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South Korea just changed a longstanding military law for the sake of BTS
Members of BTS attend a press conference for the release of the group’s new album, BE, on November 20, 2020. | JTBC PLUS/Imazins via Getty Images BTS’s success has won the male K-pop idols a reprieve from South Korea’s mandatory military assignment. Just one day after BTS made Billboard chart history (for the nth time), the South Korean government made a little history of its own. On December 1, the National Assembly changed a longstanding law concerning compulsory military service in order to allow a brief respite for artists and entertainers who’ve elevated the nation’s global reputation — including, of course, BTS. The law previously required all male South Korean citizens to complete about two years of military service by age 30, meaning they had to enroll by the time they turned 28. Now eligible idols and other artists may defer the beginning of their service until they’re 30, pushing their enrollment deadline back by two years. The change arrives just in time to exempt the band’s oldest member, Kim Seok-jin (a.k.a. Jin), from having to enlist when he turns 28 on December 4. The timing also coincides with BTS setting a new record in the US music industry. On November 30, BTS became the first band in history to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a song sung primarily in Korean: “Life Goes On,” the second chart-topping single from the group’s new pandemic-themed album Be. (The first was the English-language track “Dynamite,” which debuted at No. 1 in August.) The band also broke a slew of other records at the same time, including the fastest accumulation of three No. 1 songs on the Hot 100 since the Bee Gees accomplished that feat in 1978. Exemptions to the Korean mandated military service law already existed for athletes, entertainers, and other public figures, but those exemptions from active service still require those who qualify for them to complete a term of military training. The new law allows eligible artists to defer their conscription for an additional two years, effectively giving K-pop band members like Jin and many other idols a grace period before they have to enlist. Korea’s military service requirement has long loomed over the country’s pop idol industry, with many successful bands seeing members enlist for their service period during the height of their success. Bands with many members can afford to lose one or two to the draft without losing momentum, but the requirement can be disruptive. Four members of the wildly popular band EXO, for example, have had to enroll,and though they — along with many other idols — could be released from service within the next year or two, the timeline isn’t hard and fast, and the uncertainty of a discharge date means it’s not exactly easy to plan a comeback tour. (Unfortunately, the law doesn’t appear to be retroactive, so those idols currently serving their time probably won’t get a sudden reprieve.) Media reports have framed the new legal exemption as one made for BTS specifically as a result, but it’s probably more accurate to say that the change is a respite for Korea itself. As of 2019, BTS reportedly contributed a staggering $4.7 billion to the national economy. The group’s massive fandom famously shows its love for the band through highly organized mass shows of consumerism, which are aimed at helping the band break more records, push more sales, and land ever higher on the charts. That mighty fandom machine has been in place for years, but it seemed to reach critical mass in 2020, propelling BTS toward a steady string of globalchart-toppers. During a highly unusual year for entertainment, BTS has amassed a nearly unreal set of achievements — this year alone, the group broke the record for the most-viewed YouTube video in 24 hours, joined Taylor Swift as one of only two artists to simultaneously debut an album and a single at the top of the Billboard charts, and became the most-streamed group of 2020 on Spotify. In Korea, BTS broke a 30-year-old record for the most music award show wins in a single year, putting the group literally in a class by itself. Much of this success has come from a single song. The commercial success of “Dynamite” alone has pumped an estimated $1.4 billion into the Korean economy — enough money to create roughly 8,000 new jobs. When the band debuted the song at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in August (before promptly going on to repeat that feat two more times, no big deal), Korean president Moon Jae-in issued a public statement congratulating the band and thanking BTS for spreading hope during the Covid-19 pandemic. The band’s Hot 100 achievement, Moon said, “is a splendid feat that further raises pride in K-pop.” It is truly amazing. It is a splendid feat that further raises pride in K-pop. The song “Dynamite,” which topped the list, is all the more meaningful as it has been composed to give a message of comfort and hope to people around the world who are struggling with COVID-19.— 문재인 (@moonriver365) September 1, 2020 It was the international popularity of BTS, particularly “Dynamite,” that ultimately prompted Korean lawmakers to introduce the bill, which essentially carves an idol-shaped exemption in the Military Service Act. In October, ruling party member Noh Woong-rae pushed the legislation forward on behalf of the band, arguing that its members should be allowed to serve the nation in other ways to meet its service requirements. And those who have advocated in the past for changing this law have frequently cited BTS in their arguments. “I think that members of BTS should also get the exemption,” speedskater Song Kyung-taek told the New York Times in 2018 when discussing the draft. “When South Koreans go abroad, we can mention BTS to explain where we come from.”
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Why tens of thousands of farmers are blocking roads into India’s capital city
Farmers sit at the Singhu border in New Delhi on December 1, 2020, to protest against agriculture reform laws. | Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images India says its new laws will modernize agriculture. Farmers say it will cause their ruin. More than 200,000 Indian farmers and their supporters have occupied the streets of New Delhi for days in protest against three new agriculture reform laws, blocking major highways into the capital city and vowing to remain camped there until the laws are repealed. The legislation, enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in late September, aims to deregulate India’s agricultural industry in a move the government says will both provide farmers with more autonomy over choosing prices and make the agricultural sector more efficient. Under the new policies, farmers will now sell goods and make contracts with independent buyers outside of government-sanctioned marketplaces, which have long served as the primary locations for farmers to do business. Modi and members of his party believe these reforms will help India modernize and improve its farming industry, which will mean greater freedom and prosperity for farmers. A watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture! Congratulations to our hardworking farmers on the passage of key bills in Parliament, which will ensure a complete transformation of the agriculture sector as well as empower crores of farmers.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 20, 2020 But the protesting farmers aren’t convinced. Although the government has said it will not drop minimum support prices for essential crops like grain, which the Indian government has set and guaranteed for decades, the farmers are concerned they will disappear. Without them, the farmers believe they will be at the mercy of large corporations that will pay extremely low prices for essential crops, plunging them into debt and financial ruin. “Farmers have so much passion because they know that these three laws are like death warrants for them,” Abhimanyu Kohar, coordinator of the National Farmer’s Alliance, a federation of more than 180 nonpolitical farm organizations across India, told me in an interview. “Our farmers are doing this movement for our future, for our very survival.” Partha Sarkar/Xinhua via Getty Images Indian farmers sit at the border between New Delhi and Haryana state, India, on December 1, 2020. The distressed state of farmers in India is cause for concern. A 2018 study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 farmers in the country died by suicide from 2018 to 2019, and though there is considerable debate, several studies suggest that farmers’ indebtedness has been a major factor. In comments made November 30 from the banks of India’s sacred Ganges River, Modi sought to reassure farmers that the new laws would benefit them. “These reforms have not only served to unshackle our farmers but also have given them new rights and opportunities,” Modi said. Ritesh Shukla/NurPhoto via Getty Images Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at Bhaisasur Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River as he attends the Dev Dipawali festival in Varanasi on November 30, 2020. Modi has blamed India’s opposition parties, which have been speaking out strongly against the bills, for agitating the farmers by spreading rumors. “I know that decades of falsehood do put apprehensions in the minds of farmers, I want to say this from the bank of Mother Ganga — we are not working with the intention of deceiving. Our intentions are as holy as the water of the river Ganga,” Modi said. The farmers, who are mostly from the nearby Punjab and Haryana regions, began marching to New Delhi by the thousands in tractors and cars on November 26 to demand the prime minister repeal the laws. They were met by large numbers of police in riot gear, who used tear gas, water canons, and batons to keep the protesters at the border of New Delhi and Haryana state. Protest against Farm Laws in India. Water canons used against farmers in Haryana India pic.twitter.com/446hbrPBhJ— News Kashmir 24/7 (@newskashmir24) November 26, 2020 Protests restarted November 27, but following the clashes, authorities allowed the farmers to enter New Delhi and peacefully assemble at an approved location later that evening. Some of the iconic pictures from the organic and massive protests led by Farmers in India