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A crypto billionaire donated $1 billion to India. Make sure you include an asterisk.
Vitalik Buterlin is a 27-year-old billionaire philanthropist. | David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images The saga highlights just how uncharted the territory is in the world of crypto philanthropy. A cryptocurrency billionaire seems to have made one of the largest contributions to save lives in India from the coronavirus pandemic: Over $1 billion. But as there so often is in the world of cryptocurrency, there is a massive catch. And it’s a catch that over the next few years will likely come up again and again and again as crypto billionaires ascend to become major players in the world of philanthropy. Here’s what happened: Vitalik Buterlin, the 27-year-old programmer who founded the cryptocurrency Ethereum, disclosed on Wednesday that he had contributed about $1.5 billion worth of coins to nonprofit organizations, some of which came in his own (and relatively stable) Ether. But $1 billion of that came in a donation of a more … unusual type. He donated it in the form of a meme digital currency called Shiba Inu Coin — yes, after the dog breed — that Buterlin was gifted for free. (Like the popular DogeCoin, which also features the dog as its mascot, the Shiba Coin has much hype but questionable underlying value.) But then, as is prone to happen in the topsy-turvy world of meme assets, Shiba Coin proceeded to tank in value immediately after Buterlin’s donation was disclosed — perhaps because buyers and sellers expected the billionaire to soon liquidate his holdings. The saga highlights just how uncharted the territory is in the world of crypto philanthropy — and perhaps the need to come up with a new vocabulary to describe these donations altogether. Should the donation of a meme cryptocurrency be considered equivalent to the donation of a publicly listed stock? What is a “real” donation, what deserves an asterisk, and who gets to make that call? And how can billionaires protect the value of their crypto donations — while also making sure that nonprofits can actually use their money? That all matters because there is a new generation of philanthropists who have built massive fortunes in not just traditional cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and but also in more out-there coins like those inspired by Dogecoin, the meme digital asset pumped up by Elon Musk. Nonprofits want to welcome these donors, but need to figure out how to handle assets that can tank in value overnight. What happened with Buterlin is instructive. Some of his contributions on Wednesday came in Ether, the highly-traded cryptocurrency and relatively older coin that he founded back in 2015. $50 million worth of Ether went to GiveWell, for instance, an intermediary that dispenses money to nonprofits that are proven to be the most effective based on rigorous data analysis. The price of Ether was relatively stable after his donation. But most of the headline value of the donation — and possibly also the tax writeoff that comes with it, depending on how the gift was structured — came from the memecoin, not Ether. Buterlin was given about 50% last year of the total supply of the coin, which is meant as an imitator to Dogecoin. But as soon as Buterlin’s donation became public, the value of the coin plummeted about 40%. That meant that the nonprofit, the India Covid-Crypto Relief, suddenly had less money on its hands than it did when Buterlin made the donation just moments before. And because of concerns that it could drop even further, the nonprofit’s head had to put out word that they would “act responsibly” to not hurt the price of the Shiba coin. That might mean not selling large chunks of the currency at once to covert into cash and tangible Covid-19 aid. That sensitivity could mean less liquid money for the relief fund to help India weather the humanitarian crisis that is gripping the country. The country is suffering from an oxygen shortage and is the world’s most troubling hotspot during this phase of the pandemic, with over 4,000 reported deaths some days. To be sure, this is hardly the first time that a billionaire has made donations in difficult-to-liquidate assets — whether it is rare art or stock in public companies that are held by current C-suite executives. But the rise of cryptocurrencies in the last few years has posed unique accounting and logistical challenges to institutions like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a favorite philanthropy of the tech billionaire class. But it’s clear that this problem, so to speak, is only going to get worse. While many mature nonprofits today are comfortable accepting a digital asset like Bitcoin, what new, volatile coins will the ingenious billionaire set seek to donate in the future? And this is increasingly not a fringe hypothetical, given that crypto billionaires are all over the list of the wealthiest people in the world. There is real money on the line, whether the donations come in Bitcoin or Shiba coin. And the world will have to adapt to these crypto billionaires if it wants to see their riches put to good use.
Beers, doughnuts, and discounts: The growing list of vaccine freebies
New Jersey residents who’ve received their first vaccine dose can receive a free beer at a participating brewery for the month of May. | Getty Images Half of American adults have received one vaccine dose. Could incentives close the gap? It’s been almost a month since all American adults were deemed eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. About 50 percent of Americans have received one dose so far, and cases in the US are on the decline. And while the pool of people who have expressed hesitation about being vaccinated has shrunk, vaccine incentives have become mainstream, initiated by corporations and politicians alike. Major corporations began announcing initiatives that “strongly encouraged” employee vaccination as early as February, with some offering extra pay and bonuses. As of late, however, such messaging has been geared toward the general public. In May, the White House announced a nationwide partnership with Uber and Lyft to offer free rides to and from vaccination sites from May 24 until July 4; it will also work with national grocery chains, retailers, and sports leagues to offer discounts and promotions for those who have been vaccinated. Local governments, in partnership with small businesses, have also championed freebies, with some leaning on booze or cash. New Jersey residents who’ve received their first vaccine dose can get a free beer at a participating brewery in May; so will Connecticut locals at certain restaurants from May 19 to May 31. More than two dozen Miami Beach businesses will offer free drinks and discounts throughout the end of the month; Chicago will host a concert series available to fully vaccinated residents starting May 22; and New Yorkers will be eligible for free tickets or deals to attractions like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. Meanwhile, cash incentives have been wielded more strategically: West Virginia will offer $100 savings bonds to 16- to 35-year-olds, in an effort to boost vaccination rates among young people. Maryland will pay state employees $100 to get a vaccine, and Detroit residents can receive a $50 prepaid card by participating in a city program to schedule and drive a neighbor to a vaccination site. A host of smaller limited-time vaccination deals have also made headlines. On April 20, for example, DC marijuana activists handed out free joints outside the city’s vaccination sites. The city of New Orleans will give vaccine recipients at one local clinic a free pound of crawfish on May 13, from 4 to 7 pm. So far, research suggests that some incentives are more effective in encouraging shots than others: Surveys conducted by researchers at UCLA determined that monetary payments and the ability to walk around maskless were the two strongest motivating factors when it came to getting vaccinated, although some experts are cautious of how financial offers could backfire. David Asch, executive director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, said in a recent interview with the Association of American Medical Colleges that money only works if people are already interested in pursuing a behavior. “If someone really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, I’m not sure there’s an amount of money we’d be willing to offer that would also work,” he said. “If we do offer money, we might actually inflame their concerns. Someone who has a lot of distrust of the vaccine might think, ‘They’d never offer money if this was a good thing.’” This was a similar line of concern for employers, who worried that such strategies could be seen as coercive or even discriminatory to those who are medically unable to take vaccines. “If someone really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, I’m not sure there’s an amount of money we’d be willing to offer that would also work” The varying levels of skepticism and hesitancy toward the vaccine make it challenging to gauge how effective incentives can be. Some might change their minds after observing the vaccine’s side effects on friends and family, and a freebie can provide an extra nudge. Others will be harder to convince. According to data from UCLA’s Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, a quarter of unvaccinated people say they don’t trust the government’s motives, and 14 percent believe Covid-19 is not a threat to them. The free incentives offered by local governments are generally geared toward those who’ve been on the fence or are in no hurry to receive a shot. Asch referred to a strategy called “social norming,” which leads people to actions when it seems like everyone around them is participating. People tend to be emotional rather than rational, he added, which is why incentives need to “anticipate the ways in which we’re not rational.” Online, people have shared all sorts of random anecdotes as to what motivated their family members and friends to get a shot. “I just found out that my dad is literally only getting vaccinated because of the krispy kreme thing,” one person shared in a viral (albeit unverifiable) tweet. In New York’s Erie County, a free beer promotion at a local brewery led to more than 100 vaccinations in one afternoon, according to the Buffalo News. According to a county executive, the brewery vaccine site attracted more people than most first-dose clinics in the past week. Convenience could also be a highly influential factor in whether a person is vaccinated. A number of unvaccinated Americans aren’t opposed or even skeptical to the vaccine, the New York Times reported, citing a new US Census estimate. About 30 million Americans just haven’t managed to, as a result of work schedules, language barriers, lack of transportation, disabilities, or other accessibility issues. “Hesitancy makes a better story because you’ve got controversy,” Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times. “But there’s a bigger problem of access than there is of hesitancy.” Certain freebies, like Uber and Lyft rides, could mitigate the prevailing problem of vaccine access, in addition to distribution location. Some states and cities are also shifting away from mass vaccination sites and considering more community-focused methods. Still, incentives come in handy because Americans love free stuff, even as some complain about the lengths needed to encourage others to get a vaccine. For what it’s worth, the “shot and beer” program has garnered enthusiasm among New Jersey residents, who thinks the strategy is in line with the state’s cultural reputation. Similar incentives have popped up nationwide, from Illinois to Minnesota to Colorado, leading people to declare, “I’d get the vaccine again if I can get free beer.”
The prospects for Democrats’ major voting rights bill look grim in the Senate
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). | Patrick Smith/Getty Images The filibuster is a problem, but it’s not the only problem. Congressional Democrats have declared the For the People Act their must-pass voting rights bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying that “failure is not an option.” But what if the must-pass bill can’t pass? That’s the dilemma party leaders may be forced to confront soon, as they try to move the bill, which passed the House in March, through the Senate. The upper chamber’s Democrats plan to meet to discuss strategy around the bill on Thursday. The nearly 800-page bill (often referred to by “HR 1” or “S 1,” its numbering in each chamber) would overhaul elections policy in the United States, setting national standards aimed at making it easier for more people to vote, outlawing partisan gerrymandering, and supercharging the power of small donations to federal candidates, among many other provisions. With the Republican Party becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of respecting election results (as seen in the purge of Rep. Liz Cheney from the House GOP’s leadership), Democrats argue something must be done to protect American democracy. Specifically, the For the People Act would counteract many voting restrictions passed by Republicans on the state level, and try to preempt a new round of partisan gerrymandering in GOP-controlled states. The bill has many provisions that poll well, but it faces formidable obstacles to passage through the Senate — from the filibuster to critiques from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to quieter misgivings from other Democrats. It doesn’t currently seem that Democrats have a plausible strategy for overcoming those obstacles. Schumer has indicated that his first step will be to try to unite all 50 Senate Democrats around the bill, rather than rushing toward consideration of a rules change aimed at getting it past the filibuster. That would entail winning over Manchin. But even if he achieves that, he’d also have to get Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and other moderates on board with changing the Senate’s rules. It won’t be easy. Four obstacles to the For the People Act’s chances of passing The For the People Act’s first problem is, of course, the legislative filibuster. Under current Senate rules, this bill would take 60 votes to advance past a certain GOP filibuster. Democrats have only 50 Senate seats, so they’d need to win over 10 Republicans. That isn’t happening — congressional Republicans have uniformly opposed the bill, believing it would hurt their party’s chances at winning elections. So for it to pass in anything like its current form, a change to Senate rules would be necessary. Democrats theoretically could ram through a rules change with their votes alone, either to abolish the filibuster entirely or to create a special new exemption to it for voting rights bills. The second problem, then, is that moderate Democrats simply don’t want to change the Senate’s rules to weaken the filibuster. Sens. Manchin and Sinema have been the most outspoken opponents of a rules change — Manchin told me last month that “if we get rid of the filibuster, we would lose the purpose of this democracy.” An unknown number of other moderate Democrats sympathize with this view. So they don’t have the votes for a rules change right now. The third problem is that, even if Democrats lined up the votes to abolish the filibuster somehow, Manchin has said he’s inclined to oppose any party-line effort to overhaul voting in the country. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked, arguing that such a move would fuel more “anarchy” of the kind that occurred at the Capitol on January 6. If Manchin holds firm on this, the For the People Act is essentially dead. Then there’s a fourth problem — that other congressional Democrats quietly have misgivings about aspects of the For the People Act, as I wrote in April. The party has near-unanimity around the bill in public, with all but one House Democrat voting for it, and every Senate Democrat except Manchin co-sponsors it. But some members of the Congressional Black Caucus aren’t thrilled about it (fearing its redistricting reforms would dilute predominantly Black districts), and moderate senators have doubts as well. So there’s really only one even remotely plausibleway the For the People Act can become law: All 50 Democratic senators, including Manchin, have to be united in support of not only the bill itself (meaning either the bill has to change or the holdouts have to cave) but also of a Senate rules change that would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority and escape a filibuster. Activists say they’ll fight to try to make sure that happens, with Ezra Levin of the progressive group Indivisible telling NBC News, “We are at an inflection point in American history. Down one path is a Trump-inspired white plutocracy, and down the other is a representative democracy.” But it’s unclear whether these activists have any leverage in dealing with Manchin, who is the last Democrat standing in a state that Trump won by a margin of nearly 39 points in 2020. Progressives hope someone — whether that’s Schumer, President Joe Biden, or someone else — can figure out how to make Manchin move. In the end, though, the decision will be up to him. And when I asked him about the filibuster, he said his recent op-ed declaring there is “no circumstance” in which he will vote to weaken or eliminate it means what it says. “If you want to argue about it for two years,” he told me, “then you’re going to waste a lot of your energy and your time.” If he holds firm, that puts Democratic leaders in quite an awkward position. They’ve insisted to their base that passing this bill is essential to preserve American democracy — yet they may not be able to actually do it.
