appeal of “botched” plastic surgery (coming Thursday) Cosmetic procedures are on the rise. So is our voyeuristic fascination with how they go wrong. By Terry Nguyen Getty Images/iStockphoto The age of monsters (coming Friday) In the ’80s and ’90s, kids’ media was full of murder and mayhem. What changed? By Chris Chafin
Why do banks charge a fee for not having enough money?
Overdraft fees can feel like a trap, especially for low-income customers. | Getty Images Overdraft fees, and how to protect yourself from them, explained. Citing the impact of Covid-19 on many consumers’ finances, some banks, including Ally Bank and KeyBank, have stopped charging overdraft fees or have offered relief from them. Other banks, however, have gone in a different direction. Between March 13, 2020, and September 20, 2021, account holders filed over 1,600 complaints against various banks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about overdraft fees, the agency’s records show. “Wells Fargo picks and chooses when they are going to charge overdraft fees and when they are going to pay a bill or not,” one complaint filed against Wells Fargo on September 1, 2021, reads. “I will go to sleep and my account [is] positive and there is enough to cover pending charges. Then all of sudden days later the date of the [charge] is changed and I have been charged an overdraft fee. They have recently even had notices within the app that says your balance amount may not be accurate.” These fees, which can be as high as $35 per overdraft transaction, are an incredible hardship for some consumers. As the complaint continues, “I have a second chance checking account and because of some hardships I am limited in who I can bank with. I feel like Wells Fargo takes advantage of the underprivileged.” Overdraft fees composed $2.32 billion of those service charges in Q4, a 64 percent spike from Q2 2020 Though some US banks temporarily paused on charging overdraft and other service fees, an analysis of banks with more than $1 billion in assets and some smaller institutions that chose to disclose data suggests that banks are on their way to charging service fees at pre-pandemic levels even as the Covid-19 pandemic resurges. A March 2021 report from S&P Global Market Intelligence indicated that banks collected $3.6 billion in service fees in the fourth financial quarter of 2020. Overdraft fees composed $2.32 billion of those service charges in the quarter, a 64 percent spike from just six months prior in the second quarter of 2020, the report noted. Put simply, these fees amount to another tax on the poor, an extraction from the country’s poorest Americans to its wealthiest banks, experts say. Overdraft fees are meant to safeguard banks from risks associated with covering account holders’ overspending, but they can disproportionately hurt low-income consumers who need protection the most, experts told Vox. Lawmakers and advocacy groups had called for the curtailing of these fees even before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the US economy. Now, the call to regulate bank fees has returned as the coronavirus crisis continues to upend consumers’ financial lives. Why do banks charge account maintenance and overdraft fees? The FDIC defines overdraft fees as a fee assessed whenever an account holder spends more than what’s in their account. Banks may also charge an account maintenance fee, also known as monthly service fees, just for having the account or for falling below a certain minimum balance, per the FDIC. Banks, of course, can charge a range of other fees, including ATM use fees, per-check fees, and stop-payment fees. It’s hard to pinpoint when banks began charging overdraft fees in the US. Vox reached out to JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America to ask when they started charging account maintenance and overdraft fees, but none of them shared when they implemented these charges. According to a 2020 report from the Center for Responsible Lending, banks historically declined debit card charges when account holders lacked the funds to cover charges. But over time, banks — at the urging of software consultants who were promoting overdraft programs on a contingency fee basis — began allowing overdraft transactions to go through and charging customers fees. “I think that at some point it was clear that it was a helpful situation, so that bills didn’t bounce, checks didn’t bounce, mortgage payments didn’t bounce,” said Peter Smith, senior researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending. “This was a fairly informal service, but when people started using debit cards more [and] people started using electronic payments more, I think banks began to see this as an opportunity for revenue and not just a convenience service they could offer their account holders.” “I think banks began to see this as an opportunity for revenue and not just a convenience service they could offer their account holders” Though overdraft fees