today. Even though the central government tried everything to scare them off, the Farmers bravely faced it to register their opposition to the pro-corporate, Farm Bills. pic.twitter.com/04z6jG8e0n— Kawalpreet Kaur (@kawalpreetdu) November 27, 2020 A delegation of farmers held talks on December 1 with BJP officials, including Minister of Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar, but the negotiations were unsuccessful. “The government did not agree to our points and rejected our demands outright,” Chanda Singh, a member of the farmers’ delegation, told Al Jazeera, referring to the farmers’ insistence that the three laws be repealed. “We will continue our protest unless our demands are met,” Singh emphasized. Tomar, however, appeared to have a more favorable view of the talks, telling Indian news agency ANI that the meeting went well. Another round of talks with a greater number of farmers is scheduled for December 3. Whether those talks will appease the concerns of the farmers, though, remains to be seen. “In Western countries agriculture is a source of business, but in India, agriculture is a source of livelihood,” Kohar, the National Farmer’s Alliance coordinator, told me. “In India, crops support their living.” Some experts say the laws are “a necessary tough call,” but farmers aren’t convinced Agriculture plays a crucial role in the Indian economy, as roughly 60 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people depend on farming for their livelihoods. But farming is incredibly unproductive, as the sector only accounts for about 15 percent of the country’s GDP. By allowing farmers to sell to whomever they want, the government hopes to attract private business to agriculture which will benefit some farmers. “It’s a necessary tough call,” said Sadanand Dhume, an expert on South Asia at the American Enterprise Institute. “This should’ve been done 20 years ago.” “It’s a small part of a much larger and much more complex solution to a problem,” Dhume added. The problem, Dhume explained, is that there are simply too many farmers in India. He and others have argued thatthe country should make a similar transition away from farming to manufacturing like China did. But so far, India has not been able to generate the kind of manufacturing growth needed to support millions of farmers in their transition to new work. Manufacturing only accounted for about 17 percent of India’s GDP in 2020. As Dhume stressed, “If the economy were creating jobs, then there wouldn’t be as much anxiety. In India, because job creation has been so weak, the thought of losing the guarantee is unsettling for farmers.” Part of the farmers’ fear is also due to the urgency of the current moment, where the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has made farmers even more alarmed. The Indian economy shrank 7.5 percent from July-September compared to the same period in 2019. A June survey by All India Manufacturers Organization found that more than a third of medium and small business were making plans to close despite receiving aid from the government. The farmers have brought enough supplies with them to last for at least six months and are determined to stay until Modi’s government repeals the new farm bills and enshrines the minimum support price into law, among other demands. “We want everything in writing,” Kohar said. Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images Farmers rest inside their tractor trolley near a road block stopping at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur on December 1, 2020.
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A surprising number of government agencies buy cellphone location data. Lawmakers want to know why.
Federal agencies routinely buy cellphone location data from private companies. | Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images Private companies collect location data on millions of Americans and provide it to the DHS, IRS, FBI, and DEA — no warrants needed. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will investigate its own use of location data after it was revealed that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was purchasing cellphone location data from commercial vendors for use in its work. The DHS’s Office of the Inspector General recently informed Sens. Sherrod Brown, Ed Markey, Brian Schatz, Elizabeth Warren, and Ron Wyden — all Democrats — that it would audit the agency’s policies regarding cellphone surveillance. The OIG’s letter comes in response to those senators’ request for an investigation last October. CBP has refused to reveal much about how it uses the data purchased from commercial vendors other than confirming publicly available information that such contracts with those vendors exist. The type of location data in question is collected from millions of phones, with most people unaware that their movements are being tracked this way and unable to find out who has access to that information. There are few laws regulating location data companies, and government agencies have used this to their advantage, spending millions to gain access to this information. Privacy advocates have long decried this practice, and privacy-minded lawmakers have pushed for investigations and laws to regulate it. Location data purchased from private companies gives government agencies access to potentially enormous amounts of personal data from millions of people who aren’t suspected of or involved in any crimes. While there are few laws regarding private companies’ collection and use of this data, law enforcement typically has to have a warrant and show cause to get this information on its own. Obtaining it through a private vendor with no such restrictions is a way to get around those constraints, and currently a legal gray area. “If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden said in a statement sent to Recode. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.” CBP is one of several law enforcement and government agencies that purchase location data from private companies — data they otherwise would not have such easy access to and which their own rules may forbid them from obtaining. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the DHS’s CBP and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arms used location data from a company called Venntel to locate undocumented immigrants and routes they used to cross the border. Records show that CBP has given Venntel hundreds of thousands of dollars to access its location database. “CBP is not above the law and refused to answer questions about purchasing people’s mobile location history without a warrant — including from shady data brokers like Venntel,” Warren added. “I’m glad that the Inspector General agreed to our request to investigate this potentially unconstitutional abuse of power by the CBP because we must protect the public’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from warrantless searches.” The agency has maintained that it only uses a limited amount of anonymized data in accordance with its policies, but experts say it’s not difficult to identify a device’s owner given enough information about where that device has been and when. And there’s so little transparency in how this data is collected that it’s doubtful anyone knows for sure if it even follows whatever policies agencies have in place. Not to be outdone, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced on Wednesday that it is suing the DHS to force the agency to make its records over phone location data purchases public after the agency ducked its Freedom of Information Act requests. “It’s critical we uncover how federal agencies are accessing bulk databases of Americans’ location data and why,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Technology, and Privacy Project, said in a statement sent to Recode. “There can be no accountability without transparency.” The DHS is not the only government agency to purchase and use Venntel’s services. Venntel also has contracts with the FBI and the DEA. The Internal Revenue Service also tried Venntel in 2017 and 2018 but apparently didn’t find the data useful in its work, the Wall Street Journal reported. And Venntel is not the only location data company that works with the government in this way: X-Mode and Babel Street also have deals with government agencies and their contractors. Other parts of the government are fighting back. In June, the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform began investigating “the collection and sale of sensitive mobile phone location data” to federal agencies for law enforcement purposes. The IRS is also in the middle of an audit of its use of Venntel, prompted by another request from Wyden and Warren. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. United States that law enforcement couldn’t buy cellphone tower data without a warrant, and the FCC recently issued hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint/T-Mobile for selling tower data to private companies without customer knowledge or consent. The kind of data Venntel sells, the company says, comes from other means: typically, trackers placed in mobile apps. But there are other sources as well. Location data companies also work with other companies that supply this data or purchase it directly from the app developers, making it hard for anyone — including their own customers — to know exactly what they have and where they got it. Venntel, for example, is a subsidiary of Gravy Analytics, which says it has data location information from “tens of thousands of apps” acquired through “many different data partners,” giving it access to “billions of daily location signals.” Venntel does provide device owners with a way to “opt-out” of having their location data collected by the company, but it requires users to know their device’s mobile identifier (Venntel suggests downloading an app to find out) and then making the opt-out request every time that identifier is reset — which Apple and Android devices now allow customers to do as a privacy-preserving measure. Users must also have cookies enabled on their browser when submitting the request. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the DHS’s investigation of itself will reveal or do, or if the ACLU’s lawsuit will be successful. Either way, unregulated and persistent collection and sale of our location data gives data brokers a tremendous amount of information about us, which, in turn, can be used in all kinds of ways by all kinds of purchasers — including the government. Your privacy options, by contrast, are limited. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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China and Australia are in a nasty diplomatic spat over a fake tweet — and real war crimes
Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a news conference in the Blue Room at Parliament House on November 12, 2020, in Canberra, Australia. | Sam Mooy/Getty Images Australia released a report on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. China trolled Australia on Twitter about it — and Canberra took the bait. A fake image tweeted by a Chinese diplomat has caused a massive rift between Australia and China — and has focused global attention on real war crimes the Australian military committed in Afghanistan. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official who seems to rejoice in trolling his opponents, tweeted a gruesome picture on Sunday of a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s neck. The child’s face was covered by Australia’s flag in the image, and below it is the caption: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!” The doctored, computer-generated image was created by Chinese nationalist artist Wuheqilin, but it was inspired by a real event. Last month, Australia released the Brereton report, the result of a four-year inquiry into war crimes committed by the nation’s elite Special Air Services while fighting in Afghanistan. Among the report’s shocking allegations was that soldiers were involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians, none of which occurred during battle. Senior commanders allegedly prompted junior officers to kill prisoners in a process called “blooding,” and weapons were planted on the dead captives to justify their executions. The report sent shock waves through the Australian public, but it didn’t dominate global news. That is, until Zhao’s trolling tweet turned the subject of Australian war crimes into an international diplomatic spat, forcing the Australian government to respond and launching the story into the global headlines. “It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Monday. “The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes. ... It is a false image and a terrible slur on our great defense forces.” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also demanded an apology from Beijing. That isn’t likely to happen. “The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague’s tweet,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a Monday briefing. “Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!” Of course, China blasting another nation’s human rights violations is rather rich, not least because it has imprisoned up to 2 million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. Which is why it’s best to look at the Twitter-instigated spat less as Beijing expressing genuine concern over war crimes and more as part of a years-long diplomatic and trade fight between China and Australia — one that isn’t going away anytime soon. “The act by Zhao represents a further escalation in the war of words between Canberra and Beijing, and this is in the context of deteriorating bilateral relations over the last few years,” said Adam Ni of the China Policy Centre in Australia’s capital. “It’s probably the worst it’s been in a long time — in decades, in fact.” Australia has opposed a rising China. China doesn’t like that. Australia has never liked China’s increased assertiveness in the world, and particularly in its region. For example, China’s military started building artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to assert a territorial claim to the disputed body of water. Australia, as one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most powerful players, didn’t take too kindly to that. Beijing’s political aggressiveness also bothered Canberra. In 2017, Australia banned all foreign donations to political campaigns after reports showed China had tried to influence the nation’s political process. The following year, Australia became the first country to block the Chinese telecommunication giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network. Their relations have only worsened in 2020. Australia in April called for an investigation into China’s handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when Beijing obfuscated evidence of a growing problem after the virus originated in Wuhan. China bristled, with the state-run Global Times newspaper in April accusing Prime Minister Morrison of “panda bashing” and blasting the Australian “government’s adventurism to fiddle with this mutually beneficial comprehensive strategic partnership is in defiance of rational thought and common sense.” The following month, China retaliated by slashing Australian beef imports and placing tariffs on more than 80 percent of Australia’s barley imports to China. Then in November, Beijing took it a step further by imposing tariffs up to 200 percent — that’s not a typo — on Australian wine. Some experts expect further trade escalations, with China likely targeting Australian sugar, lobster, coal, and copper ore. The Australian newspaper this week said Canberra-Beijing relations were at their lowest point in 50 years. At this moment there’s no off-ramp for the increasing strife, but it’s clear Australia isn’t happy about the situation. “There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia,” Morrison said in his Monday statement. “But this is not how you deal with them.” Nevertheless, the latest spat has shined a spotlight on an uncomfortable reality for Australia: the gruesome actions of some members of its military during the war in Afghanistan. What the Australian military’s report on alleged war crimes says The Brereton report released on November 10, officially titled the “Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report,” is chock-full of damning revelations. Three in particular stand out within the document’s 465 pages, many of which are redacted in the public version. The main allegation is that 25 current or former members of Australia’s special forces killed 39 individuals and “cruelly treated” two others, in a total of 23 incidents in Afghanistan. “None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report reads. “The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant.” One of the incidents — heavily redacted in the document — is “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history,” per the report. Another allegation is that there was a culture in the special forces serving in Afghanistan of “blooding” younger officers, essentially a grisly form of hazing and initiation. “There is credible information that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding,’” the report describes. “This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control.’ Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control.” The third major allegation, related to the second, is that officers placed weapons — known as “throwdowns” — on the dead bodies to form part of a cover story for the killing. That process was “created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence,” the report reads. Clearly, there were larger cultural problems within Australia’s elite forces serving in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Guardian Australia revealed an actual 2009 photo showing an unnamed soldier drinking out of a dead Taliban member’s prosthetic leg in an authorized military bar in Afghanistan. Another real picture showed two soldiers dancing with the same leg. While China may be among the worst messengers to lambaste Australia’s treatment of Afghans during the war, the horrors Beijing is pointing at are very, very real.
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Staying safe this winter means a lot of time outside. Here’s how to stay warm.
This kid’s parent is clearly up on layering technology. | iStockphoto/Getty Images Tips for braving the pandemic when it’s also very cold, from an arctic researcher. This winter is going to suck. We know this because the rest of this year has sucked, but we also know this because the main respite from the suckiness was summer — for those living in much of the northern hemisphere, warmer weather meant that it was far more pleasant to be outside, where the coronavirus is less likely to spread. But now, winter is coming, and nobody seems to know what to do about it. America is in the midst of a third surge of Covid-19 cases in a lame duck presidency where little is likely to improve. Local governments are closing schools while keeping bars open in attempts to stave off any further economic collapses. Restaurants that remain open are building elaborate “outdoor” dining spaces that are literally just indoor dining spaces. What we do know, however, is that if you need to leave your home, it’s much safer to be doing activities outside than inside somewhere else. That means that many Americans are going to need to learn how to deal with, and dress for, cold weather. Luckily, there are people who are experts in this particular area, for whom brutally cold environments are just part of the job. Cathy Geiger is a professor at the University of Delaware, and has studied the behavior of sea ice at both the arctic and Antarctic poles for more than three decades. Having worked on 10 polar expeditions, Geiger’s seen a lot (including some gross frostbite stuff that involves eyelashes; we’ll get to that). For the sake of clarity, because layering for sub-zero temperatures is pretty complicated, the following information will be distilled via a handy question-and-answer format. What’s the best layering method? There are a couple main tenets of layering that Geiger adheres to. The first and most important of them is to wear lots of loose layers — the key word here being “loose.” That’s because the insulated air that circulates between each layer is what’s actually keeping you warm. The more active you plan to be, the fewer layers you should wear. Another important tip she stresses is that good body circulation is the key to warmth. “If you’re wearing 700 layers and you’re like the Michelin man and you can’t move, all that padding isn’t going to do you any good if you block off your circulation,” she explains. “[If you wear] four pairs of socks stuffed in a boot, your