Tesla is casting a spotlight on the government’s struggle to keep up with self-driving cars
Tesla is one of several car companies introducing increasingly autonomous features into cars meant to be operated by human drivers. | Toru Hanai/Bloomberg via Getty Images Concerns about features like Autopilot aren’t going unnoticed in Washington. Tesla’s Autopilot software, an advanced driver assistance feature, is in the news again. And not in a good way. Over the weekend, a short video of a person sitting in the back seat of a driverless Tesla operating on public roads in California caught the internet’s attention. The six-second video shows a man staring out the window from the back of the Tesla that’s driving down the road. There’s nobody in the driver’s seat. California Highway Patrol says it’s now searching for the man behind the “unusual incident.” This latest viral video may not even be the first time this particular person has tried the stunt and is especially concerning since two people died in a Tesla crash in Texas last month. Following the crash, local authorities suggested that no one was in the driver’s seat, causing speculation that the vehicle was being operated through its driver assistance feature Autopilot, a claim that Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other executives at the company disputed. A preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that Autopilot couldn’t have been in use at the time of the crash. The NTSB is continuing to research the accident, and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting its own investigation. Still, the event highlights the dangerous, ongoing confusion over Tesla’s autonomous driving capabilities and how people are using them.All new Tesla vehicles come with all the sensors and cameras the company says it needs to deliver autonomous driving features, though the technology is not quite the same as more elaborate setups you might see in self-driving cars from companies like Waymo. In fact, Tesla drivers can buy both the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features as software upgrades. There even seems to be some confusion between Musk and Tesla over what the self-driving features can do. A newly published public records report shows Tesla officials saying that Elon Musk has been overpromising the autonomous abilities of Tesla cars. Musk said in January that he’s “extremely confident” that Tesla cars will reach full autonomy by the end of this year. He’s made similar statements over the past five years. Ongoing concerns about Tesla highlight how lawmakers and regulators are struggling to keep up with self-driving technology that’s showing up in cars that aren’t quite fully autonomous. While states make their own rules for the testing of self-driving vehicles, federal standards for commercially available vehicles are set by the NHTSA. The body can also exempt a certain number of vehicles from these standards for the purpose of testing self-driving cars. But there’s still ongoing debate about how the government should approach the increasingly autonomous features popping up in our everyday cars. Now some members of Congress are pushing the Transportation Department to do more, and through new proposed legislation, lawmakers are broadening the agency’s role in order to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new features, like pedestrian avoidance and driver monitoring. Last week, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) proposed new legislation that would force the agency to study crash avoidance tech, following up on legislation reintroduced this year that would force companies with advanced driver assistance tech to monitor that drivers are actually paying attention. But as long as car companies, like Tesla, continue to push out new, ever-more-autonomous features — without clear regulatory standards — people will be driving in a potentially dangerous gray zone. Self-driving car tech, briefly explained While fully autonomous cars that don’t need a human driver behind the wheel are still in development, plenty of semi-autonomous features are already available in the vehicles that are on the road.These tools use different types of sensors to observe what’s happening on the road, and then employ sophisticated computing power to make decisions for the vehicle. The transition to fully autonomous vehicles isn’t happening all at once. It’s happening gradually as individual features that require the driver to do less and less get rolled out. The NHTSA sorts autonomy into six levels, where Level 0 has no autonomous features and Level 5 is fully autonomous and doesn’t require a driver. “Right now, the automation systems that are on the road from companies such as Tesla, Mercedes, GM, and Volvo, are Level 2, meaning the car controls steering and speed on a well-marked highway, but a driver still has to supervise,” explained Vox’s Emily Stewart in 2019. “By comparison, a Honda vehicle equipped with its ‘Sensing’ suite of technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, and emergency braking detection, is a Level 1.” Sorting out and enforcing the dividing line between these various levels of autonomy has proven complicated and can give people a false sense of security in these cars’ capabilities. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, in particular, has been a source of confusion. Autopilot allows the car to operate itself within a given lane, combining a cruise control feature and an auto-steering feature. In the recently published documents that showed the gap between what Elon Musk has said in public about Autopilot’s capabilities and what the feature can actually do, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said that “Tesla is currently at Level 2.” Since at least 2016, Musk has been saying that every new Tesla could drive itself, a claim he’s repeated many times. Tesla officials have said privately that what Musk says about Autopilot and full self-driving capabilities for Tesla’s vehicles does not “match engineering reality.” (Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, dropped the term “self-driving” earlier this year and committed to using “more deliberate language” in its marketing.) Autopilot currently requires drivers to pay attention and keep their hands on the steering wheel. But drivers can end up overrelying on the tech, and it appears some have figured out ways to avoid Tesla’s related safety features. There have been multiple videos showing people riding alone in the back seat of Tesla vehicles, and people have been caught asleep at the wheel presumably with Autopilot engaged. There is also a growing list of Autopilot-related crashes. At the same time, Tesla has moved to beef up Autopilot’s autonomous capabilities by adding a feature for automatic lane changing and is now rolling out the full self-driving feature in beta mode to a small group of drivers. The company promises to make its cars fully autonomous and plans a broad release later this year. But it’s not clear that Autopilot is entirely safe. The NHTSA is investigating 23 crashes that may have involved Tesla Autopilot. Tesla, which dissolved its PR department last year, did not reply to Recode’s request for comment. Federal agencies like the NHTSA are supposed to be taking the lead on setting standards for evaluating autonomous features. However, in April, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) urged the agency to “develop recommendations for improving automated driving and driver assistance systems” and “implement policy changes that stop these preventable deaths from occurring.” They’re not alone, and other members of Congress have been also been thinking about creating new rules, like expanding the number of self-driving exemptions the NHSTA can give. Even car manufacturers have signed on to the idea that the NHSTA could do more. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that represents carmakers like Ford and General Motors, says that forward collision warnings, automatic braking, and lane assistance tech need to be evaluated by regulators and included in NHSTA’s new car rating system. Lawmakers want murky standards improved Lawmakers, safety advocates, and even representatives of the industry are demanding more discerning federal standards to govern autonomous features, including crash avoidance features and driver assistance tools built into cars that are already on the road. These critics are specifically calling for more research from the Transportation Department, a task they say is important even before fully self-driving cars are on the road. “Before we get to autonomous technology that can do everything that people can do, there’s a real opportunity to introduce lifesaving technology into vehicles that people will still be driving,” said Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit that focuses on auto industry consumers. The NHTSA has created testing protocols for some features, like collision warnings and automatic emergency braking. It has also requested public comment on what autonomous vehicle safety rules should be. But the agency has yet to create any national standards for how well crash avoidance and driver assistance features ought to perform, according to Ensar Becic, an investigator for highway safety for the NTSB. Still, cars are increasingly being equipped with increasingly autonomous features. As automakers debut more and more advanced driver and safety features and inch toward more self-driving abilities, NHSTA has recommended more and more of these tools. But there’s also growing concern that the agency isn’t providing enough information about how well these tools should actually work. “Manufacturers are out there advertising their different versions of this technology, without any true sense of oversight,” Levine added. Now lawmakers think the NHTSA and the Transportation Department as a whole should have a role in more stringently evaluating this tech. Last month, Sens. Markey, Blumenthal, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reintroduced the Stay Aware for Everyone Act, which would require the Department of Transportation to look at how driver assistance tools, like Tesla’s Autopilot, are impacting driver disengagement and distraction, and would mandate that companies institute driver monitoring tools to make sure drivers are paying attention to the road. “With NHTSA often slow to act and auto manufacturers rushing to put new autonomous features in cars, this bill and other congressional action that puts public and driver safety first is necessary,” Blumenthal told Recode. He’s also urging President Joe Biden to fill the vacancy for NHTSA administrator to “ensure our country’s top auto safety agency has the leadership needed as this new technology rapidly advances.” Others also want a better system for regulating how well these autonomous features perform. The legislation Rush, the Democratic representative from Illinois, introduced last week with his Republican co-sponsor Larry Bucshon (R-IN) would order Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commission a study on the safety of crash avoidance features and how well these systems identify pedestrians and cyclists with different skin tones. The bill, called the Crash Avoidance System Evaluation Act, comes after research from the Georgia Institute of Technology finding that people with darker skin tones are less accurately detected by technology that could be used in self-driving cars. “We certainly do not want to unleash vehicles on our nation’s streets and highways that can’t guarantee all Americans, all pedestrians, all bicyclists that they are protected equally,” Rush told Recode. “I am concerned … the technology can’t guarantee that I have the same protection against being harmed by a self-driving vehicle as someone who has a darker skin tone or a lighter skin tone.” Rush’s proposal, Levine added, would force the agency to make this key type of safety information public. In February, the NTSB chair wrote to the NHTSA urging the agency to develop performance standards for collision avoidance features, like vehicle detection and emergency braking. “We know that creating new motor vehicle safety standards or revising old ones to bring up to date is very time-consuming and very resource-intensive,” said Will Wallace, the manager for safety policy at Consumer Reports. “This is an agency that is chronically underfunded. The agency doesn’t have anywhere near the resources that it needs to protect the public effectively. It’s incumbent on Congress to give the agency what it really needs.” Lack of detailed requirements for these kinds of autonomous tools put the US behind other parts of the world, including new car rating systems in Japan, Australia, and Europe. The US’s new car assessment program doesn’t rate these advantaged technologies, explained Becic of the NTSB. Neither automatic braking nor lane assistance features are designed to allow a car to operate without a driver’s full attention. And, again, the public availability of fully autonomous cars is still years away. Some think that moment may never arrive. Still, these features set a foundation for what regulating roads full of self-driving vehicles could eventually involve. Figuring out how to regulate autonomous car features is important not just for cars that already offer them — it’s key to building a future where the roads are safe for everyone.
The many Asian Americas
Illustration by Julia Kuo for Vox Six writers on where they grew up and how it shaped their identities. This article is part of the Asian American identity series. For the fast-growing group of roughly 23 million Asian Americans, where a person grows up can have a particularly profound effect on their sense of cultural identity. The Asian diaspora spreads across all 50 states. But the largest Asian populations tend to be in diverse coastal cities where immigrants have historically clustered. The largest Asian American community by population is in New York City, while the next four — Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego — are in California, which sits on the coast closer to the Asian continent. These locations have deep ties to the history of Asian migration, and Chinese neighborhoods in many of these cities date back to the 1800s, when migrants started arriving in large numbers as laborers. Hawaii, too, has a long history of Filipino, Japanese, and other Asian arrivals who migrated to work as laborers and remained on the islands. Honolulu today is the American city with the highest percentage of Asian Americans, who make up almost 70 percent of the population. Still, many Asian Americans don’t grow up in places like Honolulu, but in diverse cities or enclaves far from the coasts or mostly white rural towns or suburbs. And many who responded to a recent Vox survey about Asian American identity told us that where they grew up (and where they eventually moved) had a significant impact on how they perceived themselves. “It was infuriating when I first came to the US and moved to a small town in Alabama and experienced my first racial mocking and physical harassment at middle school.” “I think I was relatively fortunate to not experience too much overt racism, coming from a lower-income, multicultural neighborhood.” “I grew up in a very white, upper-middle-class area, and I just wanted to fit in. I hid my Asianness throughout my entire childhood.” “As a third-generation ‘American’ having lived most of my life in Hawaii, I don’t even know if I can really say I’ve experienced any ‘real’ racism that was meant to be hateful.” “The PEN15 episode where Maya has to be Scary Spice was ripped scene-for-scene from my childhood. I moved to the Bay Area to raise my kids so that they don’t have to experience the ‘othering’ in the way that I did.” “I grew up in an Irish Italian Catholic suburb. The racism I encountered was annoying but ultimately benign.” “Having lived mostly in California and Hawaii, I think we have it easy, as opposed to my cousins who grew up in Texas.” “I grew up as one of few Asians and the only Cantonese person in my Southern US community. How I feel about being Asian is quite different as an adult living in Los Angeles, where being Asian is far more common.” We also asked six Asian American writers to share how they were shaped by their environments, and whether there were places they eventually visited that challenged their notions of identity. Their responses revealed a patchwork of different experiences in the many Asian Americas that exist across the country, from small, homogeneous towns to diverse, working-class city communities to wealthy white suburbs. While racial identity is only one facet of a person’s life, for these writers, growing up in or eventually discovering a cultural community shaped their sense of safety and freedom to be themselves as Asian Americans. Here are their stories. “It made me start to think: Maybe someday I won’t live in this super-white place” I grew up in southern Oregon, around five hours from Portland, which was the closest big city. I’m Korean American and my adoptive family is white — so not only did I grow up in a place that felt very insular and was very white, especially around the time that I was growing up there, I [also] did not actually get to know or become close with any fellow Korean Americans the entire time I lived there. Like a lot of kids, I looked for representation without knowing to call it that. I didn’t have any mirrors in real life, and at the time representation was also hard to find in literature or movies or shows. Because I didn’t see anyone else like me as a little kid, sometimes I really did feel like the only Asian — even though, intellectually, I knew I wasn’t. When I was 10, my parents took me back to Seattle, where I was born and adopted. It was the first time I had been around large groups of fellow Asians [or] had ever seen so many just walking around in public. We went to the Chinatown-International District, and I remember obsessively watching people there all day long. I looked at every Asian woman around my mother’s age and wondered, “Could she be my mother?” I felt deeply comforted by that trip and that day specifically; it made me start to think about what it would be like not to be the only Asian kid I knew. I thought, maybe someday I won’t live in this super-white little town; maybe I’ll live somewhere that feels more comfortable to me. Until I actually saw it, I didn’t know it was possible. Being the only Korean I knew growing up was formative in a lot of ways, but at the same time, those ways are hard to identify and pin down when you’re still living there. It took years of no longer living there to begin to unravel the different ways that it shaped me. When I went to college, I remember being conscious of wanting to live in a more diverse space and not be the only Asian or the only person of color in the room anymore. But the biggest change for me, honestly, was in how I talked about my adoption. Once I was no longer with my white family day in and day out, once that was no longer the context in which people knew or saw me, it was my choice to disclose whether or not I was adopted. I’d grown up answering people’s questions about my family and how I got to be in it, why I had white parents. To suddenly not have to do that all the time anymore was a huge change. —Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know “I didn’t fit in. ... But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me.” I was born and raised in a suburb of Miami, Florida, and never knew a time that I was not part of my close-knit Pakistani American community. One of the first things my father did when he immigrated to the United States in the ’60s was to grab a phone book and go down the names methodically, calling anyone with surnames from the motherland and hoping for someone to answer his call. The method proved fruitful. He found the location of the nearby mosque and the beginnings of lifelong friendships. My childhood memories are filled with potluck parties and savory saag, hand-tossed rotis, and an ever-present vat of chai simmering on the stove. These gatherings were a place of comfort for my parents. A safe space where they could speak in Urdu or Punjabi and feel completely understood. It was a safe haven for me, too. Growing up, school was not a place to learn but instead a place to survive bullies and taunts. I didn’t fit in. The food packed in my lunchbox was unfamiliar and presumed disgusting. My mismatched clothes, my too-short haircut, were rife for taunts. But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me, straddling their hyphenated American identities, who understood my situation. When difficult school moments arose, it was these kids I turned to. As an adult now, my personal community is far more expansive in diversity and scope than the one I grew up in, but I remain grateful for my childhood experiences with fellow ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) kids. I am grateful I did not have to navigate my hyphenated identity alone. —Aisha Saeed, author of Amal Unbound and Written in the Stars “I couldn’t help but feel ... that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the ‘correct’ kind of Asian” I grew up in a diverse, working-class community in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. I was aware of my Asian American identity as simply skin color and where my parents were from — a big continent called Asia. It wasn’t until I started going to high school in a more affluent area that I realized how different I was from even other Asian Americans. My Asian American classmates had parents who were doctors and lawyers, who spoke English without an accent, and whose family tree in the US could be traced back several generations. Meanwhile, my parents were immigrants who did manual labor and were more comfortable speaking Vietnamese. I couldn’t help but feel my Asian American identity differently then, feeling that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the “correct” kind of Asian from a place people could easily identify (China, Japan, South Korea) with a lifestyle that I wasn’t familiar with (new cars for birthdays, summers without a food service job, connections to Ivy League schools). There was working-class teenage jealousy there, but at the same time it made me feel more tied to the working-class people I grew up with. It wasn’t until Ali Wong joked about “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” that I understood how Asian American identity is entangled in ethnicity and class. Today I make more than my parents have ever made, and I live near the area where those classmates once lived. But there’s still that consciousness of class, race, and ethnicity that took root in my younger years. —Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost to The Water “It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country” I was born in Seoul, and then I moved to LA with my family. In fifth grade, we moved to a small town called Cerritos, which is where I did the bulk of my growing up. The town itself is mostly Asian, and my high school was something like 80 percent Asian. Koreans made up a majority of that 80 percent, and I’m Korean. There were so many Koreans that the languagewas offered as an elective. Even people who weren’t Korean would take it, and they joked that it was because they wanted to know what the rest of us were saying when we were talking shit. It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country. Then I went to college on the East Coast and lived in New York for a few years after that. College came as a shock, especially given the town I was from. In college, in addition to the high concentration of white people, the level of wealth was wild to me. There, and again in grad school, when I started attending literary parties and events in New York, it was so common that I would go somewhere and be the only person of color or Asian person in the entire room. Then I moved to the Bay Area. I remember I went to meet some friends of a friend, and I texted them, “I’ll be the Asian girl wearing black.” And they both just laughed and were like “Dude, that’s not going to fly here. There are so many Asian women wearing black.” I thought, “What on earth? That always worked in New York!” It was so wonderful. I was so tired of being the only Asian person in the room. I feel really lucky, in some ways, that I grew up around so many Asians. And as an adult, I don’t feel any shame whatsoever around my race. I have plenty of shame otherwise; shame is the water I’m swimming in, but I don’t feel that way about being Asian. I love being Asian, I love being Korean, and I always have. And that’s not something that all my Asian friends have necessarily been given by their own upbringing, which means I’ve been very lucky, and which means that I should — and very much want to — pass along that luck. —R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries “America still holds that sense of exotica for me” Before starting middle school in America, I had fantasized for months in India about a school with lockers, no uniforms, some teachers who audaciously went by their first names, brightly colored classrooms, and plastic lunch trays. School in New Delhi had not looked like that, but I watched The Wonder Years every evening as though it were a documentary about a fascinating faraway place. America was so exotic to me. In the US, I showed up on day one in my J.C. Penney purple leggings and everyone in the class instantly connected my name to a dick, a penis, and laughed. They had no idea how to pronounce a soft D. They asked me if I rode a camel to school in India. I was too shocked by their limited imagination about India to be offended. But, “fair enough,” I thought, “they don’t know anything about India.” I myself was wrong about students in America only taking folders to class like Kevin Arnold. Everyone had backpacks. Now, years later — as I divide my time between India and America, fortunate enough to be able to call both home — America still holds that sense of exotica for me. Living on two different sides of the world means that America is not my center. I grew up surrounded by Bollywood, and now my husband and I live and work on the peripheries of this industry in which I see myself constantly represented. It’s one reason why the very idea of representation, and wanting more of it in America, rarely occurs to me. If home is where I don’t have to give the Starbucks barista a fake name, then India it is. But if home is where I graduated from high school, then the United States it is. And I choose both. That feels increasingly precarious in the US where others may label me an outsider based on my skin and vocal intonations. But I choose to be Indian and American, no hyphens, no division, no combination.—Diksha Basu, author of Destination Wedding and The Windfall “In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that” I grew up in one of the whitest towns in California, in Marin County. Perhaps predictably, living there, I didn’t want anything to do with my Japanese American identity. I hated my Japanese first name and strove to get as close to white as possible. I was quick to say that I knew nothing about Japan — and that I didn’t even like rice! All that started to change in college. There, the student body was more diverse, and I started taking classes on race, identity, and history.Before long, I did a 180 and dove into my Japanese-ness, learning the language and studying abroad in Japan. As a fourth-generation, mixed-race Japanese American, however, I didn’t exactly feel accepted in the motherland, either. I didn’t feel instantly at home anywhere until I moved to Honolulu in my late 20s. I initially went just for the summer, to dog-sit for a friend’s law professor, but once I was there, I didn’t want to leave. In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that. People could pronounce my name; everywhere, I saw my Japanese American culture reflected back at me; and an Asian-white face like mine was both common and held up as an ideal. Living in Hawaii felt intoxicating, but over time I saw how that experience came at a price. My acceptance there came at the expense of Native Hawaiians who have been displaced. Being at the top of the racial hierarchy only feels good if you don’t think about the people below you. After a couple of years, I moved back to California, seeking places with more diversity than where I grew up. I now live in Sacramento, a city with a large Asian American population, but also racial segregation, due to a history of redlining and racial exclusion covenants. These days, I think a lot about what neighborhood I want to raise my daughter in, knowing how much her location can shape her Asian American identity. —Akemi Johnson, author of Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa
Myanmar’s coup is uniting a country riven by ethnic divisions. Will it last?