can be costly for low-income households, they make up a small share of banks’ overall income. Per the Center for Responsible Lending’s analysis, bank overdraft fees average $35. That fee tends to be higher than the value of the transaction that triggers it, which is $20 on average. For banks with assets of $1 billion or more, overdraft or insufficient funds fees are about 5 percent of their non-interest income, the report noted. Banks charge overdraft fees to account for the risks associated with covering charges on overdrawn accounts, said Deeksha Gupta, assistant professor of finance at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. Though banks are profitable without charging these fees, they want to avoid risks for paying merchants’ charges and deter account holders from overspending, Gupta said. Bank fees’ impact on vulnerable consumers Banks don’t want to take on the risks of covering consumers’ overdrawn transactions, but it remains up for debate whether the fee is truly worth it given its impact on low-income consumers. Overdraft fees tend to prey upon low-income consumers, Rebecca Borné, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, said. The center’s 2020 report found that 9 percent of bank account holders pay 84 percent of the more than $11 billion overdraft fees banks collect every year. Borné said while other fees serve a function — it does cost banks to administer checking accounts, rendering account maintenance fees somewhat necessary, for instance — with overdraft, the effect is different. Besides charging a high overdraft fee per transaction with insufficient funds, banks engage in a range of practices that can leave customers with compounding overdraft fees, including charging more than one fee per day, charging fees for debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals, and imposing another overdraft fee if previous fees aren’t paid within a set period of time, the Center for Responsible Lending’s report explained. As some banks resume charging overdraft fees, pre-pandemic research suggests such fees play a role in excluding unbanked consumers from accessing traditional bank accounts. According to the FDIC’s 2019 How America Banks report, about 5.4 percent (7.1 million) of US households were unbanked, meaning nobody in the household had a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union. Among the reasons why respondents said they don’t have a bank account: Almost half of respondents said they don’t have enough money to meet minimum balance requirements, and more than a third said bank account fees are too high. Complaints filed to the CFPB offer a window into consumers’ struggles with overdraft charges. “In ... 2021, US Bank had enrolled me into an overdraft protection program which I never authorized. One time I was out traveling and forgot to put money in my checking account, and my balance hit negative. I was unaware and kept using my debit card for small transactions like coffee,” reads one complaint filed August 27 against US Bancorp. “The majority of these transactions are below [$10]. Instead of declining these charges, US Bank charged me a series of overdraft fees, each of them [$36]. In the end, the total overdraft fees ended up being [$360] for over a couple of days. They waived three of them, bringing my loss down to [$250] ... Talking to their customer service, they never offered an option to opt out of their overdraft ‘protection’ program. They offered some even more predatory protection options instead which I declined.” With bank fees pushing consumers away from traditional bank accounts, vulnerable consumers may be driven to use even costlier alternative financial services. According to a May 2020 Federal Reserve report, 16 percent of US adults were underbanked in 2019, meaning they had a traditional bank account, but also used alternative financial services like check cashing services, money orders, and payday loans. The report also noted that unbanked and underbanked Americans were more likely to have lower education levels, be people of color, or have lower incomes. For consumers who are worried about overdraft fees, they’d rather turn to riskier alternatives instead. As for why consumers turn to alternative financial services, some consumers have no other option, and these alternatives are actively targeting them. The Federal Reserve report noted that 43 percent of credit applicants with incomes of less than $40,000 were denied credit, compared to 9 percent of applicants who earn more than $100,000. Even for underbanked consumers who have traditional bank accounts, payday lenders and other high-cost installment lenders aggressively target customers in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and people who need extra cash, Borné wrote in a follow-up email. Meanwhile, banks don’t always offer affordable small loans for consumers, and they have little incentive to do so because regulators can allow them to charge high overdraft fees for each