toes are going to get frostbite because everything’s too tight. There’s no blood down there.” Robert Harris Cathy Geiger, 200 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, on an expedition in 2007. “Notice the use of a baseball-type cap.” When Geiger goes on an expedition where temperatures can plunge between 30 degrees and 40 degrees below zero, she usually layers about four pairs of oversized long johns in moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics or merino wool, a Dickies bib, a Turtle Fur for her neck and face, and at least three pairs of gloves (the thinnest layer goes on first, the military surplus ones go on last), topped with Carhartt coveralls and knee pads. Over that, she wears an extra-large L.L. Bean extreme-weather coat shell. “The shell stops the cold from breaking through, so it’s just like weatherizing your roof: Your body is a personal shelter. In really cold weather, you want to wrap your body like you would insulate your house.” What are the best fabrics to use to shield from wind and cold, and how should I layer them? Conventional wisdom says to keep away from cotton, because it has virtually zero moisture-wicking properties. Instead, Geiger says, make sure that the fabric closest to your skin is made of synthetic fabrics or merino wool. Why are moisture-wicking fabrics so important? “Sweat is what will kill you,” she says. “The big thing to do is [move] slower than you think. Once you get into the zero digits, you don’t want to start running around and warm up so much that you break a sweat.” And regardless of how you feel about Canada Goose, they’ve done hoods right. Geiger recommends hoods with fur (or faux fur) trim because “fur creates friction that holds back the wind.” What’s the best way to protect my skin from the elements? You should always be wearing sunblock on your face, but before heading out into a snowy environment, there’s one place that people might miss: the underside of their nose. “Snow reflects!” she warns. Once you’re back inside, go for the usual suspects that promise to moisturize: heavy lotions, balms, and Vaseline. Scott Olson/Getty Images Commuters in downtown Chicago on January 31, 2019. Do hats really matter? Yes! And they require their own layering methods, too. While you probably won’t be wearing goggles during your commute to work, you can still rely on the tenets used by arctic researchers to protect your eyes and face. “If you put on a baseball cap and [then] a snow hat, the ball cap creates a brim, [and] it’s amazing how much sun that blocks,” she says. “It’s a great wind blocker.” Another handy use for baseball caps: When you wear sunglasses, the brim traps the heat that would have been lost through the top of the shades. And now is the portion of the conversation where Cathy told me something truly wild; in order to properly describe it, I have included the full transcript: The eyeball is really a serious place where you do not want things to freeze. Wait, how do your eyeballs freeze? You’ll notice it because you’ll realize your eyelashes are starting to freeze. What? We’ve had situations where people have gone, “Oh my god, what did I just do? Please look at me.” There was a little bit of tearing because when the wind blows really hard in your eye you will start to tear, and then that can cause your eyelashes to freeze. If you try to open [your eyes] too fast, you can actually rip the eyelashes out. Oh my god! That’s happened to a friend. When you’re talking -20, [you see] freezing of contact lenses and tearing your eyelashes out because they’ve frozen together. If that happens, the first thing you do is leave your eyes closed. If you have sunglasses or anything on, take them off and put your mittens right over your eyes. Warm it up before you try to open your eyes and rip your eyelashes off. ———- So yes, hats matter. My feet get really sweaty if I wear bulky socks. What’s the best way to layer on your feet? Remember the thing about loose layers? That’s important here, too. “If you’re really, really, really cold, you actually want your feet to be in something so loose that your boot’s moving around a bit,” says Geiger. She never puts on more than two layers of socks (any more and your feet will slide around too much): a moisture-wicking one closest to the skin, followed by a thicker wool pair. And obviously, wear a waterproof boot because, once again, “wet will really kill you.” ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images A woman walking in Brooklyn on January 31, 2019. What stupid things do people do in the cold that they really shouldn’t? Strangely enough, one of the worst mistakes people often make is more mental than physical. “If you’re excited and you’re tense, you’re going to block your circulation,” she says. Instead, the key is to warm up before you go outside. “Saunas exist from northern cultures for a really good reason,” she explains. Try drinking warm soup broth before heading out rather than coffee or tea, because “tea makes you pee.” How do I know if I’m getting frostbite? And what do I do about it? Your first warning that you’re getting too cold is how your fingers and toes feel, since they’re the farthest from your heart. “When I was taking students out on the ice, that’s the first thing I’d ask: ‘How’s everybody’s fingers and toes? All 10? All 20?’ I wanted them to feel that they can count all 20 digits because they’re your remote sensors.” Geiger stresses that cold extremities need to be tended to immediately. If your hands and feet are starting to hurt, stop what you’re doing and warm them up, either by going inside or using the tools available to do so (there are strategies used by fisherman and the Inupiat people of Alaska that involve using one’s own snot and/or pee that hopefully you will never have to use). Any sign of “bleak white skin,” she adds, also means that blistering may have already started. So, uh ... what’s happening with the sea ice? One of the most shocking things Geiger said was that though she’s been working on sea ice for decades, within the last 10 years it’s gotten so thin that it’s unsafe to camp there. NOAA via Getty Images A satellite image of the polar vortex in 2014 that covered the entire northern US. “I’ve been on the sea ice since 1984 and in those days it was great. We just took a boat up there, walked on the ice, and worked on it. 2007 was the last time we could really just camp on the ice. Since 2007, the ice is too dangerously thin to go out and just work on it anymore. You’ve got to work on a boat.” Because her work has been laden with political baggage due to the Trump administration’s denial of climate change, polar research has been largely on hold since 2016. And yet despite how politicians may feel about the term “climate change,” this, unfortunately, does not mean that it is not happening. Geiger explains that because the planet is warming so quickly, the temperate climates that many people currently inhabit will someday not exist at all. “The fact is that as the poles get warmer, things get wavier, and as things get wavier, the tropics and the poles are all that we have left, and we don’t have that nice, cozy, temperate, moderate climate,” she says. “And I think, if the news could communicate that, people would say like, ‘Holy expletive. There’s no temperate zone anymore?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s the consequence of the poles warming faster than the tropics — you lose the temperate zone. And once you do that, that really does make life miserable.” Which is to say, the coronavirus isn’t the only extremely depressing part of this winter.
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Gen. Milley, Joint Chiefs chair, just gave a brutally honest assessment of the Afghanistan war
Army Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, testifying during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 4, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images “We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success,” he said on Wednesday. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just gave an honest yet brutal assessment of America’s decades-long war in Afghanistan. Asked at a Washington, DC, think tank virtual event about the planned drawdown to 2,500 US troops in the country by January 15, President Donald Trump’s top military adviser tried to assure the audience that the US had somewhat completed its mission. “We went to Afghanistan ... to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for terrorists to strike the United States,” he told the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on Wednesday morning. “We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success.” Let those last four words — “a modicum of success” — sink in for a moment. That’s Trump’s top military adviser saying out loud that after two decades of war, tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans killed, and more than a trillion dollars spent, the US can only boast of “a modicum of success” for its efforts there. Milley’s remark is certainly more accurate than the rosy assessments top US officials offered the public as the war raged. Year after year after year, presidents and top generals insisted America’s effort to support Afghan government forces against the Taliban had “turned a corner” and that success was on the horizon. But now, as US forces draw down from the country, Milley has made one thing painfully clear: The US never turned that corner. Instead, the US and its Afghan partners in Kabul made only modest gains over the past two decades. Namely, the US hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack on the homeland planned in Afghanistan since 9/11, and America helped set up a friendly government in Kabul, a capital city that in recent years has been safer than in the past. But the Taliban holds more ground in the country than when the war started, and danger remains for the the insurgents to overrun the government in Kabul if and when US troops fully depart. Milley acknowledged as much. “We have been in a condition of strategic stalemate where the government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban,” he continued, “and the Taliban, as long as we were supporting the government of Afghanistan, is never going to military defeat the regime.” It’d be infuriating if it weren’t so all “So damn depressing,” as Faysal Itani, deputy director of the Center for Global Policy, noted on Twitter.