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in downtown Yangon on May 6. | STR/AFP via Getty Images Protesters and activists faced a reckoning about Myanmar’s past decade of civilian rule. Now they say they are fighting for a real federal democracy. Su Thit has a table in a corner by the window in her home. She no longer sits there at night. “You never know when the bullets will fly,” she says. She fears the Myanmar military might shoot at random. At 8 pm, when people still bang pots and pans in protest, security forces will sometimes fire at the sounds — with slingshots, stones, bullets. Su Thit, a pseudonym she is using for her safety, lives in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. She began protesting in early February, when demonstrators swarmed the streets in defiance of a military coup that toppled the country’s quasi-democratic government and detained its civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Su Thit, 30, lived abroad but returned to Myanmar in the past decade when the country, with a new constitution, began to ease into civilian rule. She wanted to be a small part of that future. She supported Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and, like the rest of her family, she voted for the party in the elections last November. When the military claimed voter fraud in that election to justify its takeover of the civilian government, she knew it was a lie. When the military began massacring protesters, she knew her purpose — to be a small part of Myanmar’s future — would now require something different. Out on the streets, among the mass of protesters, she felt motivated. “We began to understand that it will be a long road,” Su Thit says. “It would not be finished in one week or one month.” Just a little more than three months since the coup, Su Thit’s belief in a long road is bearing out. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — professionals and civil servants who refused to work — and street protests have turned into something much more sustained. STR/AFP via Getty Images Security forces walk past shops searching for protesters in downtown Yangon on May 6. “Everyone is against the military,” Wathone, a 27-year-old protester in Yangon, said, using a pseudonym that he says means “rain”; it used to be his pen name when he wrote poetry as a teen. “If there was no coup,” Wathone added, “we wouldn’t have this kind of unity.” This unrelenting opposition to Myanmar’s military has brought together people of different classes, ages, and most importantly, ethnic and religious groups — many of whom have been marginalized and brutalized by Myanmar’s military, some for the entire life of the country. “We have our own common enemy,” said Moon Nay Lin, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, an advocacy and human rights organization to help those in Kachin state, where an insurgent movement has been at war with the state on and off for decades. “All of the people from Burma, including the ethnic people, are the same feeling on military,” Moon Nay Lin added, referring to Myanmar by its former name. The coalition that has formed against the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, has also forced the country to reckon with what should, or could, replace it. At first, the protesters called for the release of political detainees and the restoration of democracy. Now they want something radically different. “The call is much bigger now,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, an activist with Burma Campaign UK. They want to see the military dictatorship fall; they want to see the 2008 constitution — which ushered in Myanmar’s civilian government but kept ultimate authority in the military’s hands — abolished for good. They want to establish a federal democratic union with equal rights and equal treatment for all. “If there was no coup, we wouldn’t have this kind of unity” “That’s why people are very determined to get rid of this military, once and for all, because we don’t want to go back to this situation in another 10 years' time,” Wai Hnin added. This determination has, against dangerous and unfathomably difficult odds, lent the movement a kind of desperate optimism. Protesters, advocates, and ethnic civil society groups inside and outside Myanmar believe the struggle is winnable, although they realize it’s unlikely to happen with nonviolent protests alone. For now, Su Thit avoids the table by the window and makes sure her phone is clear of any social media if she goes outside. She still helps organize protests, small ones, where people converge quickly in one location, and just as quickly disappear. This is daily life in Myanmar, a country convulsing toward revolution. “I think we can still win,” Su Thit said. “It’s just that I’m not too sure how — and how long will it take.” The great awakening that gave the protests life Ashley Wai, a 20-year-old former medical student in Yangon, used to believe Aung San Suu Kyi would take care of everything. She trusted her, as did most people she knew. “We thought everything she did was right,” she said. Suu Kyi is an almost mythical figure in Myanmar. She is the daughter of the man who helped win the country’s independence, and the country’s pro-democracy champion, put under house arrest by the military from 1989 until 2010. So when Suu Kyi defended the military’s brutal operations in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims there — operations a United Nations report found were carried out with “genocidal intent” — Wai supported them. She thought the military was defending her from invaders. She called the Rohingya “Bengalis” — a conspiracy theory that suggests the Rohingya are foreigners and unauthorized immigrants. K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images An overview of a Rohingya refugee camp after a fire broke out on March 22, destroying thousands of shelters and killing 15 people. When the coup happened, Wai joined protests calling for Suu Kyi to be freed. But something felt wrong. She started to see the military’s shocking violence at these protests, the so-called defenders of the nation turning their weapons on their own people. She started learning about the military’s history, her country’s history. A mentor in the movement told her to read a book about the Rohingya genocide. “Why didn’t I know? Why was I silent when they did the same in Rakhine? Why didn’t I know? Why was I so stupid?” she said she asks herself, over and over. In early February, Wai publicly apologized for the treatment of the Rohingya people, and for her ignorance. It was scary, she said, and a few friends turned against her. But she is also ashamed and angry for having done nothing before. For her,this fight to build a new country is part awakening, part atonement. Wai’s experience is an extreme example of the kind of revelation that has happened among many young protesters, especially among the majority Bamar ethnic group. “Some of us were brainwashed,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “But now everyone understands what the Rohingya feel, what the ethnic groups feel.” Myanmar’s military has had some degree of control since the country gained independence in 1948. In the late 1980s, protests kicked off by students built a pro-democracy movement where Suu Kyi rose to prominence, and which tried to challenge the military’s grip. In the decade that followed, Myanmar remained cut off from the world. The repressive regime became a political and economic pariah in the West, and the US placed hefty sanctions on the country for years. In 2008, the Tatmadaw adopted a new constitution with some small democratic openings. In 2015, Suu Kyi won the elections and became the de facto civilian leader. In response, the US lifted those sanctions. The military retained significant power under the new arrangement. Suu Kyi, too, also deferred to the Tatmadaw, most notably in its campaign against the Rohingya. She referred to evidence of atrocities as “fake news” and framed the crackdown as operations against terrorism. And in 2019, she defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands. And many of her biggest supporters, especially those in the Bamar majority like Ashley Wai, deferred to her. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse state, but minority ethnic groups have been long marginalized and, like the Rohingya, face discrimination, structural racism, and often violence. The military, throughout its history, used this to its advantage, framing these groups as a threat to the country that necessitated a strong military response. “The military has based its profits and power on perpetuating eternal ethnic conflict in the country, because that was its very rationale for its existence,” said David Brenner, a lecturer in conflict and security at the University of Sussex and author of Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands. Many supporters of Suu Kyi and the NLD who believed in democracy and distrusted military rule didn’t necessarily reject a role for the military. A thread of chauvinism ran through it all, and tightly controlled information — or outright misinformation — meant people didn’t fully understand the scale and relentless of the military’s violence against some groups. Stringer/Getty Images Mourners make three-fingered salutes while carrying the coffin of Aung Kaung Htet, 15, who was killed when military junta forces opened fire on anti-coup protesters in Yangon, on March 21. Stringer/Getty Images Aung Kaung Htet’s sister cries while holding a portrait of him during his funeral. Nickey Diamond, a human rights advocate with Fortify Rights, said that, especially when it came to the Rohingya, they were framed as “an external threat like Islamic terrorism.” The coup has dramatically shaken that faith. “Many of them have changed their opinion after what they have seen, the true color of military,” Su Thit said. “They were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that. This could actually happen in other areas as well. And it happened to us.’” That has led to public apologies like Wai’s, regrets and admonitions flooding Facebook and other social media networks of young protesters and activists. “We did apologize to Rohingya people, to ethnic people,” Wathone said. “Now we understand what you have suffered. We will no longer discriminate; we will no longer ignore your identity.” Feelings about Aung San Suu Kyi are much more complicated, and some protesters I spoke to still see her as doing her best against the military. She’s a figure they still admire and honor, even if, perhaps, a new generation is rising up. Ashley Wai told me, “I hate her because I loved her so much.” But on the military, the feelings are clear: “People are very united,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya and founder of the Women’s Peace Network, which advocates for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. “They started to realize the suffering of the Rohingya, the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, all of these things were true. In the past, they did not believe they were true, but now they started to realize that if this could happen to us, for this community, it could be worse.” The civil wars and ethnic conflicts they had ignored or disbelieved had come to Yangon and Mandalay, their own cities. And when that happened, protesters turned to the ethnic armed organizations themselves for protection. Unity, but with wariness attached Nickey Diamond fled from Yangon in mid-March. His work on human rights had always made him a target, but the danger only intensified after the coup. He sought haven from the Karen National Union, a political organization representing the Karen people, which operates in eastern Myanmar, in the jungle borderlands with Thailand. The conflict there, which has existed in some form since 1948, is sometimes called the world’s longest-running civil war. Diamond, who asked to use his English name, is not alone; as the military escalated its crackdown in cities like Yangon, protesters, activists, and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement fled to areas held or defended by armed ethnic organizations. These groups are now sheltering them and providing them food. They are also, in some cases, providing military training, to prepare them to fight the junta. These groups are providing this aid as the Myanmar military is continuing to target these areas with air strikes and other attacks, displacing civilians and forcing some to flee, such as ethnic Karen trying to escape into Thailand. This is not a new role for these groups. “There is a history of ethnic armed groups looking after these young Bamar activists,”saidJenny Hedström, associate senior lecturer in war studies at the Swedish Defense University. During the student uprising in late 1980s and ’90s, protesters also escaped to territories controlled by ethnic armed organizations. There, they sought refuge, food, and training. “60 years of division and 60 years of racial and ethnic vitriol don’t go away overnight” Butthe refuge and support they provided to pro-democracy activists did not necessarily translate to a change in status for the ethnic minority groups, including during the transition to democracy under the leadership of the NLD. That has made those groups a bit wary this time around. “The sense that I get the most is of excitement and potential new mindset — but also huge mistrust and fear that are they going to be used once again,” said Mabrur Ahmed, founder and director of Restless Beings, a UK-based human rights group that works closely with Rohingya communities. He said there is genuine hope for reform and a belief in a new Myanmar and in reconciliation. “But 60 years of division and 60 years of racial and ethnic vitriol don’t go away overnight,” Ahmed added. It’s a complicated calculus: On the one hand, there is a long history of distrust to overcome. On the other, all share the common enemy of the Tatmadaw. Naw Wah Ku Shee, director of the Karen Peace Support Network, an organization that works with ethnic Karen civil society groups in Myanmar and Thailand, told me that they really do see a change, especially among the younger generations. “They apologize about what’s happened in the past and that they have been silent,” she said. “They have ignored what’s happening to the suffering of other ethnic people, and they’re sorry for what’s happened.” But wariness and skepticism still exist. The big question is how deep this push for accountability and reconciliation will go — and whether it’s a lasting shift or one driven by necessity against that common enemy. Naw Wah Ku Shee said ethnic minorities have felt betrayed before, but she also believes this moment is different. “The brutality of the Burma military is even worse,” she said. “Our first priority is to end this military dictatorship, which is why we need to work together.” Stringer/Getty Images Anti-coup demonstrators block a road in Yangon on March 20. Stringer/Getty Images The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy. It has not been a perfect relationship so far. Myanmar has many ethnic groups and armed ethnic organizations, and some have been much more openly supportive of the protest movement than others. Early on, some protesters criticized the armed ethnic groups for failing to come to the defense of the movement sooner, which had echoes of both chauvinism and hypocrisy. That has changed as ethnic groups have sheltered and fed and offered assistance to protesters — and that support is shared and celebrated among the social networks of protesters, something that didn’t happen during the pro-democracy movement in the late ’80s and ’90s. That visibility has created a shift, Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher who studies security and human rights in Myanmar, said, “both in terms of realizing quite how bad the military is, but also that the armed groups are genuinely doing something for political change — and are actually trying to fight against dictatorship.” Still, as Ahmed said, there’s a lot going on — confronting a complicated ethnic history while waging a revolt against the perpetrators of it. But the armed ethnic groups are also in a position of relative strength. They are the ones with the weapons and the experience fighting the Tatmadaw. And what they have been fighting for, a federal democracy, is finally a demand of the protesters themselves. “There has never been this kind of chance before,” Naw Wah Ku Shee said. The movement is united against the military. But what comes next? The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy. But how to get there, how inclusive it would actually be, and what victory over the Tatmadaw would even look like — no one has the answers yet. Ousted NLD lawmakers have reconstituted as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH — Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the name of Myanmar’s legislature) and have since formed a parallel National Unity Government (NUG) that includes some members of the protest movement and ethnic organizations. The NUG has promised to create a new constitution built on the idea of Myanmar as a federal democracy, which may hold the promise of giving a stake to ethnic minority and religious groups. The CRPH, and its NUG, is the body that’s advocating for Myanmar’s democracy movement with the international community. But members of the Civil Disobedience Movement and other younger activists expressed some skepticism about whether the NUG was really as committed to the idea of an inclusive, federal democracy. At the same time, in an otherwise leaderless and diverse movement, they have risen to the top. Many see the CRPH and NUG as using the right rhetoric, but as failing to give real decision-making power to ethnic groups, or at least stakeholders in those communities that have a lot of clout. Others I spoke to criticized the body for failing to fully condemn the treatment of ethnic minorities in the past, including the Rohingya. One cabinet minister has issued a public apology to the Rohingya, but as Wai Wai Nu pointed out, government officials have not yet adopted an official policy on the Rohingya. (The CRPH did not respond to an emailed request for comment.) SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Supporters of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) hold a demonstration in London on May 2. Htuu Lou Rae, a UK-based member of of the Anti-Junta Mass Movement, said that he and other members are working to try to pressure the CRPH and NUG to be more inclusive, including of working-class people. Many see the NUG as a reshuffled version of the NLD, just with people who didn’t have power during Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the party now in charge. “It’s difficult because, is the CPRH just a version of the NLD? And I think that’s where the doubt comes in. It’s not that the NLD is necessarily not wanted, it’s just — is that what the people want?” Ahmed said. Some activists also fear this new government will strike some sort of deal with the military that would keep them in power. “We’re starting to worry that the federal democracy that the CRPH is describing will look like what was under the 2008 military coup, but with a civilian government in control of the military,” Htuu Lou Rea said. Others told me that defeating the military remains the main goal — and next comes the difficult reckoning with what would replace it. “There needs to be a lot of work after the fall of the dictatorship, we’re not fooled by, ‘Oh, there’s unity now, and everything will be okay.’ It’s a start,” Wai Hnin, with Burma Campaign UK, said. “Nonviolence is maybe not working” Almost all the people I spoke to, especially those inside the country, are preparing for more bloodshed. Many I spoke with are proud of the nonviolent origins of the movement, but they recognize that status is tenuous. The Civil Disobedience Movement has lasted for months, but there is real worry over how long people can continue to resist, especially civil servants and other workers who do not have money saved up. “They are barely surviving,” said Tin Tin Nyo of the Burmese Women’s Union. Others see this uprising turning into something else. “Even though we understand that nonviolence is the answer, nonviolence is maybe not working,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “So we need some armed resistance.” Wathone was in a safe house when we spoke via an encrypted app, with the phone connection going in and out. He didn’t think he could stay there long. He knows colleagues who have been arrested, others who have been interrogated, hands tied behind their backs, and stripped of their money and their phones. He always makes sure he has an escape route from his apartment. If security forces were to crash through his door, he would go out the window and down a ladder, though if it couldn’t hold him, or if he fell, he would be dead. Other protesters I spoke with also said they believe an armed revolution is the only way out. But what role they see themselves playing in such a revolution is less clear. Su Thit told me that she would support a revolution with communications and logistics, but that she could not kill. Ashley Wai has asthma, and worries that might make it physically difficult to fight. But she also does not want to stay and hide. “They realize they cannot win this fight with their bare hands,” Tin Tin Nyo said. AP Anti-coup protesters run as soldiers arrive to disperse their demonstration in Yangon on May 11. Others are more skeptical that the military can be defeated or excised from Myanmar altogether. “The problem is that whatever solution you come up with, you have to include the military, whether you like it or not,” said Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of Euro-Burma. “Because they are the ones with all the guns and are in the strongest position right now.” Experts and advocates I spoke to said the Myanmar military, especially if it had to fight widespread resistance, could be weakened and stretched thin through a war of attrition. But Harn Yawnghe said he feared such an outcome would lead to chaos and make Myanmar vulnerable to its powerful neighbors — like China — that might get drawn in. Many are also looking to the international community for support. Experts and advocates I spoke to believe an arms embargo and more aggressive sanctions could weaken the Myanmar military. “They have a lot to lose: their power, their business, their everything. It’s the public who has nothing to lose, not them,” Wai Wai Nu said. Yet they also understand the limits of international support. Wathone said that many protesters talk about when the United States will come and intervene. He tells them it’s just a fantasy story. “We only have us. We can only save each other,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been telling them every day.”