overdraft, she added. “Those who go to payday lenders because they believe they will be in and out of the loan quickly are often stuck for the long term, incurring a lot of overdraft fees when the payments are extracted from their accounts,” Borné wrote. “Ultimately, they often lose their accounts. These wealth-draining products tend to feed each other, creating needs rather than filling them, and leaving customers with fewer credit options down the line.” “These wealth-draining products tend to feed each other, creating needs rather than filling them” Gupta agreed underbanked and unbanked consumers are often forced to turn to more expensive alternatives. As the coronavirus pandemic continues with no discernible end in sight and assistance programs come to an end, overdraft and account maintenance fees can compound for households that are struggling now, she added. “Ideally, the banking system should be helping low-income consumers. We don’t want that type of money to be flowing from lower-income households to banks because they’re in overdraft,” Gupta said of the billions of dollars in overdraft charges. Even though overdraft fees and other service charges make up a small share of major banks’ revenue, some experts questioned whether limiting these fees would disincentivize banks from offering affordable financial services that could attract low-income consumers. As Gupta explained, some banks could opt not to offer certain affordable bank accounts to avoid taking on additional risk. An April paper from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also suggested that capping overdraft fees could cause banks to offer fewer affordable account options for low-income people. What to do if you’re being charged too much in overdraft fees Banks could do a better job of disclosing bank fees to consumers, said Desmond Brown, assistant director of the CFPB’s office of consumer education. He said depending on the institution, overdraft fees can be structured in a complex way. Some bank accounts offer the option to opt in to overdraft fees, so consumers should see whether it’s an option to opt out when looking for a new account. When signing up for a new account, Brown said, consumers concerned about fees should shop around and ask for bank accounts that are tailored to low-income consumers and learn about the bank’s cost structures. Consumers can also look for banks that provide alerts when their funds are low, he added. Brown also encouraged consumers to file complaints with the agency if they’re experiencing fee problems with their bank. Doing so not only allows CFPB to assist consumers directly, but it also helps the agency assess issues happening in the marketplace, he said. “If we have seen a spike in an area of complaints, then we can look to other tools at the bureau to help drill down and find out exactly what’s going on, and be more responsive to consumer needs,” Brown said. For consumers looking for affordable bank accounts, Brown pointed to the FDIC’s Model Safe Accounts program, which works with banks to determine how they can offer affordable bank accounts. Some financial services firms offer accounts with no overdraft or account maintenance fees. (In their respective statements, JPMorgan Chase said during the pandemic it has waived $650 million in fees, including overdraft fees, between January 2020 and March 2021; and Wells Fargo touted its low-cost, no-overdraft-fee bank account, its zero balance alerts, and its overdraft fee waivers.) “We’re talking about billions of dollars every single year being drained, disproportionately from Black and brown communities” When asked what the agency is doing to assist consumers who’ve been charged excessive overdraft fees, a CFPB spokesperson said, “Overdrafts have the potential to be very costly for consumers, and we are continuing to closely monitor developments in this area.” But as consumers file complaints or seek low-cost bank accounts on their own, advocacy groups and lawmakers have pushed for more restrictions on overdraft fees. On June 30, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Overdraft Protection Act of 2021, a bill that aims to regulate the marketing and charging of overdraft fees at financial firms. During a House Committee on Financial Services hearing on July 21, Borné provided a statement on behalf of the Center for Responsible Lending calling for Congress to hold regulatory agencies like the CFPB to protect consumers from harmful overdraft fee practices. “What to me is especially frustrating is that financial inclusion is all the buzz in a lot of circles. I feel like in a lot of these conversations people just try to talk around the elephant in the room, which are bank overdraft practices,” said Borné. “We’re talking about billions of dollars every single year being drained, disproportionately from Black and brown communities, and kicking people out of the banking system, eroding trust in banks. It’s just a huge barrier to real financial inclusion.”