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3 Hong Kong pro-democracy icons were sentenced to prison in huge blow to protest movement
Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, right, and Ivan Lam board a Hong Kong Correctional Service van ahead of a sentencing hearing at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on December 2, 2020, in Hong Kong. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam pleaded guilty to participating in an unsanctioned protest in 2019. Three prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their roles in a protest during the massive demonstrations against an extradition bill during the summer of 2019. It’s yet another troubling sign of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam — all 20-something-year-old members of a now-disbanded pro-democracy group known as Demosisto — all pleaded guilty to the charges related to participating in, and inciting others to join, an unauthorized but largely peaceful protest outside Hong Kong police headquarters in Wanchai on June 2019. All potentially faced sentences of up to three years, but Wong will serve 13.5 months in prison, Chow faces a term of 10 months, and Lam was sentenced to seven months. Wong and Chow were first arrested on these charges in August 2019, and Lam in September 2019 — but many Hong Kong observers see this as part of the larger crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms that has intensified after the Chinese government implemented a sweeping national security law in July. That law gives authorities broad powers to target dissenters or anyone who challenges Beijing, making things like protesting or taking any anti-government stance a potentially seditious or terroristic activity. Wong faces additional charges, including for participating in another unsanctioned protest in October 2019 and for violating the Hong Kong government’s mask ban, which had barred people from wearing face coverings at mass gatherings, months before the coronavirus pandemic would make mask-wearing mandatory. He was also charged along with dozens of other activists for participating in an illegal gathering, a vigil on June 4 to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Chow was also arrested in August under the national security law, allegedly for “colluding with foreign forces.” She could potentially face life in prison if charged and found guilty. This is likely the last time we see them in a while. @joshuawongcf jailed for 13.5 months, Ivan Lam 7 months, @chowtingagnes 10 months. @AFP #HongKong #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/xpcJ78LXv8— daniel suen (@danielchsuen) December 2, 2020 Though the activists’ legal woes stem from Hong Kong’s recent upheaval, they were also key figures in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, which challenged proposed changes to Hong Kong’s election rules. The movement didn’t succeed in its goal of giving Hongkongers universal suffrage, but it became the precursor to the mass anti-government demonstrations last summer and fall. Those began as a protest against a controversial extradition bill and transformed into a larger pro-democracy movement that engulfed Hong Kong for months before arrests and pandemic restrictions, and, finally, the national security law helped to smother the resistance on the streets. But the 2019 Hong Kong protests were largely leaderless. People organized on social media and online, closely guarding their anonymity for fear of reprisal. The fluidity of the protests made it hard for Hong Kong authorities to curtail or weaken them, so they went after the next-best thing: well-known pro-democracy figures who had publicly sided with the cause, even if they themselves weren’t on the front lines of organizing the protests. Wong himself acknowledged this last year, saying last August that it was “completely ridiculous” that the police were targeting “specific prominent figures of social movement in the past and framing them as the leaders of the anti-extradition bill protests.” Worth recalling that the Hong Kong Police HQ siege last year which Wong, Chow, and Lam have just been jailed for was 1. unauthorised, but peaceful - the most I saw that day was egg throwing at the building 2. the movement was essentially leaderless - not formally led by the trio https://t.co/Kl7hLYNBZL— Helier Cheung (@HelierCheung) December 2, 2020 Hong Kong’s freedoms are deteriorating in real time The sentencing of these pro-democracy figures is just the latest degradation of Hong Kong’s freedoms and its autonomy. Hong Kong is supposed to be governed according to the “one country, two systems” rule. The “one country” part means it is officially part of China, while the “two systems” part gives it a degree of autonomy, including rights like freedom of the press that are absent in mainland China. China is supposed to abide by this arrangement until 2047, but it has for years been eroding those freedoms and trying to bring Hong Kong more tightly under its control. The national security law has accelerated this process, chipping away at the facade of “one country, two systems.” That has directly threatened Hong Kong’s civil society, independent press, and, most obviously, the territory’s sustained pro-democracy movement. Wong faces additional charges, and so could Chow, under the new national security law. This is Wong’s fourth time in jail, and he was already disqualified from running in Hong Kong’s local elections last year. He reported to custody before sentencing and was placed in solitary confinement after a scan allegedly showed a “foreign object” in his stomach. Wong said he had trouble sleeping because the lights were left on for 24 hours. “It is now the Chinese Communist Party’s plan, I think, to start an indefinite detention for them by giving them new charges again and again,” Eddie Chu, a former pro-democracy lawmaker who was arrested in November on charges related to a scuffle with pro-Beijing lawmakers last year, told the Washington Post. Nathan Law, a Hong Kong pro-democracy figure who fled to the United Kingdom, said the same in a New York Times op-ed he co-wrote with Alex Chow, another activist. They said despite the relatively short sentences, those sentenced “might not get out for quite a bit longer than that: The Chinese government, acting through the Hong Kong authorities, has already pressed more charges. And its point, after all, is to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong.” And, as Law and Chow pointed out, the “much more severe national security law” looms. The expansive law has rapidly chilled speech in Hong Kong. Journalists and Hongkongers purged their social media histories this summer, in case past statements could make them targets of the new law. Pro-democracy books were pulled from shelves of libraries in July, including some written by Wong. In August, Hong Kong authorities told publishers to remove “sensitive content” from textbooks. Activists and opposition figures were arrested throughout the summer and fall, some for allegedly advocating for Hong Kong’s independence, a “secessionist” activity illegal under the national security law. In August, 12 activists tried to flee to Taiwan in a speedboat, including some who’d reportedly been charged under the national security law, but they were intercepted by Chinese authorities. In July, a dozen pro-democracy candidates were barred from participating in the Legislative Council elections. Those elections were slated for this September — until pro-Beijing Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam postponed them a full year, citing the coronavirus. (Which, despite a recent spike, has largely been under control in Hong Kong for months.) In November, the Chinese passed another law that disqualified legislators for “unpatriotic” behavior; a handful of pro-democracy legislators were quickly expelled. The rest of the pro-democracy legislators resigned en masse from the pro-Beijing body. And if those Legislative Council elections are held next year, Hongkongers on mainland China will likely be allowed to vote, assuring domination by pro-China forces. The press, too, has taken a hit. Jimmy Lai, the founder and owner of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a Hong Kong publication that has backed the pro-democracy protests, was arrested in August under the national security law on allegations of colluding with foreign powers. And just as the pro-democracy activists were sentenced on Wednesday, Lai was arrested on additional fraud charges, along with two other executives from Next Digital. And this week, 40 staff members with Hong Kong’s network, i-Cable News, were abruptly fired. Many belonged to its award-winning investigative unit; other journalists quit in solidarity. One former employee told Radio Free Asia the firings were “a bullet to the head” of newsgathering operations at i-Cable News. All of this has put Hong Kong in a particularly perilous place. Resistance is still happening, but public protests or dissent come with tremendous risks. “It’s not the end of the fight, read Wong’s Twitter account Wednesday, posted via his lawyers. “Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protestors, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for HK.” Law and Chow, in their op-ed, called on the incoming Biden administration to retain its criticism of China, but also “foster a new China policy that prioritizes human rights over other interests.” The Trump administration has revoked Hong Kong’s special trade status and placed sanctions on officials tied to the anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong — including Lam, the chief executive, who recently complained she has to hoard cash as she no longer can access banks. But it has so far failed to deter Beijing, which has only escalated its campaign to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
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This winter, the Vox Book Club is reading about lesbian necromancers in space
Tor Announcing our dual picks for December and January. As we head out of a very odd 2020 and into what we all hope will be a better 2021, the Vox Book Club believes that we all deserve a treat. It is in that spirit that I am delighted to announce that our dual picks for December and January are Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and its sequel Harrow the Ninth, the first two volumes of the Locked Tomb trilogy. (The release date for the third volume, Alecto the Ninth, has yet to be announced.) Together, these two books form an epic tale of secret identities, star-crossed lovers, lesbian necromancers in space, and so much more. The Locked Tomb trilogy is one of those bookseries that I’m evangelical about. As soon as I read Gideon the Ninth last year, I informed every single person I knew that they had to read it, too, and then I watched with satisfaction as everyone who had the good sense to follow my instructions read it, fell in love, and then started telling everyone they knew to read it, too. It’s the kind of book you can love like that: so strongly that you want to force everyone else to love it in just the same way. The Locked Tomb trilogy tells the tale of Gideon Nav, a brash and impulsive swordswoman who likes duels and dirty magazines, and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a vicious bitch of a goth princess whose only pleasure in life comes from necromantic bone magic. Gideon and Harrow are forced to work together on a quest. They hate each other. Obviously, they will fall in love. It’s delightful. The trappings here are all flamboyant and absorbing and fun, but it’s the prose that really makes this pair work for me. It’s so lush and velvety that you feel you can wrap yourself up in it, and Muir is constantly conjuring up lurid gothic fantasias only to puncture them with a bone-dry joke. The result is pure pleasure. Subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything, and let’s get started. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for December 2020 and January 2021 Friday, December 18: Discussion post on Gideon the Ninth Friday, January 15: Discussion post on Harrow the Ninth TBA: Our live Zoom Event for both books will come at the end of January, with details to be announced. Subscribe to the newsletter, and we’ll send you an RSVP link with all the info as soon as it’s available!