How a tiny, wobbling particle could unlock mysteries of the universe
The results of a new muon experiment are stirring up particle physics. It’s an exciting time in particle physics. The results of a new experiment out of Fermilab in Illinois — involving a subatomic particle wobbling weirdly — could pave the way to new ways of understanding our universe. To understand why physicists are so excited, consider the ambitious task they’ve set for themselves: decoding the fundamental building blocks of everything in the universe. For decades, they’ve been trying to do that by building a big, overarching theory known as the standard model. The standard model is like a glossary, describing all the building blocks of the universe that we’ve found so far: subatomic particles like electrons, neutrinos, and quarks that make up everything around us, and three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak, and strong) that hold everything together. But, as Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab, tells Vox, scientists suspect this model is incomplete. “One of the big reasons why we know it’s incomplete is because of gravity. We know it exists because apples fall from trees and I’m not floating off my seat,” Esquivel says. But they haven’t yet found a fundamental particle that conveys gravity’s force, so it’s not in the standard model. Esquivel says that the model also doesn’t explain two of the biggest mysteries in the universe: dark matter, an elusive substance that holds galaxies together, and dark energy, an even more poorly understood force that is accelerating the universe’s expansion. And since the overwhelming majority of the universe might be made up of dark matter and dark energy, that’s a pretty big oversight. The problem is, on its own, the standard model works really well. It describes the matter and energy we’re most familiar with, and how it all works together, superbly. Yet, as physicists have tried to expand the model to account for gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, they’ve always come up short. That’s why Esquivel and the many other particle physicists we’ve spoken to are so excited about the results of a new experiment at Fermilab. It involves muons — subatomic particles that are like electrons’ heavier, less stable cousins. And this experiment with these muons might, finally, have confirmed a crack in the standard model for particle physicists to explore. It’s possible that crack could lead them to find new, fundamental building blocks of nature. Esquivel worked on the experiment, so we asked her to walk us through it for the Unexplainable podcast. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length. oam Hassenfeld What was this muon experiment? Jessica Esquivel So at Fermilab, we can create particle beams of muons — a very, very intense beam. You can imagine it like a laser beam of particles. And we shoot them into detectors. And then by taking a super, super close measurement of those muons, we can use that as kind of a probe into physics beyond our standard model. Noam Hassenfeld So how, exactly, does this muon experiment point to a hole in the model, or to a new particle to fill that gap? Jessica Esquivel So the muon g-2 experiment is actually taking a very precise measurement of this thing that we call the precession frequency. And what that means is that we shoot a whole bunch of muons into a very, very precise magnetic field and we watch them dance. Noam Hassenfeld They dance? Jessica Esquivel Yeah! When muons go into a magnetic field, they precess, or they spin like a spinning top. One of the really weird quantum-y, sci-fi things that happens is that when you are in a vacuum or an empty space, it actually isn’t empty. It’s filled with this roiling, bubbling sea of virtual particles that just pop in and out of existence whenever they want, spontaneously. So when we shoot muons into this vacuum, there are not just muons going around our magnet. These virtual particles are popping in and out and changing how the muon wobbles. Noam Hassenfeld Wait, sorry ... what exactly are these virtual particles popping in and out? Jessica Esquivel So, virtual particles, I ... see them as like ghosts of actual particles. We have photons that kind of pop in and out and they’re just kind of like there, but not really there. I think a really good depiction of this, the weirdness of quantum mechanics, is Ant-Man. There’s this scene where he shrinks down to the quantum realm, and he gets stuck and everything is kind of like wibbly-wobbling and something’s there, but it’s really not there. That’s kind of like what virtual particles are. It’s just hints of particles that we’re used to seeing. But they’re not actually there. They just pop in and out and just mess with things. Noam Hassenfeld So quantum mechanics says that there are virtual particles, sort of like ghosts of particles we already know about in our standard model, popping in and out of existence. And they’re bumping into muons, and making them wobble? Jessica Esquivel Yes. But again, theoretical physicists know this, and they’ve come up with a really good theory of how the muon will change with regards to which particles are popping in and out.So we know specifically how every single one of these particles interacts with each other and within the magnetic field, and they build their theories based on what we already know— what is in the standard model. Noam Hassenfeld Got it. So even though there are these virtual ghost particles popping in and out, as long as they’re versions of particles we know, then physicists can predict exactly how the muons are gonna wobble. So were the predictions off? Jessica Esquivel So what we just unveiled is that precise measurement doesn’t align with the theoretical predictions of how the muons are supposed to wobblein a magnetic field. It wobbled differently. Noam Hassenfeld And the idea is that you have no idea what’s making it do that extra wobble, so it might be something that hasn’t been discovered yet? Something outside the standard model? Jessica Esquivel Yeah, exactly. It’s not considered new physics yet because we as physicists give ourselves a very high bar to reach before we say something is potentially new physics. And that’s 5 sigma [a measure of the probability that this finding wasn’t a statistical error, or a random accident.] And right now, we’re at 4.2 sigma. But it’s pretty exciting. Noam Hassenfeld So if it clears that bar, would this break the standard model? Because I’ve seen that framing in a bunch of headlines. Jessica Esquivel No, I don’t think I would say the standard model is broken. I mean, we’ve known for a long time that it’s missing stuff. So it’s not that what’s there doesn’t work as it’s supposed to work. It’s just that we’re adding more stuff to the standard model, potentially. Just like back in the day when scientists were adding more elements to the periodic table ... even back then, they had spots where they knew an element should go, but they hadn’t been able to see it yet. That’s essentially where we’re at now. We know we have the standard model, but we’re missing things. So we have holes that we’re trying to fill. Noam Hassenfeld How exciting does all of this feel? Jessica Esquivel I think it’s like a career-defining moment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime. We’re chasing new physics and we’re so close, we can taste it. What I’m studying isn’t in any textbook that I’ve read or peeked through before, and the fact that the work that I’m doing could potentially be in textbooks in the future ... that people can be learning about the dark matter particle that g-2 had a role in finding ... it gives me chills just thinking about it!
The case for sleeping in separate beds
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images Honey, hear me out. About four years ago, my wife and I moved into a house just outside DC. It was our first house and it happened to have an extra bedroom, which was a plus since we were thinking about having a kid. We had lived together for several years before we bought the house, and one of the recurring frustrations was our nightly pre-sleep routine. I’ve battled light insomnia for most of my adult life, so sleep has always been a struggle. But I also like a little mindless TV before bed. She prefers music. We could never compromise and it created ... tension. But the house with the extra room meant that we could occasionally sleep in separate beds. At first, we did it when someone was sick or especially tired. Over time, we realized what should’ve been obvious: We slept way better apart. So we started sleeping in separate beds more often and eventually it became normal. I’m not going to say it was the best thing we’ve ever done, but it’s definitely one of the best things we’ve done. Everyone sleeps better now, there’s no more resentment over who won the showdown the night before, and we probably fight less because more sleep means less crankiness and, hopefully, more patience. All of this makes me wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. Why we do assume sleeping in separate beds signals trouble in a relationship? Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation and the author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep. She studies the blurry relationship between sleep and relationship health. I asked her if it’s true that most of us sleep better alone and, if so, why is there still a weird taboo around sleeping in separate beds? We also talk about how to broach the topic with your partner if you’re interested in giving this a try. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing Do people sleep better when they sleep alone? Wendy Troxel We have a limited amount of research on this topic but it does show pretty clearly that people sleep worse while sharing a bedas compared to sleeping alone. But if you ask those people, “Do you prefer to share a bed with your partner or sleep alone?” most will say they prefer to share a bed. So there’s this discrepancy between what our objective measures show and the subjective experience of sleep quality. Sean Illing Even if most people aren’t aware of this research, they should know from experience that they sleep better alone, so why don’t they? Why do we insist on sleeping together? Wendy Troxel It speaks to our social nature. Sleep is a very vulnerable state and we derive a sense of safety and security when someone’s next to us, and that feeling can actually facilitate good, healthy sleep. So in some cases there may be real psychological benefits from sleeping together that for many overwhelm the objective costs of sharing a bed. Sean Illing So we’re not completely deluding ourselves about the value of sleeping in the same bed? There are real benefits? Wendy Troxel Well, it’s a spectrum. If you’re sharing a bed with someone who is tossing and turning or snoring like a freight train and you simply can’t sleep, that probably reaches a threshold where the psychological benefits no longer override the minor objective costs. But for many people, the objective costs of sharing a bed — more noise, more movement, maybe getting awakened a few times — are minor enough that it’s still worth it. I always say it depends on the couple. If you’re at a point where neither partner is sleeping well, then it might be worth stepping back and rethinking things. If you’re not getting the sleep you need, then you’re probably paying too high a price for the psychological benefits of sharing a bed. But it’s complicated, right? The experience of cuddling and closeness is a big deal for a lot of people, that feeling of warmth and protection is real, and for some it may really help them sleep. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Sean Illing Let me be clear: I’m pro-cuddling. I cuddle all the time. I encourage everyone to cuddle as much as possible. But you can always cuddle and then fall back to separate beds. Wendy Troxel Absolutely! I tell couples all the time that you can disentangle the experience of cuddling and closeness and sexual activity from the actual experience of sleeping together. You can maintain all of those things even if your choice as a couple is to part ways when it’s time for sleep. But here’s the other thing: Getting better sleep is likely to be a good path to getting you better sex, because when we’re well-rested, we enjoy sex more, our sexual frequency goes up, the sex drive goes up. So there are lots of relationship benefits to be had from prioritizing sleep. Sean Illing Where does the taboo against sleeping in separate beds come from? Wendy Troxel The taboo shifts a lot across time periods. In medieval times, the norm was a communal bed, not just shared with partners, but with family members, maybe even other people in the household. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era that sleeping apart became a status thing because it meant that you could afford separate bedrooms, and sleeping apart was a kind of luxury. And there were also some half-baked ideas about diseases being transmitted by the fouls smells of other people. People thought that your partner’s morning breath could transmit diseases. But then if you fast-forward to the 1960s sexual revolution, there was this reaction to the I Love Lucy stereotype of a married couple that was sleeping apart on TV. It was seen as a sign of prudishness. So then we saw another shift toward this stigma attached to sleeping apart, which is still with us today. And it leaves many couples feeling shameful about questioning their decision to sleep in the same bed. Sean Illing Is that partly why you want us to think of sleep less as an individual act and more as a social behavior? Wendy Troxel Yeah, it’s important to think of sleep as a social behavior because sleep affects our relationships and our relationships affect our sleep. There’s now quite a bit of research showing a bi-directional influence: When we sleep poorly, we’re not good partners and we have more conflicts, and when we fight more, that negatively impacts our sleep quality. So these things are very connected. Sean Illing What other effects does poor sleep have on relationships? Wendy Troxel When you’re sleep-deprived, your frustration tolerance is lower. And who are we most likely to project our frustrations on? Not our bosses or our coworkers but our closest partners. This is why we can see links between sleep disturbances and poor relationship satisfaction. We’ve also seen that insufficient sleep makes us less empathic, less able to read our partner’s emotions. That’s an incredibly important thing in a relationship. You need to be able to notice when you overstep, or when your partner is feeling raw or vulnerable, and not sleeping enough makes this very difficult. Sean Illing Because there is a stigma associated with separate beds, do you have any advice for how to broach the topic with a partner without making it ... weird? Wendy Troxel Just start a conversation about how each of you is sleeping. What are your expectations for sleep? Just because you’re married to someone or you’re partnered with someone doesn’t mean your sleeping habits should be perfectly aligned. One of you might be a night owl; the other one may be a morning person. That’s all fine. But have a conversation about it and explore options. What happens too often is that couples end up sleeping apart without ever making a conscious decision to do it — it’s more an act of desperation. I encourage couples to start talking about all of this before that happens. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so it matters not just for our individual health but for our relationships. It deserves a conversation.
As McConnell gears up for obstruction, 43 percent of Republican voters say they prefer bipartisanship
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attends a Senate Rules Committee markup on S-1, an election and ethics reform package, on May 11, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/Getty Images Some Republicans say they’d still like to see lawmakers work with President Joe Biden. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear what he hopes to do this term: obstruct President Joe Biden’s administration in the same way he obstructed then-President Barack Obama’s. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said at a press conference. “What we have in the United States Senate is total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.” McConnell later caveated his comments slightly, noting: “I’m anxious on stopping the Biden agenda — depending on what it is.” According to a survey fielded by Vox and Data for Progress prior to McConnell’s comments, some Republican voters don’t necessarily want lawmakers to do that. Instead, they maintain a focus on bipartisanship that’s consistent with past surveys — and one that looks increasingly untenable in the current Congress. Per that poll, 68 percent of all people, including 43 percent of Republicans, said they think it’s more important for GOP members of Congress to find ways to work with Biden rather than refusing to compromise. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Republicans said they were in favor of Republicans refusing to compromise, while 7 percent weren’t sure. That breakdown speaks to a general preference for bipartisanship that voters have expressed in polls in the past as well: In a Monmouth survey this past January, 71 percent of all voters also emphasized that they wanted Republicans to work with Biden, including 41 percent of Republicans. McConnell’s comments, though, speak to how unlikely bipartisanship on key policies really is moving forward, and why Democrats have already used budget reconciliation as a way to pass coronavirus aid unilaterally. Because of Republican opposition, Democrats might have to use the same methods once again for other priorities like infrastructure and child care. Already, Republicans put forth an infrastructure offer that’s much narrower than what the White House has proposed: As the Biden administration moves to advance a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes expansive funding for roads, bridges, and broadband, which would be paid for by tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations, Senate Republicans have balked at the pay-fors and countered with a roughly $570 billion proposal. It’s worth noting that there is some appetite for a bipartisan compromise, though the two parties have yet to reconcile key differences. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) recently told Politico Republicans are willing to go higher than their initial offer, and McConnell suggested that his cap is $800 billion. At the same time, Democrats are trying to figure out if they have the votes for their own proposal, given concerns raised by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) about the tax provisions, complicating matters further. Still, on the whole, the prospects for bipartisanship are dim — particularly on other issues including voting rights legislation, immigration reform, and gun control, on which Republicans have long signaled pushback, too. The current state of Congress, ultimately, suggests that lawmakers may not be able to work in the bipartisan fashion that many likely voters desire given Republicans’ stated plans for obstruction, and Democrats’ hopes of passing more ambitious policies. The Vox/DFP poll was conducted from April 30 to May 2 with 1,402 likely voters, and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Biden’s highest marks are on the pandemic This survey also revealed that President Biden’s highest marks — across party lines — come on his handling of the pandemic, which 61 percent of people overall approve of. In the poll, Biden has about 50 percent approval on most issues, including when it comes to his efforts on jobs and the economy (50 percent), his work on race and race relations (47 percent), policies on the environment (51 percent), and work unifying the country (48 percent). His lowest approval numbers were related to his approach to taxation (42 percent). Biden’s disapproval ratings across these subjects, meanwhile, hover between 30 and 45 percent, with the highest disapprovals on his approach to taxation (44 percent) and unifying the country (41 percent.) Across the other issues, 39 percent of people disapprove of his work on jobs and the economy, 32 percent disapprove of his efforts on the pandemic, 39 percent disapprove of his handling on race and race relations, and 35 percent disapprove of his handling of the environment. Biden’s response to the pandemic — which has included passage of a massive coronavirus relief package and the goal of distributing at least one vaccine dose to 70 percent of adults by July 4 — had the highest approval rating from members of all parties, including Republicans, of the issues tested. His pandemic policies received 85 percent of Democrats’ approval, 55 percent of Independents’, and 37 percent of Republicans’. Conversely, on issues like jobs and the economy and work on unifying the country, Biden received just 19 percent and 18 percent of Republicans’ support. These findings are consistent with a recent AP-NORC poll in which Biden had a 63 percent overall approval rating, with 71 percent of people supporting his work on the pandemic. Overall, the DFP poll also finds that 49 percent of people think Biden has been governing for both Democrats and Republicans, while 42 percent think he has been pushing a partisan agenda, since coronavirus relief passed without GOP support. Voters prioritize the economy and reducing health care costs Looking ahead, likely voters are most interested in strengthening the nation’s economy (81 percent), making sure the Social Security system is financially sound (76 percent), combating the pandemic (75 percent), reducing the costs of health care and prescription drugs (74 percent), and reducing crime (73 percent). These five issues were most likely to be classified as a top priority among a list of 20 issue areas that were surveyed. But many other issues were also rated a top priority by a majority of people, including making sure voting rights are protected (72 percent), dealing with the issue of immigration (71 percent), reducing gun violence (63 percent), and improving the educational system (63 percent). These ratings differed some across party line as well: For Republicans, the top priorities were strengthening the nation’s economy (85 percent), dealing with the issue of immigration (81 percent), and reducing crime (80 percent). For independents, they were taking steps to make the Social Security system financially sound (75 percent), strengthening the nation’s economy (75 percent), and reducing health care and prescription drug costs (74 percent). And for Democrats, they were dealing with the coronavirus outbreak (85 percent), strengthening the nation’s economy (81 percent), and reducing gun violence (80 percent). Likely voters overall were more likely to believe that their own party was more capable of addressing the priorities they cared about. Seventy-six percent of Democrats were more likely to trust their own party to effectively strengthen the economy, for instance, while 84 percent of Republicans said the same of the GOP. On issues including raising the minimum wage, increasing access to paid leave and child care, and dealing with climate change, though, a fifth or more of Republicans were more likely to trust Democrats on the matter, a higher proportion compared to other issue areas. About a quarter of Democrats also said they trust Republicans more when it comes to strengthening the military. Congress and the White House have a hefty agenda to address moving forward including the American Jobs Plan, focusing on infrastructure and climate change; the American Families Plan, focusing on child care, universal pre-K, and paid leave; police reform; voting rights; gun control; and immigration reform. Given ongoing Republican efforts to pare down or stymie several of these measures — and dissent within the Democratic caucus on some of these issues — it’s unclear just how much will advance this term.