Succession turns a box of doughnuts into a stealthy statement about abuse
Kendall Roy spends a stressful moment as we all must: staring at his phone. | HBO The Roy siblings are deeply haunted by their upbringing. Succession keeps finding ways to show that. In a famous 1919 essay on Hamlet, T.S. Eliot reintroduced the “objective correlative,” a previously obscure literary concept, to the world of criticism, causing it to rocket to critical omnipresence across the first half of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, the objective correlative is when an artist uses a symbol or image or object — or a string of them all together — to create a strong sense of feeling and emotion. Eliot said he thought Shakespeare failed to use the objective correlative in Hamlet because the play is so full of the title character angsting all over the place about how he feels. By contrast, Eliot wrote, Lady Macbeth is a good example of using the objective correlative — that “damn spot” she can’t get out instantly gives us a sense of her deep, unresolvable guilt. I think the idea of the objective correlative relies a little too heavily on every single audience member reading every single symbol in the same way, when we all bring our own emotions and thoughts to whatever piece of art we’re taking in. Yet it’s hard to deny that sometimes, a single image or object can carry far more emotional weight than any number of long, emotional speeches. A well-chosen image — even the most over-obvious one you can possibly think of — can slyly push us into a kind of dreamlike state, slipping past our conscious mind and burrowing down to our subconscious. A speech will always engage the conscious mind and run a greater risk of ringing false. If you want to see a great example of the objective correlative hard at work, just check out “Mass in Time of War,” the second episode of Succession’s third season, which features a box of doughnuts, soaked in dread. So much depends upon a box of doughnuts, glazed with sweet frosting, sitting on a white table HBO That bed doesn’t look all that comfortable for an adult to recline on, but what do I know? The scene: Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who decisively broke with his father, Logan (Brian Cox), at a press conference in the final moments of last season, has spent the hours immediately following that break shoring up his momentum. He’s hiring people to handle his publicity and legal matters. He’s trying to find allies within Waystar-Royco, the family business. What he needs more than anything, however, is for at least one of his three siblings — and ideally all three — to step out with him in front of the press and make a joint statement: Logan Roy is no longer fit to serve in any capacity and should be replaced. Kendall is probably right. Beset by scandal and reeling from multiple crises at once, Logan would likely be felled as the head of Waystar-Royco if all four of his children were to say he’s incompetent. So, one by one, Kendall invites his siblings to gather at his ex-wife’s apartment. First Shiv (Sarah Snook), then Roman (Kieran Culkin), then Connor (Alan Ruck) drop by, ready to just feel Kendall out. They won’t acknowledge that they’re listening to what he has to say. “Officially,” they’ve all shown up as neutral parties or even as allies of Logan, ready to spy. (Roman comes right out and says his aim is to snoop.) But all the same, the more Kendall talks, the more you can see the three of them considering his pitch. The episode never once has any of the characters so much as suggest they think Kendall has a point. But we in the audience might find ourselves speculating as to whether any of the characters are quietly siding with Kendall. As I watched, I thought it was clear Connor was starting to see things his brother’s way, and then I thought perhaps Shiv was as well. Not that it matters, because Logan shows up to ruin the party. The siblings start squabbling over the most obvious question of all: If Logan isn’t head of the company, which one of the Roy children should be? Kendall, who took this enormous, potentially stupid leap of faith, is pretty sure he’s the best choice. But Shiv thinks it should be her, and maybe she’s right. She is the one who’s least tainted by the various scandals dragging down the Roy family name. They leave Kendall’s daughter’s bedroom (where they’ve been having their confab), only to find a box of doughnuts sitting on a table — sent over courtesy of their dad. Instantly, the tenor of the scene changes. Whatever momentum Kendall had completely dissipates, and all of a sudden, Logan is very much present in the room with his kids, even though he’s not physically there. The doughnuts are just doughnuts. Hopefully, they’re sweet and delicious. But to the Roy children, they’re also a subtle reminder from their dad: “Ah, ah, ah!” a spectral Logan seems to say, wagging his finger. “I’m always watching you.” The other Roy siblings abandon Kendall in that moment, opting to side with their dad. Desperate, Kendall launches into a tirade that only makes the situation worse, and implies that Shiv has only gotten as far as she has because she’s a woman and because she’s been given power out of pity. (Like most things Kendall says in this episode, it’s not wrong, but it’s also a) not very nice and b) not 100 percent right either.) Then everybody but Kendall is gone, and he has no idea why a box of doughnuts seems to have completely foiled his plans. How the Roy siblings exemplify different experiences of parental abuse survivors when they’re suddenly confronted with a reminder of that abuse (a.k.a. doughnuts) HBO Roman remains pretty unconvinced by the