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How Trump’s blizzard of misleading fundraising emails explains his refusal to concede
Trump walks to Marine One after playing golf on November 27. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images It’s bad for the country, but it’s raking in the money for Trump. President Donald Trump’s ongoing effort to overturn the election results is almost certain to fail, because Joe Biden clearly and decisively won the election. But the president has self-interested reasons for dragging out the fight as long as he can. The nearly 500 emails blasted out by the Trump campaign in November raised at least $170 million after Election Day, as Will Steakin and Soo Rin Kim reported for ABC on Tuesday. (For context, the Trump campaign account’s best monthly fundraising haul before the election came in September, when they raised a mere $81 million.) They’ve done so with highly misleading insinuations that the money is funding Trump’s farcical legal challenges of the election results, when a careful reading of the emails’ fine print shows the money is largely being raised for things like paying down campaign debt and funding Trump’s post-presidency operation. And it won’t be especially hard for Trump to eventually route some of his new leadership PAC’s windfall into his own pockets. (A “leadership PAC” is a type of political committee formed by current or former elected officials.) THREAD: recap & analysis of my fundraging emails from November.4️⃣9️⃣8️⃣ emails last month (avg of 16.6/day) NEW RECORD 2️⃣,4️⃣8️⃣2️⃣ emails in 2020 (avg of 7.4/day)3️⃣,4️⃣3️⃣6️⃣ emails since Jan 1, 2018 (avg of 3.2/day)— Trump Fundraising Emails (@TrumpEmail) December 1, 2020 “While he can’t just cut himself a massive check, he could rent out Mar-a-Lago for an obscene amount of money — leadership PAC money — to give a speech himself, and that would be totally legal,” Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), told Vox in an interview. “So if you view the Trump administration as one long grift to redirect money from taxpayers and political supporters into Trump properties, this would be a good move to do that.” But the fact that Trump could reroute contributions solicited by his campaign to his own pockets would likely come as news to some of the Trump followers who have ponied up during a time when losing campaigns are usually winding down operations. That’s because the emails the campaign continues to bombard people with nearly a month after Trump’s loss to Biden are misleading at best. Trump asked his supporters to donate to a nonexistent “Election Defense Fund” On November 15, for instance, the Trump campaign sent out an email that framed its post-election fundraising pitch around the president’s failing legal fight to overturn the results. “President Trump is FIGHTING BACK to defend the integrity of this Election, but he can’t do it alone,” the email said. “He needs YOU to step up and join him by contributing to our critical Election Defense Fund. This is so important that he’s giving YOU the opportunity to increase your impact by 1000%.” pic.twitter.com/KCDTTCMCBy— Trump Fundraising Emails (@TrumpEmail) November 15, 2020 There’s just one problem: There is no such thing as Trump’s “Election Defense Fund.” Instead, as Josh Dawsey and Michelle Ye Hee Lee detailed for the Washington Post, the majority of the money raised by email pitches of that sort goes to the leadership PAC Libowitz mentioned: According to the fine print in the latest fundraising appeals, 75 percent of each contribution to the joint fundraising committee would first go toward the Save America leadership PAC and the rest would be shared with the party committee, to help with the party’s operating expenses. This effectively means that the vast majority of low-dollar donations under the current agreement would go toward financing the president’s new leadership PAC, instead of efforts to support the party or to finance voting lawsuits. According to @TrumpEmail, a Twitter account that has closely monitored Trump’s fundraising emails for three years, the tone of the missives has subtly shifted in recent days from hyping the fake “Election Defense Fund” to saying things like, “One thing has become clear these last few days, I am the American People’s ALL-TIME favorite President.” The email that contained that claim also cited already-debunked claims from disreputable outlets like the Epoch Times to insinuate that the 2020 election is still up for grabs. But the one constant is the emails aim at getting supporters to open their wallets — which they have. Campaign officials told the Post the bulk of the fundraising has come from small-dollar donors; the emails have activated “the president’s base of loyal and fervent financial supporters, who tend to contribute the most when they feel the president is under siege or facing unfair political attacks.” Unlike PACs that are tied to chambers of Congress, there are very few restrictions on what Trump can do with the leadership PAC money. In addition to the possibility of Trump using the funds to hold events at his properties (and thereby reroute it to his own pockets), Libowitz explained that he could use them to continue to hold political rallies around the country. “Renting out a basketball arena does not come cheaply, and given his history of not paying places back and the fact that he’s not a candidate, or at least not a current nominee, it’s much more likely people will require cash up front” after he leaves office, Libowitz said. “So he could rent out Trump Force One to the leadership PAC and charge his leadership PAC for his own use or his own plane to go to a rally. It basically just opens up a bunch of new ways he can continue to bring in money from his supporters that he can then redirect to his businesses and then, of course, to himself and his family.” So while it would be in the best interests of the country for Trump to acknowledge that he lost and psychologically prepare his followers for the reality that Biden will be inaugurated as president next month, dragging it out for as long possible allows him to keep grifting. “I think there is a question of whether this is just one last gasp of trying to milk every dollar he can out of his supporters, or whether people have so convinced themselves that he’s going to find some secret way to become president that they’ll continue to give him money,” Libowitz said.
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The past 24 hours in Trump’s legal issues and pardon news, explained
Attorney General William Barr | Mark Wilson/Getty Bill Barr’s moves, possible pardons for Trump’s children, news of a bribery-for-pardon investigation, and more. President Donald Trump, over the last 24 hours, has made one thing abundantly clear: His final few weeks in office will not be lacking in the legal drama and corruption concerns that have pervaded his presidency. After having already pardoned his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump has been discussing potential broad preemptive pardons for his children Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, per reporting from ABC News and the New York Times. None of these people has been charged with any crime, so these pardons would have to entail sweeping assertions of impunity. Meanwhile, a newly released, heavily redacted court opinion revealed that federal investigators have been probing an alleged corrupt scheme to provide political contributions (apparently to the Trump campaign or Republican groups, but we don’t know the specifics) in exchange for a presidential pardon from Trump. The identities of the people involved in this matter are redacted, but the news makes clear that even before Trump lost, matters involving his pardon power have been under investigative scrutiny. Also on Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr returned to the headlines after a quiet period. Barr told the Associated Press that the Justice Department has “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” Perhaps to soften the blow to President Donald Trump’s hopes from this admission, Barr also revealed that he has appointed John Durham — the US attorney investigating the conduct of the FBI’s Trump campaign/Russia probe — as a special counsel, to make it more difficult for Biden to fire him. (Barr spent more than two hours at the White House Tuesday afternoon.) All in all, Trump is continuing to try to bend law enforcement agencies to his will — but having limited success of late. So he’s being increasingly drawn to the pardon power, which he can exercise on his own authority, to save his close associates and family members from possible legal consequences. Trump is discussing potential preemptive pardons for his children Around midday Tuesday, I wrote about how “Trump’s pardon shenanigans are ramping up,” because his recent pardon for Flynn contained preemptive aspects, and because he was reportedly discussing a similarly preemptive pardon for his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. But the news of the day wasn’t done. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt later reported that Trump has also talked with advisers about potentially granting preemptive pardons to his three eldest children — Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump — as well as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The business dealings of both the Trump Organization and the Kushner family have come under investigative scrutiny, and Donald Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer to try and get dirt on Hillary Clinton was also scrutinized as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. But none of these have resulted in any criminal charges against Trump’s children or Kushner. So any hypothetical pardon would have to be quite broadly written and preemptive. (It also could not cover state crimes, which could be a problem, as the major Trump Organization investigation is being pursued by New York state prosecutors.) It would also, of course, be a stunning and unprecedented use of executive power for a president to grant broad immunity from federal criminal prosecution to his children. Some Trump allies, like Fox News host Sean Hannity, are arguing that the move would be justified because prosecutors under Biden will likely pursue a supposed “witch hunt” aimed at getting people close to Trump. Yet if Trump — or his children — have political ambitions in 2024, that might present an incentive to hold back on the broadest possible uses of the pardon power. We learned of a “bribery-for-pardon” investigation Just as Trump has been turning more attention to how far he wants to go in using his pardon power, news broke that federal investigators are already looking into what they view as a corrupt effort to get such a pardon from Trump. The revelation came from a newly unsealed court opinion by Beryl Howell, the chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The opinion is heavily