Why you’re noticing flowers now more than ever
Flowering magnolia trees are a sign of spring in many parts of the world. | Stephan Schulz/picture alliance/Getty Images Flowers have always held meaning. Then the pandemic came. fnNew York went into lockdown just as the city was blooming. Many of us are now familiar with the way one week smears into the next when you rarely leave your home, but I still find it alarming how muddy my memories of those early days in quarantine are. What I do remember, vividly, is taking anxious early-morning walks around my neighborhood in Brooklyn and feeling utterly disoriented by the magnolia trees that had blossomed along the sidewalk. Magnolias are a parody of a flowering tree. They’re gorgeous and excessive, dripping large pink petals everywhere. They make me think of the girl who upstages everyone at a house party by bringing a homemade cake for the host even though it’s no one’s birthday. (You resent her for it, then you realize this means there’s cake.) Last spring, I was grateful for the blush-hued flowers on my block, but they seemed surreal against the backdrop of fear and loss gripping the city. Spring is a feeling as much as anything, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my body. A year later, things are different here. More and more people are getting vaccinated (though not enough, and not in all parts of the world) and socializing with friends and family is starting to be less fraught. When in March I came across a patch of snowdrops in Prospect Park — some of the first flowers of the year, fresh and green among the dead leaves and bare trees — it felt like we were moving in the same direction. Frank Bienewald/LightRocket/Getty Images Snowdrops bloom among dead leaves. “I’m excited about getting vaccinated and inviting new energy into my life,” my cousin told me over the phone recently. She was out for a walk on the West Coast. “But there’s still a heaviness I’m feeling. This has been a year of death and violence. It feels bittersweet to be like, ‘Things are blooming,’ because there are so many people not with us.” After we hung up, she sent me a photo of a red rose she’d come across, retina-burning in the April sunshine. I feel a little silly writing about flowers like this, as though they don’t always signal a kind of renewal. As though they’re a novelty and not a massive global business — as though human civilizations around the world haven’t attached deep symbolism to them for millennia, using them in rites of passage and linking them to love, death, wealth, piety. At the Cornell Botanic Gardens in Ithaca, New York, there’s a space dedicated to answering the question of why flowers “charm and amaze us.” The garden features flowers like roses, lilies, and tulips, with detailed information on their historical significance across cultures: daisies are depicted in paintings of the Madonna and child as a symbol of the infant Christ’s innocence, whereas in ancient Mesopotamia they stood for protection and good luck. “Flowers are cyclical, so they’re life-affirming in a sense,” says Sarah Fiorello, interpretation coordinator at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. “But they’re also ephemeral, so they reflect the finite nature of all life.” Flowers ask the big questions, which may be why they seem to have meant a little more this year. On a practical level, people tend to interact with flowers in three ways. There are the flowers we buy for ourselves as an act of self-love, just to brighten our own day. There are the flowers we exchange with others to express affection and support — to connect. And there are the living flowers we encounter in nature, parks, and planters, reminding us that we’re part of something bigger. At a time when many of us have struggled with our mental health, when we’ve been denied the nourishment of other people’s company, when our worlds have shrunk so dramatically, it’s no wonder flowers hold a particular appeal. They’re a counterweight to the forces that might otherwise drag us down. Maybe they don’t tip the scales completely — some of them are very small — but they do help. Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images Bouquets of zinnias at a farmers market stand. The writer and cartoonist Jonny Sun is big on houseplants; they’re a major theme in his new book, Goodbye, Again. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he and his wife started regularly buying cut flowers for their home, ultimately signing up for a monthly bouquet subscription with the LA-based floral design studio Bia Blooms. “Things have felt so purgatorial and endless,” Sun says. “Every day feels the same. I’ve really looked to flowers as a sign that time is indeed passing in some sort of regular way.” The cycle of buying a bouquet, watching the flowers fade, and purchasing another provided a strange sense of stability and comfort. Faced with a world and a mess of feelings that often feel unpredictable and out of control, Sun also appreciates the way flowers establish a kind of emotional schedule for him. He knows that when they die, he’ll feel bummed out. “I’m buying this now, and I’m entering a contract with myself that I’ll feel sad in two weeks,” he says. “Knowing you’ll feel this emotion in a few weeks is kind of nice.” Nana Agyemang started buying herself flowers every week during the pandemic, too, because it lifted her spirits. “I didn’t have the finances to do so before Covid, but because I was saving money on not commuting to work and not going out as often to restaurants to eat, I repurposed that income to treat myself,” she says. Agyemang is the CEO and founder of Every Stylish Girl, an organization promoting the advancement of Black and Brown women in fashion and media. The pandemic forced Agyemang to make a “huge company pivot” away from in-person events, and buying bouquets was an act of appreciation for herself during that stressful transition. “Getting the flowers was like, ‘Hey, Nana, keep doing what you’re doing. You are excelling in every possible way you can, and these flowers are a reminder every day when you get up that you’re doing the damn thing,’” she says. Here’s the thing: When you start buying flowers for yourself, you may very well want to give them to other people, too. Starting last summer, Agyemang partnered with florists to hold several flower arrangement giveaways, her way of expanding the circle of support and affirmation. “When someone does good work, you give them flowers,” she says. “This was a time of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I felt like a lot of Black women and Black-owned businesses weren’t getting the flowers they deserved.” Helene Wiesenhaan/BSR Agency/Getty Images Tulips growing in Hillegom, Netherlands, early in the pandemic, in April 2020. For many people, flowers became a poignant way of connecting with loved ones they couldn’t otherwise see. Before the pandemic, Chicago-based artist Hyun Jung Jun enjoyed making cakes for her friends, creating unequivocally charming landscapes out of flowers and other vegetal materials: lavender placed like birthday candles, fennel fronds used to evoke towering trees. When 2020 rolled around, though, the cakes became an excuse to pick up homegrown flowers from one friend and then treat them — or someone else — to the finished product. “They’d come pick up the cake, so at least I got to see them a little bit,” Jun says. Sam Herzog, director of sales and marketing at the accessories brand Kara, was already in the habit of giving people flowers before the pandemic, but she’s ramped way up, sending them to her parents in California and to friends as housewarming gifts and breakup support. When she meets up with friends in the park, she likes to bring them a bouquet. “I think it’s this really beautiful thing because it’s just a gesture of care,” Herzog says. “Flowers don’t have any functional purpose. They’re purchased purely for making someone feel appreciated or cared for. It’s like a hug.” My friend James started sending flowers to his male friends a few months ago, in an effort to normalize it as an acceptable way of showing platonic affection for and among men. “I think I wanted someone to give me flowers,” he says. Unemployed for much of the pandemic, James had cut back on his habit of buying sunflowers for his own apartment, but on his 30th birthday, he gave himself permission to buy an arrangement. His parents wound up sending him a bunch too, transforming his apartment into a vibrant floral landscape for a few weeks. Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images Cut sunflowers for sale in New York City. When millennials talk about buying flowers for their loved ones, particularly their peers, a word that comes up a lot is “old-fashioned.” Handing someone a bouquet rings of courtship from a bygone era. Sending an arrangement has a certain formality and seriousness, not to mention an often significant price tag. But if you can’t show your appreciation for a friend by buying them a drink at the bar, flowers start to seem like a reasonable substitute, for any occasion or no occasion at all. They’re heartfelt and earnest. They speak to the romance of platonic friendships. And as my cousin Katie Lovins, a floral designer in Portland, Maine, pointed out to me, there’s a sense of theater when a bunch of flowers arrive on someone’s doorstep. In some cases, flowers were a romantic gesture, full stop. My other cousin, the one who sent me the photo of that perfect rose, realized she was going to fall in love with someone when they sent her pressed flowers from their garden last summer. They had matched on Tinder before the pandemic, but only started seeing each other afterward — from opposite sides of the country, communicating incessantly via phone calls, FaceTimes, and selfies. “I think flowers are this universally romantic gesture, especially when you’ve grown them and picked them. It felt like, here is this small thing that’s beautiful, because you deserve it,” she says. “It was a level of connection and thoughtfulness that I was craving.” The relationship didn’t work out, and in retrospect, my cousin wonders if she imbued those pressed flowers with a little too much meaning. (For whatever it’s worth, the Victorians were all about it.) Romantic that she is, she brought yellow mums to a subsequent first date, though she claims she merely pulled a few stems from a bouquet she’d already bought. LaParis Phillips, the owner of Brooklyn Blooms, saw a marked uptick in people sending “just because” flowers to their loved ones throughout 2020. “People were really valuing their time and valuing being in the moment. Like, ‘I don’t care what day it is, it’s a special day. I’m living and I’m healthy, so it’s special,’” she said. “If I can sum up those flower orders that made us busy, gratitude is the word.” George Rose/Getty Images Poppies and lupine are among the wildflowers that signal the start of spring in central California. Despite some people’s newfound enthusiasm for flowers, this was a difficult year for the floral industry as a whole. Canceled weddings, closed office buildings, and shuttered restaurants hit local retailers hard and disrupted the global supply chain, with some growers shredding or composting their unsold stems. Phillips says she was able to stay afloat because her business was already oriented toward daily orders from individuals, rather than corporate clients or events; Brooklyn Blooms also was included on a number of lists promoting Black-owned businesses during the protests following George Floyd’s death, and for several months, Phillips was working overtime filling orders. It felt good, during a year of such turmoil, to be sending out those flowers and seeing the kind messages that people had for one another, Phillips says. It’s impossible to forget the grief that sparked those well-wishes, though. “I wish it didn’t take a pandemic and somebody dying for nine minutes for this to happen, but that’s what it takes for humans to move,” she says. Finally, the third kind of floral experience — taking in a patch of buttercups growing on the side of the road, or happening upon a vibrant bed of tulips in someone’s yard — flourished this year for the same reason that other nature-related activities, like cultivating houseplants and birdwatching, did. Interacting with non-human living things eased feelings of isolation and provided a grounding alternative to staring at a screen for 18 hours straight. I know someone who took it upon herself to finally learn the names of the many wildflowers that grow near her house in Idaho, perhaps recognizing that, as Fiorello says, “even looking at plants around us gives us a boost of chemicals in our brains.” One unnamed individual started pilfering wild chives from a local park, eventually pulling up a bunch at the root to cultivate in a pot at home. He looks forward to the edible purple chive blossoms that should arrive this summer. Over the last year, I spent a lot of time staring at plants in parks, too. It was easier than spending time with people. On one of the first truly gorgeous days of spring, a month or two ago, I took an afternoon walk through the park. I was feeling itchy and grouchy, overdressed in a heavy jacket and still reflexively shooting dirty looks at anyone not wearing a mask. Heading south, I emerged from a wooded path into an open field, where a lone dude was stretched out in the grass, wearing nothing but a Speedo and framed by a bunch of yellow daffodils. It was like something out of an oil painting. They projected the same vibe, this stranger and the flowers: at ease in the world, simply enjoying the sun and breeze at 1 pm on a weekday. I couldn’t muster that energy for myself, but I liked the idea of it. Recognizing it as an idea at all felt like a kind of thawing.