whole deal. Across the first two episodes of season three, Kendall has been acting in an atypically manic fashion. The first two seasons of Succession featured, respectively, a Kendall who tried to get his way through brute force and a Kendall who had been ground into the dirt beneath his father’s heel. In season three, he’s racing around, spouting social justice language, and declaring that his dad is just the worst. He has the zeal of a religious convert because, in a way, he is a religious convert. He has reevaluated the falsities he was raised with and come to discover a core tenet of the universe: His dad is just the worst. This newfound realization has made him pretty insufferable. Kendall, having seen the truth about one specific aspect of his life, now thinks he sees the truth about everything, and, well, there’s the religious convert aspect for you. I use the words “religious convert,” but Kendall’s behavior is also typical of people who’ve left fundamentalist religious movements or people who’ve recently come out as some flavor of queer or people whose political beliefs fall outside of the traditional conservative/liberal dyad. Any time you feel like you alone have grasped some fundamental principle about the way the world works, even if you’re 100 percent correct, you run the risk of convincing yourself that you can see the truth about everything, and becoming just a little bit insufferable to those around you. Reporting I’ve done for other, as yet unpublished, articles also informed how I thought about Kendall in this episode because this dynamic also often plays out in families where one or both parents were abusive. One of the children has a moment, usually in adulthood but sometimes earlier, when the glass shatters, and they suddenly realize the way they were raised was not okay. They often cut off their parents. But when they try to tell their siblings, their siblings haven’t had a similar epiphany. Often, the child who has become estranged from their parents will have some measure of independence from their parents. Their siblings might be more dependent financially or emotionally on their parents. That disparity can open up a rift among the siblings, one that can start to seem like a fight about who’s right about the true nature of their parents. The child who knowsthey’re right about the abuse (and often is right about it) will push and push and push, but the other kids just aren’t ready to go there. Hurtful things might be said, and relationships are badly damaged. Succession is exploring this exact scenario in season three. Kendall is absolutely right that his dad is a terrible person, but the ways in which he’s expressing that idea are an active turnoff to his siblings, who are still deeply ensnared in their father’s web. He keeps pushing them just a little too hard and a little too far, and they always snap back. But we don’t need to have any of the characters say this because the doughnuts, a stark symbol of Logan Roy’s omnipresent terror, efficiently and elegantly express the fear that Logan instills in his children. The instant they notice the box of doughnuts in the room, only Kendall (who, remember, has seen through his father’s bullying) is able to identify them as the intimidation tactic they are. They’re just doughnuts! They’re not the literal, physical presence of Logan Roy! They’re a symbol, an image, an object! The objective correlative is never the actual thing it points to, but it makes you feel that thing (in this case dread) deeply. So the other kids immediately begin to shrink away from the conflict they were thinking about entering. They’re out of the apartment. They’re back to Logan. Kendall understands what’s driving this response, asking them incredulously if they’re going to let themselves be rattled by a box of doughnuts. But, yeah. They are. One of Succession’s smartest moves is the way it flips a common characteristic of the antihero drama — the main character is always six steps ahead — to reveal how “mastermind” status can mask toxic and abusive tendencies. If this story were told more uncritically from Logan’s perspective, the box of doughnuts would be presented as a brilliant masterstroke, a way of intimidating his children into doing what he wants without seeing foot in the room. Logan isn’t a mastermind, though. He’s just a bully, and in the absence of his love, his children have been warped by fear. Kendall clearly thinks he’s broken free of that fear, but it seems much more likely that he’s just running scared. It would be so easy to let fear overcome him all over again, so he has to keep going and going and going. Shiv, Roman, Connor — they’re all still in its grip, and once Logan makes his presence known, they recommit to it. As Succession season three continues to unfold, pay attention to how often the show’s directors include many of the actors from the show’s considerable ensemble cast lurking in the same shot. These shots are peppered throughout “Mass in Time of War,” and they’re often used to contrast how the different Roy siblings react when Logan is either mentioned or makes his presence known via pastry. Some of them recoil, some of them sit up a little more sharply, some of them just look away. But they’re all reacting, often in very different ways. Succession is a show about all of the ways that abuse warps entire generations of families. If that wasn’t clear before “Mass in Time of War,” it should be now. Logan Roy doesn’t have to be present to get his children to do his bidding. All he has to do is send a single object, a symbol of his eternal, deeply angry affection. So when that box of doughnuts shows up, it’s like he’s sitting right there.