redacted, though, so we are missing key details, including the identities of the people involved in this purported scheme. But there’s a fair amount we can piece together from the unredacted bits. The gist is that investigators say there are two separate schemes aimed at getting a certain person a pardon or sentence reduction. One is a “bribery-for-pardon” scheme, in which a “substantial political contribution” would be offered (apparently to the Trump campaign or connected groups) through intermediaries. The second is a “secret lobbying scheme,” in which two people would lobby senior White House officials for this pardon without officially registering as lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Investigators uncovered these two purported schemes while reviewing material seized in the course of a preexisting investigation. But there was one issue: One of the people involved in lobbying the White House was a lawyer. So investigators wanted to make sure they had a judge’s sign-off that reviewing communications involving that person wouldn’t violate attorney-client privilege. Judge Howell gave them that sign-off — because the communications in question were also copied to another person, who was not an attorney. Speculation churned on Twitter about who could have been seeking this pardon. There are a few clues — the person has a short last name and appears to be in Bureau of Prisons custody. These facts don’t fit most of the “usual suspects” among the president’s criminally entangled associates, so it’s possible that the pardon-seeker is someone who has received little news coverage so far. There’s no indication yet that anyone has been indicted as a result of this investigation. But Judge Howell unsealed the opinion — issued back in August — after giving the government three months to take further investigative steps. The identities of the people are redacted because they haven’t yet been charged. It’s also important to note that no assertion of any knowing wrongdoing on the part of President Trump or White House officials is present in the unredacted parts of the document. (“Pardon investigation is Fake News!” Trump tweeted.) But it certainly suggests that unscrupulous people are trying to benefit from Trump’s pardon powers. Bill Barr had a busy day Attorney General Bill Barr has kept a relatively low profile in recent weeks, but he made news on a number of fronts on Tuesday. First, Barr told Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press that the Justice Department has “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” The statement got a great deal of attention because it flew in the face of Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him because of widespread fraud. But it’s notable because, despite Barr’s well-deserved reputation as a staunch political ally of Trump’s, he isn’t willing to go so far as to back Trump’s election fraud claims. Second, and perhaps to soften this blow for Trump, Barr told the Associated Press — and also Congress — that he has named US Attorney John Durham as a special counsel. Back in early 2019, Barr tasked Durham, the US attorney for Connecticut, with probing the US government’s handling of the investigation of Trump associates’ ties to Russia. Since then, Durham’s investigation has unfolded mostly behind the scenes. (The sole charge has been FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith’s guilty plea over falsifying a document used in a surveillance application — a matter already uncovered by the Justice Department’s inspector general.) It’s unclear whether Durham has found serious misconduct beyond Clinesmith. But Trump and his supporters have long hyped the prospect that Durham will bring charges against top former government officials who investigated the president. Barr reportedly placed heavy pressure on Durham to finish at least some of his work before the 2020 election, but Durham’s top deputy Nora Dannehy resigned in protest in September, and Durham ended up making no further public moves before the election. Barr’s appointment of Durham as special counsel — made in mid-October, but not announced until Tuesday — is evidently meant to shield Durham from potentially being fired in the Biden Administration (since a special counsel can only be fired for “good cause”). As for why we’re only learning of this now, Barr suggested he didn’t want to make the announcement before the election to avoid influencing the result. But for Trump allies, this isn’t enough. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that Trump allies saw the special counsel appointment as “a smokescreen to forestall the release of the so-called Durham report,” and that the president has even mused about firing Barr. Barr visited the White House on Tuesday and stayed there for more than two hours; Swan reports that the attorney general was meeting with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. It is not known what they discussed.
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The UK is now the first country to grant emergency approval to Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine
The UK has granted temporary approval to a Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Most of the doses will be shipped from Pfizer’s facility in Puurs, Belgium, seen here. | Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images The first doses may begin rolling out next week. The United Kingdom on Wednesday granted temporary authorization for emergency use of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to adults aged 16 and older, with the first 800,000 doses of the two-dose vaccine slated to be offered in the country next week. This makes the UK the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA-based vaccine and the first government approval of a vaccine backed by a clinical trial. (Some countries like Russia and China began administering their Covid-19 vaccines before completing large-scale trials.) It’s also the fastest a vaccine has ever gained approval, albeit on a temporary basis. “I’m confident now, with the news today, that from spring, from Easter onward, things are going to be better,” said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a press conference. “And we’re going to have summer next year that everyone can enjoy.” The UK’s health regulator, the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), granted the temporary authorization shortly after Pfizer and BioNTech reported in November that their Covid-19 vaccine was 95 percent effective. Though this is a temporary authorization, the MHRA is conducting a rolling review of vaccine trial data as it comes in and may grant full approval at a later date. In contrast, the US Food and Drug Administration is evaluating vaccines based on completed studies, which increases the length of the approval process. The UK government reached a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech to purchase 40 million doses of the vaccine through 2021 — enough for 20 million people — mainly shipped from Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium. “This authorization is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the U.K.,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, in a statement. The UK has been one of the most severely afflicted countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 1.6 million reported infections and almost 60,000 deaths in a population of 66 million. The government recently imposed a second national lockdown as cases spiked; restrictions on movement and which businesses can stay open may begin to relax this week as the number of new cases declines. But with winter approaching, the risk of more Covid-19 spread in the UK remains high. The UK is prioritizing older adults to receive a Covid-19 vaccine With limited doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to give out for the time being, the UK is establishing several priority tiers for Covid-19 immunization. The country’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) on Wednesday laid out guidelines for administering the vaccine based mainly on age. The top priority is residents and workers at care homes for older adults, a ranking based on the number of vaccinations that would be needed in each tier to prevent one death, not necessarily risk of exposure. That’s why health workers, who will be at the front of the line in the US, are not in the top tier in the UK, even though they may be encountering the virus more frequently. “As the risk of mortality from COVID-19 increases with age, prioritisation is primarily based on age,” according to the guidelines. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation The UK is prioritizing older adults for receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. The committee divided its overall priority list into nine groups. “It is estimated that taken together, these groups represent around 99% of preventable mortality from COVID-19,” according to the JCVI guidelines. But the guidelines also note that vaccine deployment strategies may have to shift to address concerns like mitigating health inequalities and logistical challenges. The latter is particularly important for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine because it has some of the most stringent cold storage requirements of any Covid-19 vaccine candidate: temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. While Pfizer and BioNTech are developing shipping containers that can maintain these temperatures for 30 days, it’s likely the first facilities to receive it will be major health facilities that already have freezers. Recipients will have to receive the vaccine as two doses spaced 21 days apart, so rigorous patient tracking will be needed as well. The US is now waiting on emergency approval for two Covid-19 vaccines Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week voted on US guidelines for vaccine approval. The recommendations from the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices stated that health workers and residents of long-term care facilities should be up first for a Covid-19 vaccine. That health workers are in the top tier stands in contrast to the guidelines issued by the UK. Establishing these priorities are all the more critical now that a vaccine is poised to begin distribution in the US in weeks. Pfizer and BioNTech have also applied for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in the US from the FDA for their Covid-19 vaccine. The FDA is meeting on December 10 to discuss their vaccine. This week, Moderna, another mRNA Covid-19 vaccine developer, also applied for an EUA. If granted, these emergency approvals would mark the fastest vaccine development timeline ever, an amazing feat against an unprecedented pandemic. But Covid-19 cases are continuing to rise across the US, and it will still be a few more months before there is widespread access to a vaccine.
vox.com
Who will get the Covid-19 vaccine first? A CDC advisory panel just weighed in.