The one crucial thing missing from Biden’s climate plan
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden working the grill at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 2019. | Getty Images There’s a burger-shaped hole in it. President Joe Biden has a planto tackle climate change. His major infrastructure program, the American Jobs Plan, is mostly a blueprint for doing just that.It’s exhaustive — the summary alone clocks in at 12,000 words — and that’s encouraging. But in all those words, something crucial is missing. Nowhere does “meat” get a mention. Likewise, “animal agriculture” appears exactly zero times. If Biden is serious about staving off climate disaster, our meat system is not something he can afford to ignore. At least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from animal agriculture. That’s largely because ruminant animals like cows emit a lot of methane, and producing feed requires using energy and clearing forests that would otherwise be trapping carbon. The US plays an outsized role in all of this. “If US agriculture was its own country, it would be the 14th biggest emitter in the world,” said Richard Waite, a senior research associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization. “We can’t get to where we need to be on climate if we don’t also address our agricultural system.” Fixing our meat system is also critical for preventing future pandemics, another goal in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Factory farms, the huge industrialized facilities that supply 99 percent of America’s meat, overcrowd animals by the thousands in unsanitary conditions that cripple their immune systems and make them vulnerable to disease — which could all too easily set off the next pandemic. Although the Biden administration did announce a vague new initiative “to accelerate global agricultural innovation through increased research and development,” it has so far neglected to address the problems with factory farming. And there’s a likely political reason why.Meat-eating has becomeensnared in the country’s culture wars. A false tabloid-fueled rumor that Biden was looking to ban burgers recently caused an apoplectic reaction among Republicans. Imagine the backlash if Biden were to actually advocate for cutting subsidies to the meat industry, requiring factory farms to report and reduce emissions, or phasing out factory farms altogether. “I think those kinds of policy options are less viable in this era of meat-as-culture-war-object,” said Alex Smith, an analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental research center. What he suspects might work is “more carrot and less stick.” Even as the Biden administration should fight the uphill battles, it should also make a strong push for investment in food and agriculture R&D that can set the food system on a sustainable path. Such a push would arguably encounter less resistance. There’s a clear parallel here with the rise of green tech. In the fight against the climate crisis, government-seeded innovation has played a critical role, leading to a boom in solar and battery tech and electric cars. Biden has a similar opportunity now to accelerate food and agriculture tech — and it would cost relatively little, at least compared to the scale of his broader agenda. An R&D agenda to scale up plant-based food research and explore improvements in how we grow plants and animals won’t solve climate change by itself. But it should be part of a multi-front fight against the defining crisis of our time. It’s time to invest in R&D for meatless meat For decades, the US government has been pouring money into the meat industry. That funding effectively built the industry into what it is now. For example, take the “Chicken of Tomorrow” program, which aimed to breed chickens that would grow faster and have larger breasts. It was organized by the Department of Agriculture in the 1940s, and it led to the development of the contemporary broiler chicken, the kind many people eat today. Now, some argue that the government should do the same thing — but for the meatless meat industry. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have ushered in a new generation of plant-based meats. They don’t quite taste exactly like real meat, but they’re close enough. Meanwhile, other companies are working on developing lab-grown or “cell-based” meat. We can expect that to taste exactly like the real thing because it’s grown from real animal cells. The downside is that it’s still astronomically expensive to produce. The Biden administration could help accelerate alternative meat technology by investing in R&D. Right now, private investors may not want to take on the financial risk of looking for truly innovative new tech, which could take years to pay off — but a big infusion of public cash could make the field feel more like a sure bet. “The motivation for real technological innovation in this space may not exist for private investors in the same way that it could exist for public investment,” Smith said, adding that the sector needs new tech because the industrial process that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat currently use is very high-energy and high-cost. That cost trickles down to consumers, who find that the meatless meat in grocery stores is still more expensive than regular meat. Public funding could catalyze researchers to find lower-energy and lower-cost ways to make meatless meat. It could also help them figure out how to improve taste and texture by identifying better ingredients. Most research on alternative meats is currently being done by startups that keep their findings private, because a lot of a startup’s value can lie in the intellectual property it holds. But Biden could direct public R&D funding to academics who would generate a lot of open-access research, which would then benefit everyone in the field, from startups to established meat companies looking to get into the alt-meat game. This wouldn’t require much money from the Biden administration. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to meat, says carving out $2 billion for R&D would enable the field to make big advances. Compared with other government spending (Biden’s infrastructure plan comes in at $2 trillion), that’s pretty cheap. We know from past experience that smart government spending is crucial to moving America in a more climate-friendly direction. On the energy front, it’s already helped bring down the cost of solar panels by a significant margin. It can — and should — help on the food front, too. “What we want is the equivalent of DARPA but for agriculture” As great as it would be to make meatless meat cheaper, tastier, and more popular, it’s not going to fully replace real meat anytime soon. So it makes sense to also think about ways to improve conventional animal agriculture. Here, too, more support for R&D could be helpful. There are potentially promising technological innovations we’re missing out on because they’re understudied. The Biden administration’s recent announcement of a new initiative “to accelerate global agricultural innovation through increased research and development” is vague, and experts would like more clarity on what the initiative’s targets will be. “There are a bunch of things that we think could reduce emissions and increase output at the same time — like, for example, maybe red algae,” said Tim Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. He was referring to the possibility that feeding cows a particular type of seaweed could reduce their methane emissions (though he acknowledged there’s skepticism on this front and more data is needed). “The first thing you’d do if you were serious about this is you’d have 100 large-scale tests going on across the country for two years,” Searchinger said. “Instead, we have this one really nice guy at the University of California Davis running one little research project after another. We shouldn’t depend on one guy at one university!” He drew a comparison to DARPA, the Defense Department’s advanced research agency, which receives billions of dollars annually to devote to R&D for emerging technologies. (DARPA research helped lead to the invention of the internet, among many other innovations.) “What we want is the equivalent of DARPA but for agriculture.” Smith echoed that wish and argued that it would be perfectly politically viable for Biden to incorporate more agricultural R&D funding into upcoming legislation such as the next Farm Bill. Chloë Waterman, a program manager at the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, agreed that the US needs to dramatically boost its agricultural R&D. But she noted that we don’t only need new technological know-how — we also need economic research into how to effect a “just transition” to more climate-friendly farming. “I’d want research around animal agriculture to be pointed toward the ‘how,’” she said. “How do we successfully transition farmers who are engaged in factory farming to do different types of agriculture? What are the best fits? What are going to be the most economically viable alternatives for them to transition toward?” Waterman added that there are also helpful changes the Biden administration can make immediately, like directing more of the USDA Foods budget to buy plant-based food for schools (right now much of it goes to meat and dairy purchasing). “I think there’s a huge missed opportunity around leveraging the government’s food procurement,” she said, adding that giving contracts to plant-based companies would send a message to investors that there’s a reliable market for that type of food. But she is skeptical that relying on carrots rather than sticks can help the US fix its food system at the speed demanded by the climate emergency — which speaks to the broader idea that the fight against climate change will need to be a multi-front battle. Politically unpopular or not, she argued, the Biden administration needs to regulate the meat industry — by compelling it to report and reduce emissions, for starters — rather than counting on it to make voluntary changes as new technology or new contracts become available. “This is the determinative presidency of whether we can fend off the worst impacts of climate change, so we can’t afford to be working around the edges,” she said. “We need to say: ‘This is an industry that is fueling climate change, and we have to transition away from it.’ Unless we really bite that bullet, we’re not going to be successful.”
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How Biden could expand paid family leave to more Americans
President Joe Biden promoting the American Jobs Plan in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 3. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images The government’s definition of the family could be expanded in Biden’s American Families Plan. That’s really important. President Joe Biden recently unveiled his American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal that, among other things, would provide 12 weeks of paid leave to workers caring for new children or a sick family member. Perhaps as important, the proposal could also fundamentally change how the US government defines “family.” The current law of the land is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), from 1993, which requires large employers to allow workers to take leave for qualified family or medical reasons, but does not require that employees be paid during the time off. And not everyone can take advantage of it. When it comes to unpaid leave, the federal government’s current definition of who counts as family is tied pretty closely to the idea of a nuclear one: married partners and children under the age of 18. That leaves out a massive percentage of the population; just 18.4 percent of Americans live in traditional nuclear-family households. Nine states and the District of Columbia, representing a combined third of the country’s population, have government programs that fund or will soon begin funding paid leave, and each uses a definition of family that goes beyond the FMLA. But leave is governed by a patchwork of state and individual business policies, leaving most families out. Many Americans rely on extended or chosen family for care. For example, fewer than half of LGBTQ Americans surveyed in 2020 said they were most likely to rely on support from biological family when they are sick, according to a survey conducted by the progressive Center for American Progress. The American Families Plan currently does not explicitly include chosen and extended family in its paid leave protections, but it does say access will be expanded. As Sherry Leiwant and Jared Make, the leaders of A Better Balance, a paid family leave and reduced-cost child care programs advocacy group, told Vox, it will be up to groups like theirs to push lawmakers to ensure inclusivity in the congressional version of the plan. Any bill that extends who can take leave to care for loved ones could have massive implications; reframing how the federal government conceives of family could help level the economic playing field. Rep. Richard Neal’s (D-MA) Building an Economy for Families Act, a far more detailed paid leave plan introduced at the end of April, is another example. Leiwant and Make briefly spoke with Vox about Biden’s and Neal’s plans, and the effect a new definition of family would have. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Gregory Svirnovskiy Can you walk me through, in layman’s terms, how the federal government defines family? Does that manifest in the FMLA? Sherry Leiwant The federal government, in terms of the way they’ve defined sick leave for their own employees since the ’70s, really, when they began to think of family as other than just the nuclear family, has been very generous. It’s the federal government that coined the term “blood or affinity” as a relationship. And we’ve been using that, as Jared can attest, in all the states where we’ve written model sick leave laws or paid family leave laws. They are now just starting to also include those terms. So the federal government really was a leader here. The FMLA, on the other hand, is extremely narrow. It only applies to spouses and parents, and only to children under 18, which has always been a thorn in my side, because my children are older. So, you know, that’s a very narrow definition. Jared Make As long as A Better Balance has been in existence, we’ve heard from workers that the definition of family under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is incredibly narrow. And it doesn’t include not only core immediate family relationships — like adult children, domestic partners, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren — but also, you know, the broader chosen family that Sherry mentioned, that the federal government does recognize for its own workers. So there’s a disconnect there, but it’s an area where we’ve seen states really lead the way, and it’s exciting to now see proposals and support federally for paid family and medical leave that will have an inclusive family definition. Gregory Svirnovskiy How have those narrow definitions in the FMLA impacted nontraditional families, particularly members of the LGBTQ community? Jared Make I think the unfortunate reality is it’s left most of those families out historically, and that continues to this day. You know, a major gap is that domestic partners, for example, are not covered. And this certainly before marriage equality was a complete exclusion of same-sex couples. Now that we have marriage equality, of course, married same-sex couples are covered, all spouses are. But the definition continues to leave out domestic partners. Sherry Leiwant Also the immigrant community. In many cases, you have people who are here and have left their most immediate family behind, but they are living with other family members who care for them and whom they care for. You have a lot of people living in extended families. And that can also have a disparate racial and ethnic impact. So it’s very important across the board. Gregory Svirnovskiy Now we have two new proposals for family leave in President Biden’s American Families Plan and in Rep. Richard Neal’s Building an Economy for Families Act. Do these plans go beyond current nuclear family definitions? Sherry Leiwant The Biden team is completely committed to a broad family definition, including the blood or affinity. And that is true also of Rep. Neal, who’s head of the Ways and Means Committee, which is now looking at language for a possible paid family medical leave program for the nation. He has put out a discussion draft that also has a broad and inclusive definition of family. In fact, it kind of follows the FMLA on everything on purposes and weeks and so forth. But there is a specific exception for family definition so that it’s broader. And it’s basically what we’ve been using, and what we’ve been talking about here. Gregory Svirnovskiy I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the things that’s really troubled me is I’ve scoured the internet, and haven’t been able to find any defined language on exactly who can qualify to take leave under the Biden plan, other than these broad allusions to it being more inclusive. Sherry Leiwant Well, I mean, I think what we always expected from the president was a very broad-strokes program that would then be defined more specifically in Congress. This is what he’s sending, he’s not sending detailed legislation. I think working with the committee or the various committees is really important in terms of seeing what actually comes through. And I’m sure that the White House will be involved in some way in what it looks like. Gregory Svirnovskiy Can you tell me more about Rep. Neal’s proposal? Does it differ at all from Biden’s AFP? Sherry Leiwant It expands the family definition. So FMLA, it’s just for parents with young children under 18. The Neal proposal would expand that to a variety of named relatives, as well as those who have the equivalent of a family relationship through blood or affinity. All the nuts and bolts are in there. I’m not sure that, you know, the stakeholders, such as the advocates or the business community or the disabled community will agree with what they’ve done. And there’ll be pushback, and there’ll be conversation, and I’m sure things will be changed. But there are massive amounts of detail in that document. Gregory Svirnovskiy Is there anything missing in the plans Biden or Neal are presenting to Congress right now? Will families that take paid leave be guaranteed their jobs on returning from leave, for instance? Sherry Leiwant The FMLA continues to be the only job protection statute or legal remedy. If you’re taking care of someone in your extended family, you could get benefits for that if Neal’s discussion draft were to pass, or Biden’s, but the FMLA continues to be the only job protection statute. We would have to expand the definition of family there. The AFP is silent [on job protection], isn’t really addressing that issue. Neal’s proposal, also silent. There’s nothing in there. It doesn’t mean that the Biden proposal wouldn’t include something. But I don’t believe they said anything one way or the other. Gregory Svirnovskiy In the end, though, looking at Biden’s proposal and Rep. Neal’s plan for paid leave, can you speak to the symbolic importance of that for the American family? Sherry Leiwant Yes, it’s extremely important. I mean, I think it’s time. The time has long passed, really, for us to recognize that American families are not just mother, father, child, and parents. People rely on loved ones for their care. And many of our particular communities like the LGBT community, disability community, a lot of immigrant families, are extended families that care for each other, and we need to start recognizing that. This is a huge step in that direction.
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The real story behind TikTok
The TikTok headquarters in Culver City, California. | VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images Bloomberg business reporter Shelly Banjo explains how a goofy Chinese app took over the world. About nine months ago, it seemed like TikTok’s wild ride might be coming to an end. In August 2020, Trump signed an executive order to effectively ban the app from US stores. Devastated creators filmed emotional eulogies for the platform on which they’d found community and fame, while newly appointed CEO Kevin Mayer quit the role that had curdled into something he’d never signed up for. That same month, Facebook released its copycat product, Instagram Reels, ready and waiting for the demise of its Chinese competitor. But even then, it was clear to those who’d been paying attention that TikTok was never going to go away that easily. By the time of the presidential election, multiple courts had halted the ban, and with a new administration taking over the White House, dealing with the TikTok mess was far from an immediate priority. This August, meanwhile, will mark three years since TikTok launched in the US and became the first-ever Chinese-owned app to fully penetrate the American market — and it’s been an object of fascination, fear, confusion, and joy ever since. As with many companies, the origin story of TikTok is a lot more interesting than the story that TikTok itself likes to tell, and that’s the focus of two feats of reporting from recent weeks. One is Forbes’s feature on the toxicity and intensity of TikTok corporate, particularly over the course of 2020. The other is Bloomberg’s second season of its Foundering podcast, which covers the inside story of TikTok’s rise. Last week, I spoke to its host, Shelly Banjo, who explained how a goofy app called was bought by app giant ByteDance and became the defining platform for a generation. Below, we discuss the inner workings of the TikTok fame machine, the rivalry with Facebook, and the fact that the most common misconception people have about TikTok is that it’s all fun and games. When first launched, people were extremely skeptical. Snapchat had already cornered the teen market, and Vine had totally failed, so short-form video was a tough sell. How did it manage to succeed despite its doubters? I think there are two reasons it succeeded: One is that Vine and others were looking at older teenagers and high schoolers, and what was able to do was get people really young. At the time people called it “the world’s youngest app.” Nobody had created an app for that group, and for good reason, because it can be dangerous for 12-year-olds to go on an app, and 12-year-olds aren’t loyal customers. The second reason is its focus on creators. Alex [Zhu, the founder of] showed a lot of foresight. realized that if they can make their creators famous, then they will be extremely loyal. That continues up until now. Alex created fake usernames to talk to people on []; he would create WeChat groups and convince younger users and their parents to get on WeChat. He would take them and their parents out for dinner and ask them, “What problems are coming up?” and would change things [on the app] on the fly every single day. I just find that so fascinating, a tech CEO literally taking someone out for dinner from the middle of nowhere Alabama to help them be better at I can’t imagine Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel doing that. At the time, it was unthinkable to Silicon Valley that a Chinese app could become so well-known and well-loved in the US. How did deal with that stigma? When TikTok was, there were all these American investors that had invested in it, and Facebook originally sought to buy them. But then ByteDance, which is a Chinese company, came and bought it, and there was this moment of rebranding, like, “Now we’re an American company, or a global company.” The PR person would call up reporters and be like, “Stop calling us a Chinese company, we’re registered in the Cayman Islands.” They [later] hired an American CEO, Kevin Mayer; they did all these things to show that they weren’t a Chinese company, they just happened to have a founder that lived in China. It sounded like working at ByteDance was … demanding. Can you describe China’s work culture a little bit? I spent a few years in China and worked with a bunch of different tech companies, like Xiaomi, ByteDance, Tencent, and Alibaba. A lot of them are very similar in their “996 culture,” where you’re looking at 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. But really, it was a 24-hour work culture where you’re expected to answer all the time. You constantly work, and they throw more people at things rather than technology. Compared to the US tech companies, a lot of Chinese tech companies have way more employees because they utilize people more, so it’s very common for people to get burnt out. They’d be working constantly and leave because they couldn’t take it anymore. In August 2018, became TikTok overnight. Again, for the first couple of months, people were still super skeptical — there was this lingering belief that it was just for kids, that it was weird and cringey and embarrassing. How did the tides begin to turn? They spent a ton of money. They would take out these ads on Twitter [and other platforms] where there would be TikTok videos, and inside of them, they would have an install button. So you’d be scrolling through Twitter, and you’d see a TikTok. They were literally siphoning off people from their competitors on Facebook and YouTube. Once you’re No. 1 in the app store for a while, people really start to download you, but then it was still mostly kids. I think a real turning point was the pandemic. It became very mainstream for adults when all the kids were locked at home and had nothing better to do. TikTok also started differentiating and made a push for more creators around food, moms, and different sets of groups because they wanted to increase the age of users. And by “making a push for creators,” you mean literally paying influencers and celebrities to join the app, right? Well, that’s a tricky question. In China, they definitely have had [influencers] on salary. But in the US, what’s more likely to happen is that they will organize a sponsorship with a brand so they can ensure that creators get paid. They might say, “Hey, we want you to do this big live event with us, and we’ll get a sponsor and then that sponsor is going to pay you a million dollars,” or whatever it is. They’re very careful in the US to not necessarily pay directly. It’s a little bit more like, “Let me call you into the TikTok office, we’ll make an account for you and we’ll have someone show you how to do it. We’ll bring you to Charli D’Amelio’s house and you guys can collab and we’ll find a brand for you who will pay all this money.” Everybody gets paid. @keke.janajah NEW DANCE ALERT! if u use my dance tag me so i can see @theestallion #writethelyrics #PlayWithLife #foyou #fyp #foryoupage #newdance #savage ♬ Savage - Megan Thee Stallion The clearest way that this system works definitely seems to be within the music industry. You recently wrote a piece about how TikTok was basically responsible for the success of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” I definitely want to be clear that Megan Thee Stallion is an amazingly talented performer and artist, and that we’re not discounting that. What I thought was really interesting was that the record label wanted “Captain Hook” to be the focus track. They thought it was her best song, but the head of music partnerships at TikTok basically said, “No, don’t put that one on there, instead let’s peek into our users’ brains.” There are these secret sound folders on TikTok that every user has, where they save a sound because they want to use it tomorrow or next week. TikTok can see what you’re intending to do in a couple days, so they can almost predict whether a song will go viral. They started seeing that it wasn’t “Captain Hook” that people got into, it was “Savage.” Once they found that information out, they could plan all the marketing around that song, and they could make it so that you saw a “Savage” video come up right away on your For You page. TikTok’s algorithm naturally makes some people uncomfortable because it really does feel like it’s more powerful at getting to know you than anything we’ve seen before. I know this is the million-dollar question, but in your reporting did you get any insight into how the algorithm actually works? It is all speculation, and I think it is constantly changing. We spoke to some AI associates and the former head of AI, and we spoke to some people who handled content moderation. They’re taking hundreds and hundreds of data points about you and figuring out what is going on to keep you on the app and then showing it to you again and again. A lot of that has been done by Twitter and Facebook as well, but it’s just a different velocity. Facebook’s viewpoint is that you care about people and the connections you’ve made, and you want to see things that make you feel more a part of this community. ByteDance has a very different point of view, which is that what you care about has nothing to do with what your friends care about. People complained when their parents got on Facebook, then it no longer became cool. But that doesn’t matter for TikTok, because you’re not seeing the same thing that your parents are, you’re only saying what you want to see. I think that creates a staying power for the app that just doesn’t exist [elsewhere]. What are the biggest misconceptions people have about TikTok? I think the biggest misconception is that TikTok is this ephemeral, fun, authentic place where everyone can be themselves. These creators, as you know, work so hard. It’s their job; they will sit there for hours and hours making 15-second videos that appear fun and authentic. Young kids are on the app and they’re seeing these really well-produced things that they might not necessarily be able to do, and then they’re holding themselves up to that standard. You speak to these kids that are spending five hours a night on the app and this is their worldview, and it’s all manufactured. How is it really affecting the people who are using it? I don’t really know the answer to that. It could be all fine. But it does worry me. As soon as TikTok took off, there was panic about how all these kids are on this app owned by China. To some extent, it’s a reasonable concern, but do you get the sense that users are in any sort of danger? When you talk to 15-year-olds, they’re like, “Oh, everybody’s taking your data. Facebook’s taking my data, Google’s taking my data, like, I’m totally fine with that. I know the contract: I give you my data, I get this app for free.” But the fact is that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, and the Chinese government has a law on their books that they can require all tech companies to give over their data. TikTok says it hasn’t given any data to the Chinese government, but we don’t know if that means they’ll never give any data in the future, because it’s really impossible to argue over something that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe they are creating an entire database of hundreds of millions of teenagers that eventually one day will end up in the hands of the Chinese government, but we don’t know. Tiktok obviously denies any such thing, but the person in charge of TikTok today might not be in charge of TikTok tomorrow, because in China they can just take over your company. What’s the future of TikTok now that Trump isn’t explicitly threatening its demise? I think that they are trying to keep a low profile politically. It’s hard to tell, because I don’t think anyone expected what Trump did to begin with. I do think that they’re going to continue to grow. They’re getting into e-commerce now, which I think could be huge for them. People in this industry still today are asking the question, “Is TikTok just a fad?” To me that’s crazy, because it’s this huge, mega-company that’s the most downloaded app, it’s gotten people like Mark Zuckerberg scared, their parent company is about to IPO. The idea that it’s just like Vine, that it could fade away tomorrow, is crazy. This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
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Buy now, pay later changed retail. Health care and rent are next.