Why supply chain chaos and inflation could last into 2022
A container ship is docked at a port in Newark, New Jersey, on October 17, as supply chain disruptions continue. | Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Experts agree that high prices and low supplies aren’t going away just yet. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said on Friday that Americans should be prepared for the global supply chain to remain in crisis through 2022 — and that the central bank is preparing to deal with the attendant challenges for the US economy. Speaking at a Bank for International Settlements-South African Reserve Bank centenary conference, Powell warned that “supply-side constraints have gotten worse” over the course of the pandemic, while the supply chain and economic risks are “clearly now to longer and more-persistent bottlenecks, and thus to higher inflation.” Already, those bottlenecks have slowed international commerce to a crawl as shipping containers loaded with goods wait to be unloaded and experts advise making an early start on holiday shopping. In addition to packages taking longer to show up, consumers are likely also feeling the resulting inflation: The Consumer Price Index, a measure of the increase in the price of goods over a specific period, rose more than 5 percent in the 12 months ending in September, as Vox’s German Lopez explained. However, Americans’ appetite to consume hasn’t diminished. After a brief dip at the beginning of the pandemic, people have embraced both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail as pandemic restrictions have eased.That’sgood for an economy blitzed by Covid-19, but it’s also created its own set of challenges in the form of a backed-up supply chain that wasn’t built to weather a pandemic, and accompanying inflation as people buoyed by an economic recovery keep spending. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN Sunday, that likely won’t be a permanent problem: She expects “improvement by the middle to end of [2022],” and pointed out that monthly rates of inflation are already declining from earlier this year. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on inflation: "I expect improvement by the middle to end of next year."— The Recount (@therecount) October 24, 2021 For now, though, the Fed has some steps it can take to ease inflation, both in the short term and the long term. In the immediate term, as Powell said in September and reiterated Friday, the central bank will likely begin the process of “tapering,” or scaling back its purchases of government assets like Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The Federal Reserve spends about $120 billion per month on these assets to help fill the government’s coffers and fund the trillions in stimulus spending, which helped keep American markets afloat during the pandemic. High demand, as partially represented by inflation and made visible by the current supply chain crunch, signals to the Fed that its stimulus purchases are having the intended effect and won’t be needed much longer, and it’s safe to gradually reduce them — probably by about $15 billion per month starting in November. That could also ease supply chain issues by decreasing demand. In the long term, the Fed could also increase interest rates, which limits the amount of money in circulation, thus decreasing demand and thereby inflation. But that’s on the back burner for now, Powell said Friday, as the Fed watches and waits to see if inflation will slow and the labor market will regain its strength. However Powell and the Fed respond to inflation concerns, though, they won’t be able to fix the broken global supply chain — part of the reason inflation is so high in the first place — on their own. The supply chain was already strained; Covid-19 pushed it to the breaking point As Powell said Friday, inflation is being driven by high demand straining a supply chain that had issues even before the pandemic. But the global onslaught of Covid-19 knocked down that particular house of cards, and a healthy supply chain is still a fair ways off. Out in the real world, the supply chain has been disrupted at practically every level, from the factories producing goods, to the ports where they’re supposed to be unloaded and sent to store shelves, as Vox’s Sean Rameswaram detailed on Today, Explained last week. Starting at the manufacturing level, many businesses operate on a hair-trigger, “on demand” principle; they tend to make only what is projected to meet demand, because storing excess product in case of a supply chain or other crisis means manufacturers are spending more money on storage facilities — which they then can’t spend elsewhere, including on “bonuses for executives or dividends for shareholders,” as the New York Times’s Peter Goodman points out. But during the pandemic, shuttered or understaffed factories couldn’t produce what people needed, and large manufacturers didn’t have reserve supplies because they weren’t designed to operate that way — meaning goods like toilet paper and hand sanitizer were missing from grocery store shelves. Industry consolidation also contributes to supply chain chokepoints; if only one company produces computer chips, for example, there aren’t alternatives to draw on when the chip factory is closed, as many factories have been in different stages of the pandemic and continue to be in countries where vaccination rates are low. When manufacturing powerhouses, particularly China, were able to manufacture and ship necessary equipment like PPE, those products were shipped in large containers to lots of places that don’t ordinarily export goods to China. So shipping containers full of PPE sent to places like Southeast Asian and African countries couldn’t easily justify a return journey. Now, a