Buy now, pay later providers Klarna, Afterpay, and Quadpay spent years slowly infiltrating the retail market. The pandemic has accelerated their popularity among all sorts of online brands. | Getty Images Thanks to Afterpay and Klarna, it’s easier than ever to buy in installments. Now, the model is coming for necessities. Last March, in the midst of a nationwide lockdown that left millions out of work, the residents of Wasatch Property Management’s apartment complexes were presented with a solution to the impending problem of rent. It came from a little cartoon woman named Penny featured on Wasatch’s Facebook page. Through an app called Flex, Penny explained, tenants could pay rent in installments throughout the month, rather than a lump sum at the month’s start. “Have you ever gotten yourself in a small financial pinch or maybe even had to pay a late fee on your rent?” Penny asked. “Because let’s face it, life happens!” The cartoon went on, explaining that her payday falls on the 15th of the month, and Flex allowed her to budget rent into “small, stress-free payments.” The downside, which was left out of the video, is that tenants are charged a $20 monthly fee to use Flex. Online, some have compared the service to Afterpay, a point-of-sale lending service that provides shoppers the option to split their purchases across several payments. These buy now, pay later providers have spent years slowly infiltrating the retail market through partnerships with merchants, but the pandemic has accelerated their popularity among online retailers, from luxury brands to independent shops to fast-fashion sites. As a result, more consumers have grown familiar with these services, which have buzzy two-syllable names like Affirm, Klarna, Quadpay, and Sezzle. These startups sell the myth that shoppers are in greater control of their money, even while they’re fulfilling their consumerist desires. Customers, particularly those who are budget-conscious or financially constrained, are under the illusion that they’ve spent less, and able to hold onto their hard-earned cash for a few weeks longer. Meanwhile, for retailers, a service like Afterpay could theoretically increase the average value of a shopper’s order — encouraging them to spend money they don’t presently have to spend. It doesn’t end with retail, though. Emerging fintech apps are looking to apply this lending model to other sectors, from health care to travel to rent. Sure, people are growing acclimated to dividing their purchases into four easy payments, even applauding the option to do so. But no matter how you frame it, the pitfalls of these plans seem to be, unfortunately, just more debt. “Buy now, pay later” sounds simple. The fine print is more complicated. Iyahna Symonne has been in a complicated relationship with Afterpay since February. The 21-year-old’s spending habits were “already out of line,” so when faced with a $110 purchase from the fast-fashion retailer Shein, selecting the buy now, pay later option felt like a no-brainer. Since then, Afterpay has doubled her credit line from $600 to $1,200, extending her the possibility to buy more — and to be stuck in a cycle of repayments. As of late, Symonne’s impulse has been to split payments for most of her clothing purchases, even with less-expensive items like a $30 PacSun jacket. “If [a store] offers Afterpay, I’m going to use it. I don’t care if it’s $5,” she told me. “It makes me feel like I’m saving more money.” She is aware that isn’t true; in fact, Symonne is at risk of paying a small fee if she misses a payment. The trade-off with Afterpay is that she feels less guilty about shopping, even if it’s just a sticky reframing of expenses. If spending $100 is a splurge, then an upfront cost of $25 seems much more manageable, especially if no interest fees are involved, unlike with credit cards. Most providers offer no-interest payment plans if the buyer pays off the product within four installments or a fixed time period. But the fine print varies, as does the amount for late fees. I really buy everything with afterpay now, for no reason at all. Y’all gon get this $20 in 4 easy payments — “High Melanin” (@MissAmarisRose) May 5, 2021 Jason Mikula, who writes the newsletter Fintech Business Weekly, separates these services into two distinct categories: point-of-sale lenders (Affirm, PayPal Credit), which usually apply to larger purchases like Casper mattresses or Pelotons, are repaid over longer periods, require credit checks, and charge buyers interest; and pay-in-four services (Klarna, Afterpay), which charge no interest, require a 25 percent deposit, and operate without credit checks or reporting to credit bureaus. The rent service Flex markets itself as an opportunity to build tenants’ credit scores by reporting payment behavior to credit agencies, which means late payments can affect a person’s score. According to Mikula, who has spent more than a decade working in consumer credit, the first option generally appeals to high-income shoppers, while the latter is geared toward younger or income-constrained people. “If I’m going to buy a Peloton and get 0 percent financing, why would I not take that? It’s essentially free money,” he said. “On the other hand, the split-pay option lowers the friction of making a purchase. It is debt, and it might not legally be a loan, but it’s money the consumer owes someone.” In a 2019 piece for Vox, reporter Susie Cagle likened Afterpay to an inversion of layaway, a payment business model marketed primarily toward cash-strapped consumers. With layaway, shoppers could place a deposit on a big purchase and pay for the item in installments before taking it home. Twitter users joke that the buy now, pay later startups are a modern-day layaway “rebrand” or a gentrification of the concept. Cagle’s reporting reveals how providers like Afterpay are essentially short-term lending services; because they operate outside of the legal definition of a loan product, they aren’t subjected to certain US consumer finance regulations, such as the Truth in Lending Act. (Afterpay co-founder and co-CEO Nick Molnar insisted to Cagle that the company functions as a budgeting tool, rather than a loan servicer.) Australian and European lawmakers have since taken steps to better regulate providers like Afterpay, but the regulatory optics in the US have been slow to change. @brookehwr Dunno what I’d do without it tbh x #fyp #hauls #klarna #clearpay ♬ the real sorority check - elizabeth the first Despite concern from consumer advocates, many shoppers find the option to split payments useful, and some have developed brand affinity toward certain providers. Klarna and Afterpay, for example, frequently receive shoutouts from semi-viral TikTok videos of users glorifying the services, and have partnered with influencers and retailers to broadcast products and deals. As brands, these companies have adopted the tone of a friendly beneficiary: Customer service agents refer to user relationships as “friendships,” respond to comments with a suite of emojis, and assert the company’s mission of helping people buy what they love. Like Symonne, some consumers recognize how these services enable them to buy more, rather than spend less overall. The effort to stanch this behavior, though, remains largely individualized. “[A]fterpay & klarna have me in a damn chokehold,” one user tweeted. “Somebody cancel my Klarna,” wrote another. “I’m gonna be making four small easy payments forever.” These tweets are, like most things on Twitter, probably made in jest, but they hint at worthwhile concerns held by consumer advocates: What’s helpful for one shopper could be predatory for another, so what regulations are in place to protect people as these services bleed into other sectors, like health care? “We need a standardized way to inform people about the features of these products,” said Chuck Bell, programs director at Consumer Reports. “Most consumers aren’t aware of the distinctions between Affirm or Afterpay, and whether they’re building credit when they make an on-time payment.” The prevailing concern is that consumers are being urged to take on more than they can afford. Some services operate without a credit check, or standardized mechanisms in place to limit overspending. But as the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull pointed out, “buy now, pay later” services shouldn’t be vilified any more than credit cards, auto loans, or any financial product designed to encourage people to buy things they can’t afford. After all, consumerism is designed to keep churning the gears of American capitalism. And since the postwar era, the evolution of consumer credit has sought to achieve one goal: encouraging people to spend beyond their means. The evolution of buy now, pay later The modern consumer credit system was established by General Motors to sell cars. Very few people could pay full price for one, hence the creation of a loan financing model. Today, selecting buy now, pay later is a nearly instantaneous decision, and its proliferation within retail is in line with the decentralization of fintech and the direct-to-consumer boom, according to Larry Diamond, CEO of Quadpay’s parent company Zip. With Shopify, Stripe, and the growth of e-commerce, technology developments allowed merchants to bypass the traditional, lengthy credit card integration process. “The ability to plug and play is really powerful,” Diamond said. “A merchant can decide to offer an installment solution at checkout, and once they pass the brief accreditation period, it’ll immediately appear on their checkout screens.” Due to their novelty, these venture-backed startups are able to skirt strict regulation, although US consumer protection laws still generally apply. Among investors, Afterpay and its ilk have been touted as the future of consumer credit. Younger Americans are supposedly less trustful of traditional financial institutions, and up until 2019, were less likely to open up a credit card, compared to older consumers. But recent surveys suggest more than half of millennials and members of Generation Z have at least one credit card. With @CapitalOne blocking BNPL tx on its credit cards, the credit risk of the product category is getting another lookAfterpay's ~13% loss rate is in payday loan territoryBNPLs argue loan book loss % is wrong metric, as 'loan' term is ~30 daysSrc:— Jason Mikula (@mikulaja) December 8, 2020 Providers like Afterpay position themselves as an alternative for the young and credit-averse. Users can link debit cards or bank accounts to the service, in addition to most credit cards (Capital One has banned such transactions on its cards). Regardless, these tools all rely on the concept of spending beyond one’s immediate means. And there’s plenty of market potential for growth, in retail and other sectors. A Bank of America report predicted that the global buy now, pay later space could annually process between $650 billion to $1 trillion by 2025, which is roughly 10 to 15 times the current market. PayPal launched a Pay in 4 option last fall, and banks and credit card companies are also eyeing the space. “Existing credit card companies, like American Express and Chase, are trying to offer customers the ability to convert purchases on their cards into installment loans after the fact,” Mikula, of Fintech Business Weekly, told me. “But uptake on those services has been very low because it’s essentially extra work.” However, Mikula thinks that the popularity of buy now, pay later services is currently overestimated, even as they partner with more merchants and digital payment companies. He cited a 2020 survey of about 3,000 consumers from Cornerstone Advisors, which found that only 7 percent of respondents sought to split their payments. Another problem is brand loyalty, and whether providers are able to distinguish themselves in a competitive landscape. “Most users interact with these products as a convenience option when they’re checking out online,” he said. “There isn’t an infinite pool of people who would want to split an $80 Adidas purchase four ways. It’s clear that these companies are cognizant of the risk and are trying to develop product extensions to diversify or mitigate.” “There isn’t an infinite pool of people who would want to split an $80 Adidas purchase four ways” Affirm and AfterPay have launched debit cards with a built-in function to split payments at in-store retailers. But while buy now, pay later is most visible in the retail space, companies are considering an expansion into sectors where consumers frequently make big-ticket purchases, such as travel, home improvement, and even health care. “Our goal is to be the first payment choice everywhere,” Diamond, of Quadpay, told me. “The use case can extend to all sorts of purchases. If you look at Australia, we do a huge amount through bills: mobile phone bill, utility bill, medical bills.” He added that health care is “a big focus” in the United States, since a lot of people don’t have private health insurance and out-of-pocket costs can be expensive. The startup Walnut, for example, follows a similar point-of-sale lending model that breaks down patient payments with zero interest. TechCrunch reported that the startup uses an “extensive underwriting model,” rather than a credit score, to figure out if a patient should qualify for a loan, and analyzes financial data points from a person’s spending habits to their side income. In March, Openpay became the first buy now, pay later startup to be offered in Australian hospitals, in partnership with St. John of God Health Care, the country’s largest Catholic health provider. The installment plan is specifically made for uninsured Australians without private health insurance, who might be faced with major costs for procedures like elective surgeries. Criticism toward these fintech developments is generally directed at their novelty and lack of regulation. Such products have, to put it bluntly, disrupted the traditional pathways of taking on debt by existing beyond the purview of traditional financial institutions. Some do serve a need by extending access to credit for underbanked people, who also happen to be the most financially vulnerable. For example, a patient in need of a health care loan could theoretically rely on Walnut as a no-interest lending service, rather than take out a payday or high interest-rate loan. The unregulated gray area of this space, however, is concerning to Bell, the consumer advocate. While he didn’t mention any startup by name, he acknowledged that split-payment providers could complicate consumer relationships with retailers and merchants. “It might be difficult for consumers to work out disputes with retailers and sellers,” he said. “If a consumer gets into a travel dispute with a point-of-sale loan, they might have less leverage. It’s also confusing, because you’ve now invited a third company into the relationship that should be between you and American Airlines, or with Expedia.” These services are marketing themselves as a stopgap to big problems that Americans face, like medical debt and the inability to build credit off of monthly rent payments. Still, they’re Band-Aid solutions to larger systemic problems that existing policy has yet to solve. It’s challenging to neutrally assess the use case of apps like Flex, Walnut, or Afterpay, as it ultimately leads one to consider philosophical arguments about the function of debt and credit in America. “Debt has always played an important role in Americans’ lives — not merely as a means of instant gratification but also as a strategy for survival and a tool for economic advance,” argued the historian Jackson Lears in a 2006 New York Times Magazine piece. The country has never lived within its means. Being able to pay off debt has been made more valuable than avoiding it; it’s a kind of financial hazing that every American consumer must weather to ensure good credit. Increasingly, the country’s taxing relationship with debt has come to the fore, spurred by conversations about student debt forgiveness. As shocking as our national debt figures are ($1.7 trillion in student loans), forgiveness has been, for the most part, written off as too politically radical. This failure to forgive — by the federal government and a subset of Americans — betrays a general perception of debt as an individualized failure. Whether it be consumer, student, or mortgage debt, the act of owing money has been positioned as a conscious and individual choice, rather than the inevitable result of complex social and economic forces. The 2008 financial crisis briefly soured consumers’ perception of debt and credit cards. Yet, in the wake of a pandemic-induced recession, credit cards and split-payment services continue to thrive. It’s impossible to entirely avoid credit (and therefore debt) as an American consumer, especially when financial products are crafted to serve the same function: ease people into buying more under the guise of convenience or flexibility. Social media and Amazon have coaxed shoppers into a state of frequent, mindless consumption. With tools like buy now, pay later, the act of buying can be divorced from one’s bank account balance. As Mull writes in the Atlantic, a service like Afterpay “removes the psychological friction that can force people to stop, consider their choices, and decide whether they can really afford to buy that one fabulous thing.” What happens, though, when the option to break down payments is applied to rent or a new kidney, rather than a coat or a vacation? In those instances, there is no option but to pay up. The difference is how.