global shortage — or really, misplacement — of shipping containers has driven up the cost of shipping goods by tens of thousands of dollars, which then passes down to the consumer. A shortage of truckers to deliver goods by land has contributed to the crisis, too. There’s also been a labor shortage as people fall ill or have to care for sick relatives, juggle child care and work, or, understandably, refuse to work for low wages in unsatisfactory conditions during a pandemic. In the US, vaccinations are helping tackle one side of the problem; people are able to return to work safely, and child care outside the home is becoming increasingly available as schools and day cares reopen. Vaccine mandates have helped improve workplace safety, but widespread strikes and resignations over the general state of work in America also contribute to the supply chain crunch, and don’t appear to be ending any time soon. All this leads to an astounding backup at ports on both coasts, with cargo ships anchored off the coasts of Savannah and Los Angeles, sometimes for days, as the ports scramble to store and ship all the cargo — otherwise known as the goods Americans are purchasing. And now that global manufacturing is back up — and so is demand — the system is in shambles, writes Recode’s Rebecca Heilweil: Global manufacturing has been operating at full capacity for more than a year. But without any slack to address worker shortages, bottlenecks, and delays, problems have only piled up. These issues have now reached a critical mass. So even though American consumers have started to order much more stuff, there’s no flexibility in the supply chain to accommodate that demand. How American consumerism breaks the supply chain Since the supply chain is a complex organism with lots of distinct parts, experts agree there will be no getting back to normal any time soon. World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala predicted last week at the Financial Times Africa Summit that the crisis could last for “several months” due to the “supply-demand mismatch,” which is poised to be exacerbated by the upcoming holiday season in many parts of the world. It’s bigger than Christmas shopping, though: As the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull writes, it’s a question of rethinking our lifestyles as American consumers and how our ability and desire to buy affects the rest of the world. If Americans buoyed by stimulus checks and discretionary spending directed more toward goods than experiences “could simply knock it off,” Mull argues — “it” being buying things we don’t really need or want — that would give a global supply chain stretched beyond its limits time to readjust. Will that magically fix the interdependent, logistically complicated machine that is the global supply chain? No — but reducing outsized demand for a limited supply of goods could reduce both supply chain strain and inflation. As Vox’s Terry Nguyen wrote earlier this week, Americans are not completely at the mercy of targeted Instagram ads or Amazon deals, as much as it can feel that way. Often, the motivation to buy is not based in need, but on our feelings — like boredom, sadness, or insecurity. Those purchases have repercussions not only for the economy, but also on the environment, and on labor practices throughout the supply chain. While it’s not earth-shattering to decide against buying yet another striped sweater, gaming console, or flat-screen TV — it won’t fix climate change or give overextended and underpaid laborers better conditions or pay —it’s still a step toward taking some pressure off the broken supply chain.
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How biological detective work can reveal who engineered a virus
Bio labs leave their distinctive traces on DNA and RNA they engineer. | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images Exciting new research should make it easier to hold rogue bioengineers accountable. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, wasn’t intentionally created in a lab. We don’t have much evidence one way or the other whether its emergence into the world was the result of a lab accident or a natural jump from animal to human, but we know for sure that the virus is not the product of deliberate gene editing in a lab. How do we know that? Bioengineering leaves traces — characteristic patterns in the RNA, the genetic code of a virus, that come from splicing in genes from elsewhere. And investigations by researchers have definitively shown that the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19 doesn’t bear the hallmarks of such manipulation. That fact about bioengineered viruses raises an interesting question: What if those traces that gene editing leave behind were more like fingerprints? That is, what if it’s possible not just to tell if a virus was engineered but precisely where it was engineered? That’s the idea behind genetic engineering attribution:the effort to develop tools that let us look at a genetically engineered sequence and determine which lab developed it. A big international contest among researchers earlier this year demonstrates that the technology is within our reach — though it’ll take lots of refining to move from impressive contest results to tools we can reliably use for bio detective work. The contest, the Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge, was sponsored by some of the leading bioresearch labs in the world. The idea was to challenge teams to develop techniques in genetic engineering attribution. The most successful entrants in the competition could predict, using machine-learning algorithms, which lab produced a certain genetic sequence with more than 80 percent accuracy, according to a new preprint summing up the results of the contest. This may seem technical, but it could actually be fairly consequential in the effort to make the world safe from a type of threat we should all be more attuned to post-pandemic: bioengineered weapons and leaks of bioengineered viruses. One of the challenges of preventing bioweapon research and deployment is that perpetrators can remain hidden — it’s difficult to find the source ofa killer virus and hold them accountable. But if it’s widely known that bioweapons can immediately and verifiably be traced right back to a bad actor, that could be a valuable deterrent. It’s also extremely important for biosafety more broadly. If an engineered virus is accidentally leaked, tools like these would allow us to identify where they leaked from and know what labs are doing genetic engineering work with inadequate safety procedures. The fingerprint of a virus Hundreds of design choices go into genetic engineering: “what genes you use, what enzymes you use to connect them together, what software you use to make those decisions for you,” computational immunologist Will Bradshaw, a co-author on the paper, told me. “The enzymes that people use to cut up the DNA cut in different patterns and have different error profiles,” Bradshaw says. “You can do that in the same way that you can recognize handwriting.” Because different researchers with different training and different equipment have their own distinctive “tells,” it’s possible to look at a genetically engineered organism and guess who made it — at least if you’re using machine-learning algorithms. The algorithms that are trained to do this work are fed data on more than 60,000 genetic sequences different labs produced. The idea is that, when fed an unfamiliar sequence, the algorithmsare able to predict which of the labs they’ve encountered (if any) likely produced it. A year ago, researchers at altLabs, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and other top bioresearch programs collaborated on the challenge, organizing a competition to find the best approaches to this biological forensics problem. The contest attracted intense interest from academics, industry professionals, and citizen scientists — one member of a winning team was a kindergarten teacher. Nearly 300 teams from all over the world submitted at least one machine-learning system for identifying the lab of origin of different sequences. In that preprint paper (which is still undergoing peer review), the challenge’s organizers summarize the results: The competitors collectively took a big step forward on this problem. “Winning teams achieved dramatically better results than any previous attempt at genetic engineering attribution, with the top-scoring team and all-winners ensemble both beating the previous state-of-the-art by over 10 percentage points,” the paper notes. The big picture is that researchers, aided by machine-learning systems, are getting really good at finding the lab that built a given plasmid, ora specific DNA strand used in gene manipulation. The top-performing teams had 95 percent accuracy at naming a plasmid’s creator by one metric called “top 10 accuracy” — meaning if the algorithm identifies 10 candidate labs, the true lab is one of them. They had 82 percent top 1 accuracy — that is, 82 percent of the time, the lab they identified as the likely designer of that bioengineered plasmid was, in fact, the lab that designed it. Top 1 accuracy is showy, but for biological detective work, top 10 accuracy is nearly as good: If you can narrow down the search for culprits to a small number of labs, you can then use other approaches to identify the exact lab. There’s still a lot of work to do. The competition looked at only simple engineered plasmids; ideally, we’d have approaches that work for fully engineered viruses and bacteria. And the competition didn’t look at adversarial examples, where researchers deliberately try to conceal the fingerprints of their lab on their work. How genetic fingerprinting can keep the world safer Knowing which lab produced a bioweapon can protect us in three ways, biosecurity researchers argued in Nature Communications last year. First, “knowledge of who was responsible can inform response efforts by shedding light on motives and capabilities, and so mitigate the event’s consequences.” That is, figuring out who built something will also give us clues about the goals they might have had and the risk we might be facing. Second, obviously, it allows the world to sanction and stop any lab or government that is producing bioweapons in violation of international law. And third, the article argues, hopefully, if these capabilities are widely known, they make the use of bioweapons much less appealing in the first place. But the techniques have more mundane uses as well. Bradshaw told me he envisions applications of the technology could be used to find accidental lab leaks, identify plagiarism in academic papers, and protect biological intellectual property — and those applications will validate and extend the tools for the really critical uses. It’s worth repeating that SARS-CoV-2 was not an engineered virus. But the past year and a half should have us all thinking about how devastating pandemic disease can be — and about whether the precautions being taken by research labs and governments are really adequate to prevent the next pandemic. The answer, to my mind, is that we’re not doing enough, but more sophisticated biological forensics could certainly help. Genetic engineering attribution is still a new field. With more effort, it’ll likely be possible to one day make attribution possible on a much larger scale and to do it for viruses and bacteria. That could make for a much safer future. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!
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