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Got the vaccine? You can relax about your Covid-19 risk now. Really.
Robert Gilbertson, a medical worker, prepares a Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. | Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images I asked experts about their post-vaccination lives. Most no longer worry about their own risk of Covid-19. White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said he will not go into restaurants or movie theaters, even though he’s vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated people should continue masking up indoors and avoiding large gatherings. News outlets have reported on “breakthrough infections” of Covid-19 among the fully vaccinated. All of this can make it seem like getting vaccinated may not be enough to liberate people from the fear of getting sick and the precautions they’ve taken to avoid the coronavirus in the past year. So I posed a question to experts I’ve talked to throughout the pandemic about Covid-related precautions: How worried are you about your personal safety after getting vaccinated? They were nearly unanimous in their response: They’re no longer worried much, if at all, about their personal risk of getting Covid-19. Several spoke of going into restaurants and movie theaters now that they’re vaccinated, socializing with friends and family, and having older relatives visit for extended periods. “I’m not particularly worried about getting ill myself,” Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, told me. “I know that if I do somehow end up infected, my chances of developing serious symptoms are low.” Instead, experts said they mostly remain cautious to protect others who aren’t yet vaccinated. The vaccines are extremely effective — dramatically cutting the risk of any symptoms, and driving the risk of hospitalization and death to nearly zero. There’s some evidence that these vaccines also reduce the risk of transmission, but we’re still learning how much they prevent someone who is vaccinated from infecting another person. When experts are still taking precautions, it’s this concern for others that primarily drives them. But, over time, they see even those concerns for others becoming less necessary, too. “It’s about protecting others. Vaccination makes me essentially safe,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told me. “There’s accumulating evidence, too, that breakthrough cases are less likely to transmit (they have lower viral loads), so by being vaccinated I’m already helping protect others. But I’m also going to continue with behaviors consistent with lower contact rates in the community overall. As more and more are protected through vaccination, I’ll feel less and less of a need for that.” As vaccination rates climb and daily new cases and deaths drop, experts said that people should feel more comfortable easing up on precautions, shifting the world back to the pre-pandemic days. That might happen sooner than you think — Israel’s experience suggests that cases could start to sustainably plummet once about 60 percent of the population is vaccinated, a point that could be just a month or two away in the US. And with 46 percent of Americans getting one dose so far, cases in the US have already started to decline. As more of the population gets the vaccine, it’s prudent to keep masking and avoiding large gatherings, and for people who’ve been vaccinated to share their stories and encourage their friends and family to get vaccinated, too. But that’s not because those who are vaccinated are in any trouble. Even with the spread of the variants, the consensus among experts is that vaccinated people shouldn’t worry much about their own risk of Covid-19. The vaccines really are that good for your personal safety The clinical and real-world evidence for the vaccines is now pretty clear: They are extremely effective at protecting a person from Covid-19. The clinical trials put the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines’ efficacy rates at 95-plus percent and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s at more than 70 percent. All three vaccines also drove the risk of hospitalization and death to nearly zero. The real-world evidence has backed this up. In Israel, the country with the most advanced vaccination campaign, the data shows that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been more than 90 percent effective at preventing infections, with even higher rates of blocking symptomatic disease, hospitalization, and death. You can see this in the country’s overall statistics: After Israel almost fully reopened its economy in March, once the majority of the population had at least one dose, daily new Covid-19 cases fell by more than 95 percent. And daily deaths are now in the single digits and, at times, zero. The research also shows the vaccines are effective against the coronavirus variants that have been discovered so far. While some variants seem better able to get around immunity, the vaccines are so powerful that they still by and large overwhelm and defeat the variants in the end. It’s this evidence that’s made experts confident the vaccines let them stop worrying about their own Covid-19 risk. “I am fully vaccinated and have resumed normal activities,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California San Francisco, told me. “I have gone indoor dining, went to my first movie theater, and would go to a bar if there was an opportunity!” The diminished concern applies to others who are vaccinated, too. Smith spoke of having her fully vaccinated in-laws visit this coming weekend — “the first time we’ve seen them in person since December 2019.” There have been some breakthrough Covid-19 cases among those who are vaccinated. But they tend to be milder infections, less likely to transmit, and far from common. “This is less than 0.01 percent of the vaccinated,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine, told me, citing CDC data. “So extremely rare!” To the extent that some experts are still playing it safe for themselves, they cited an abundance of caution — and a lack of interest in certain activities. “I go out to eat, but still only outdoors. I want to be fully relaxed for a restaurant dining experience. For me, with people I don’t know eating with masks off, I feel safest outside,” Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, told me. “I haven’t been to bars, concerts, theaters, but that probably reflects the fact that I’m a rather boring person.” Some acknowledged that their continuing caution was a habit that needed to be broken: After a year of worrying about the virus, it takes a bit of time to go back to a pre-pandemic mentality. “I am not too concerned about my own safety,” Jorge Salinas, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, told me. “I think it is mostly a matter of habits. I think it is okay to go back to restaurants but have continued getting takeout. But whoever is vaccinated and feels ready, I think it is safe for them to do so in most places.” Continuing precautions are really about protecting others The one reason experts consistently cited for continued precautions: the need to protect those who are unvaccinated. “We’ll probably be holding off on any indoors activities for now, since we have an unvaccinated 7-year-old at home,” Smith said. “The risk is low for us to catch and transmit anything to him, but after all this time avoiding indoor venues and being careful, a movie theater or dinner at a restaurant just doesn’t seem worth it when we still have great options with home theater and takeout meals. Once everyone is vaccinated, those will be back in our rotation.” Some recent research found that the vaccines can reduce the chances of a vaccinated person spreading the virus to others. The CDC summarized one such real-world study for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, showing the vaccines stop not just symptoms but overall infections and, therefore, transmission: Results showed that following the second dose of vaccine (the recommended number of doses), risk of infection was reduced by 90 percent two or more weeks after vaccination. Following a single dose of either vaccine, the participants’ risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 was reduced by 80 percent two or more weeks after vaccination. But in the typically cautious worlds of science and public health, experts want to see a bit more research and data before they declare that vaccinated people can throw out their masks and gather in large numbers indoors. (Some experts also said they may continue masking and avoiding crowded indoor spaces during flu season, after such measures seemed to crush the flu in the past year.) Even if the vaccine proves to reduce transmission, it would still be safer for every person who can get vaccinated to get the shot. And as more people get their shots, it’s also safer to stick to some precautions for their sake. To that end, experts recommended watching a few figures going forward: the vaccination rate, and daily new cases or hospitalizations. As vaccination rates go up and surpass 50 or 60 percent at a local level, a vaccinated person can feel much more confident going out without worrying about potentially infecting others. And as cases and hospitalizations go down, a vaccinated person can also have confidence that there’s not much virus out there — further shrinking their chances of getting infected and spreading it. In the meantime, those who are already vaccinated can help speed up the process by encouraging their friends, family, and peers to get the shot. Surveys consistently show that around 1 in 3 unvaccinated people are waiting for others around them to get vaccinated first before they do so. Sharing vaccination stories, then, could give people the push they need. “I’m very cognizant that while I’m vaccinated, many still are not,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. “So I’m still vigilant in wearing my mask while out in public running errands, or when interacting with servers [and] other patrons if I go to an outdoor restaurant, even though I’m not really concerned for my own risk of getting sick.”
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The Supreme Court considers an important showdown over abortion this week
Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett arrive at the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the US Capitol on January 20, 2021. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images The Court has been surprisingly hesitant to weigh in on abortion. But a pending case is likely to force its hand. The Supreme Court has been sitting on a potentially very significant abortion case for the last two months, one that the Court’s rules say it should dismiss. We’re likely to find out this week whether the Court will dismiss this case, however, and that decision could tell us a great deal about how fast the Court plans to move in rolling back abortion rights. In February, about a month after President Joe Biden took office, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear three consolidated cases challenging a Trump administration policy targeting abortion clinics. A 1970 federal law, often referred to as Title X, provides federal grants to health providers who offer “family planning” care such as birth control and infertility treatments. In 2019, the Trump administration imposed several strict limits on providers who receive Title X grants. Among other things, these providers are forbidden from referring any patient to an abortion provider. Title X grant recipients may provide a list of health providers to a patient, but only a minority of the providers on this list may perform abortions — and the list may not “identify which providers on the list perform abortion.” Additionally, Title X grant recipients that also perform abortions must impose a “clear physical and financial separation” between any program funded by Title X and abortion services. Planned Parenthood estimated that the cost of complying with this “physical separation” requirement would be “nearly $625,000 per affected service site.” Many providers, including Planned Parenthood, dropped out of the Title X program altogether because they considered the Trump administration’s rules too burdensome. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear these cases, which are consolidated under the case name American Medical Association v. Becerra, was somewhat surprising because President Biden had already begun the process of repealing the Trump-era policy when the Court announced that it would take up this case. Biden directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “review” Trump’s policy and to “consider, as soon as practicable, whether to suspend, revise, or rescind” it a little over a week after taking office. Though repealing this Trump-era effort to reduce access to abortion will take months — the Biden administration must complete a lengthy process known as “notice and comment” — the current administration predicts that it will complete this process in the early fall, rendering American Medical Association moot long before the Court is likely to decide the case. Indeed, in March, the Biden administration filed a joint request alongside the various parties challenging the Trump administration’s Title X rule, which asked the Court to dismiss American Medical Association. That should have been the end of the case, as the Supreme Court’s rules provide that “whenever all parties file with the Clerk an agreement in writing that a case be dismissed,” the Court “will enter an order of dismissal.” And yet, the Court has held onto the case — at least for now — even though the Court typically does not agree to hear cases that it knows will become moot before the case can be briefed, argued, and decided. And it rarely holds onto a case after all the parties have asked for the case to be dismissed. We’re likely to learn very soon what the justices plan to do with American Medical Association. In late April, the Court called for briefs explaining whether the Biden administration plans to enforce the Trump administration’s rule until the new regulations rescinding that rule are finalized. The last of these briefs is due this week, so the justices are likely to rule very soon on whether they will dismiss the case. If the Court does hold onto the case, that would be a deeply worrying sign for supporters of abortion rights. It would suggest that the justices may race to hand down a decision upholding the Trump administration’s rule before the Biden administration can rescind it. And it may also allow the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority to expand the government’s ability to restrict abortion. A brief history of Title X and the anti-abortion “gag rule” Title X provides about $286 million in funding every year for “comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with “priority [...] given to persons from low-income families.” According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that supports broad access to reproductive care, Title X “supports nearly 4,000 service sites nationwide, serving approximately four million people per year.” By law, no Title X grant money “shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning,” so the money cannot be used directly to provide abortion care. But past administrations have disagreed on just how much separation must exist between health providers who receive Title X funds and abortion providers or facilities. In 1988, the Reagan administration handed down some fairly strict restrictions on Title X providers — including that projects funded by Title X “may not provide counseling concerning the use of abortion as a method of family planning or provide referral for abortion as a method of family planning.” This 1988 rule was often referred to as the “gag rule,” and the Supreme Court upheld it inRust v. Sullivan (1991). But a few months after the Supreme Court decision, President George H.W. Bush backed away from the gag rule, writing in a 1991 memo to HHS that referrals “may be made by Title X programs to full-service health care providers that perform abortions,” provided that abortion wasn’t the provider’s “principal activity.” Then, in 1993, President Bill Clinton took office, and he swiftly rescinded the Reagan era “gag rule.” In 2000, the Clinton administration issued a final rule that required Title X programs to provide “information and counseling” about “pregnancy termination,” and to provide a referral to an abortion clinic “upon request” by the patient, a rule that stayed in place throughout the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Then, in 2019, the Trump administration implemented its rule, which imposed strict limits on Title X recipients similar to the ones imposed by the Reagan-era gag rule. The legal arguments in American Medical Association, briefly explained The plaintiffs in American Medical Association and the consolidated cases raise several challenges to the Trump administration’s rule. Congress enacted two laws in the years following Rust which arguably limit the government’s power to reinstate the 1988 version of the gag rule. The first was a 1996 budget rider which clarified that Title X funds “shall not be expended for abortions,” but that also provided that “all pregnancy counseling shall be nondirective” — directing patients neither toward abortions nor away from them. And a provision of the Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed in 2010, provides that HHS “shall not promulgate any regulation that ... interferes with communications regarding a full range of treatment options between the patient and the provider.” The plaintiffs argue the Trump rule violates both the 1996 “nondirective” requirement and the Affordable Care Act’s requirement. They also argue that the Trump administration didn’t provide an adequate justification for many parts of its rule. Under the “notice and comment” process, an agency that intends to hand down a new regulation typically must announce its proposed regulation in advance and give members of the public an opportunity to comment on it. While the agency isn’t required to scrap a proposal simply because some of these comments disagree with it, federal agencies do have some obligation to provide a response to commenters and an explanation for any concerns raised by the commenters. Several commenters expressed concerns that the Trump administration’s requirement that abortion services be physically separated from Title X programs would impose unreasonable costs on providers — as mentioned above, Planned Parenthood estimated that it would have to pay an average of $625,000 per facility to comply with this requirement. Yet the Trump administration claimed, without any apparent justification, that it would only cost Title X providers $30,000 to comply with the physical separation requirement. As a lower court explained in striking down this requirement, “there is no justification in the Final Rule for the $30,000 amount,” and a lawyer for the Trump administration was only able to offer a vague explanation for where this number came from. “For all we can tell,” the lower court concluded, “this number was pulled from thin air.” The court also concluded that, in relying on this seemingly arbitrary $30,000 estimate, the Trump administration did not meet its obligation to explain why it was implementing the new rule and to offer a reasoned response to commenters. So there are strong legal arguments against the Trump-era rule. Nevertheless, lower court judges have largely split along party lines when asked to answer whether this rule should be upheld. A conservative 11-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for example, upheld the Trump-era gag rule — largely relying on the argument that Rust remains good law and that it wasn’t displaced by the 1996 or 2010 laws governing the relationship between providers and patients. The four Democratic members of this panel dissented. Similarly, the left-leaning Fourth Circuit split entirely along party lines in its decision striking down the Trump rule — with every Democratic appointee joining that result and every Republican appointee in dissent. So what’s at stake in American Medical Association? Given this partisan divide among lower court judges, it’s not hard to guess how the Supreme Court — where Republicans hold six of the nine seats — is likely to decide American Medical Association if given the opportunity to do so. The uncertain question in American Medical Association isn’t how these justices will view the legal issues presented by the case, it’s whether the Supreme Court will honor the parties’ request to dismiss the case. If the justices do not honor that request, that could set off an unseemly race where the Court rushes to hand down its decision before the Biden administration rescinds the Trump-era rule and renders the case moot. Under the Court’s ordinary procedures, the earliest the justices could hear this case is next October — not nearly soon enough to win the race if the Biden administration is correct that its new rule will be finalized in early fall. So the Court would need to depart from its ordinary procedures, either by scheduling a rare summer oral argument or bypassing oral arguments altogether, in order to decide this case before it becomes moot. Because it remains unclear whether the case will be dismissed or not, the parties have not even briefed the case. Indeed, it’s not even clear who the Court would appoint to argue in defense of the Trump administration’s rule, although a coalition of Republican state attorneys general and another coalition of conservative and religious health groups seek the right to do so. Without full briefing, it’s also not entirely clear what’s at stake in the case; we don’t yet know what the rule’s defenders will ask for in their briefs. At the very least, however, the Court could firmly reject the various legal arguments against the gag rule and permit a future Republican administration to reinstate the Trump-era rule shortly after taking office. The Court could also potentially include language in its opinion suggesting that the gag rule is required by federal law. In a 2020 opinion concerning the Trump administration’s interpretation of a provision of Obamacare, Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion included a bunch of gratuitous language suggesting that several important provisions of Obamacare are unconstitutional. The Court could repeat this performance in the American Medical Association case, effectively using it as a vehicle to limit access to abortion during Democratic administrations. In the worst-case scenario for abortion rights, the Court could even include some language in its opinion suggesting that both the states and the federal government have broad authority to restrict abortion. In any event, the obvious course of action is that the Court should dismiss this case. That’s what the Court’s rules call for, and dismissal is especially appropriate because the case is about to become moot. If the justices decide not to take this obvious course of action, that could be a very worrisome sign about the future of abortion rights.
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