The Pfizer facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. The company is awaiting approval from the Federal Drug Administration for its Covid-19 vaccine, developed with BioNTech. | Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images Health workers and people in long-term care facilities take priority but experts said the advice wasn’t specific enough. With two Covid-19 vaccine candidates expected to be approved for the US market in the coming weeks, a group of experts met Tuesday to advise on which Americans should be immunized first. In a 13-1 vote, they put health care personnel and staff and residents of long-term care facilities at the front of the line. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) — a panel of independent medical and public health experts — has been meeting for months to think through the question of who to prioritize during a pandemic while vaccine supplies are still limited. ACIP is highly influential in the US. It makes recommendations on vaccination policy to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which overwhelmingly accepts the committee’s guidance. States aren’t obliged to follow it, however. It’s up to governors — and individual hospitals and vaccine sites — to make their own vaccine prioritization plans. But with coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths rising exponentially, the meeting was another stark reminder that vaccine rationing will be a painful reality for months while supplies remain short. “There is an average of one Covid death per minute right now,” said Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington, who chairs ACIP’s Work Groups, at the meeting’s opening. “In the time it takes us to have this ACIP meeting, 180 people will have died of Covid-19.” And that’s one reason why, vaccine and public health experts told Vox, ACIP should have weighed in sooner. Major health groups, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), have published advice on how countries and other decision-making bodies can set their prioritization plans for Covid-19 vaccines. “It would have been helpful to have this a week ago,” said Ruth Faden, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, since states, which have been waiting on the guidance, must place their first orders of Covid-19 vaccines with the government and share their initial distribution plans by Friday. “States were not caught completely unaware here,” Faden added — since ACIP had signaled in previous meetings the direction they were likely to go — but Tuesday’s guidance could have been more specific, particularly when it comes to how to immunize America’s health workforce. The advice is not specific enough ACIP’s primary task on Tuesday was to vote for phase 1a of the rollout for two priority groups: health care personnel and long-term care facility staff and residents, comprising about 24 million people. According to CDC officials, there will only be 5 million to 10 million doses of the vaccines available per week for these groups once vaccines are approved, which should happen before the end of the year. The two manufacturers that are expected to have vaccines approved first, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, will have enough doses to vaccinate only around 20 million people by the end of December. Long-term care facility residents and staff are a top priority because they have accounted for 40 percent of US Covid-19 deaths, according to the committee. And it makes sense to prioritize health care workers — they’ve also been among the groups hardest hit by the virus and we need them healthy and working to keep the health system functioning. But the gap between the priority groups and the expected supply is a problem ACIP should have addressed, experts say. It’s not clear from the guidance who among the health workers should go first, said Jason Schwartz, assistant professor of public health at Yale School of Public Health. “This matters because states might have 20,000 or 100,000 doses and figuring out where to use them in a priority group is going to be a hard question.” ACIP has only said that “individuals with direct patient contact,” personnel working in residential care and long-term care facilities, and workers without coronavirus infection in the last 90 days should go first. “Direct patient care is often interpreted as physicians and nurses and clinicians,” said Saad Omer, director at the Yale Institute for Global Health, who is part of both the WHO and NASEM Covid-19 vaccine prioritization committees. “But you have to go beyond that to explicitly say that includes cleaning workers, others who are doing housekeeping, et cetera.” These groups are potentially just as exposed to the coronavirus as ICU doctors or nurses since they’re working in the same high-risk spaces. “There’s a huge difference between say a dermatologist that’s doing cosmetic surgery in a private office and somebody who’s in a Covid-19 ward in a large inner city hospital,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, added. “It would be enormously helpful if there could be a greater stratification based upon risk of the health worker.” What’s more, had ACIP been more specific about which health workers are high risk, “you leave open a strategy of prioritizing them then going to other high-risk groups rather than [immunizing] the entirety of the health system workforce,” said Faden — who also advises the WHO on vaccine prioritization. The next challenge: how to prioritize the elderly Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said most states are planning to be able to immunize their entire health care workforce within three weeks of getting the first Covid-19 vaccine shipments. If that’s true, “issues here regarding sub-prioritization will be very short-lived and the need for more detailed guidance is reduced,” Schwartz said. ACIP typically sets recommendations for vaccine policy based on specific vaccines, and they’ll reconvene and potentially shift their advice as soon as Covid-19 vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They’ll also need to vote on which groups come after phase 1a of the rollout. If ACIP follows through with what they’ve been telegraphing so far, the committee will prioritize essential workers (such as teachers, food and agriculture workers, police, and firefighters) in phase 1b, and adults 65 and older and with high-risk medical conditions in phase 1c. ACIP would deviate from other international expert groups with this plan, Omer said. The WHO and NASEM vaccine frameworks have both prioritized older adults and adults with underlying health conditions alongside or immediately after health workers, instead of essential workers. “The reason everyone is prioritizing the elderly— compared to people 18-29 years of age — is that even at ages 65-74, they have a 90 times higher risk of death,” Omer explained. “My hope is [ACIP] will revisit some of the assumptions that were driving the considerations for the trade-off between essential workers and older age populations.”
vox.com
How Santas are handling a pandemic Christmas season
Santa Chip Adams, outside in his sleigh. | Courtesy of Chip Adams “It hurts when somebody brings a baby and we can’t hold them”: What it’s like to play Kris Kringle during Covid-19. He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice — and it’s probably going to include hand sanitizer, face masks, and extra gloves. Not even Santa Claus is exempt from the struggles of 2020, despite the Trump administration’s attempt to get him early vaccine access, and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s assurance to American children that he has “innate immunity.” While some retailers, like Macy’s, have nixed in-person Santa visits altogether, others, from mall operator Brookfield Properties to Bass Pro Shops, are adapting to meet safety guidelines by putting Santa behind plexiglass or offering families the chance to share their Christmas lists with him on video chat. Pandemic-era Santa visits have even spawned a whole cottage industry, from JingleRing, a new platform designed to simplify virtual Santa visits, to plastic snow globe tents. The Goods called four Santas — from The Real Black Santa, who’s learning a new virtual system in order to reach a wider audience, to an adults-only Santa figuring out how to translate his raunchy humor to Zoom parties — to hear how they’re approaching the 2020 Christmas season. The Plexiglass Santa: Chip Adams, 62, East Hartford, Connecticut At Cabela’s here — and I believe it’s true chain-wide — they have a three-eighths inch, about 6-by-6 foot piece of plexiglass between us and the guests. Santa wears a face shield as well. When folks sit down for photos, they can take their masks off. Since I’m behind the plexiglass and a face shield, that makes me feel comfortable. It’s a pretty wide-open space, there’s a lot of air circulation. After every guest, the elves wipe down the seat, and every hour they wipe down the plexiglass. Courtesy of Chip Adams Chip Adams in his Santa suit. It hurts when somebody brings up a 4-month-old baby because we can’t hold them — that’s one of the parts I think we all have difficulty with. But I’ll tell you, last night I had a 5-year-old boy. As he approached Santa, he started to run, full speed. And he kind of leapt and smacked into the plexiglass. As soon as I realized what was happening, I put my hand up and I steadied the plexiglass so there was no chance of him knocking it over. He looked like a cartoon — his nose went a little flat, his eyes were wide open, his hands were out, arms wide open, thinking he was gonna get to Santa. And he almost slid down a little bit. Then he shook it off and laughed and sat down and got his picture taken. Some of the guys are experimenting with baby monitors. So we can put a baby monitor on [the guest’s] side that nobody touches, but we can hear the kids talking. We’re trying that out just to see if we can help because some of the kids are so soft-spoken. It’s a little harder to joke around with the kids, but they get it. I mean, one of the sad things is watching how comfortable these children are zipping their masks on and off. I think what people need to focus on is what you can do, not what you can’t do. If you worry about what you can’t do, that’ll just ruin the holiday. The Virtual-Only Santa: Dee Sinclair, 56, Covington, Georgia The virtual studio for me was not new. My company, The Real Black Santa, has been in business 19 years now, so it was easy for us to go virtual because we had the backdrop and the lighting, all the things that were necessary, from doing mall visits. The hardest part about it was learning the computer system OBS, which is what a lot of gamers use, and doing it through Zoom or Skype. With JingleRing, they have a proprietary platform that we’re using. Basically you just need a blue or green screen backdrop, and you get working. They brought me on as a brand ambassador, so they’ve got me doing videos for the company, and I’m also trying to get additional Santas to come on board. Courtesy of Dee Sinclair Santa Dee Sinclair, dressed for the holiday. [Online], it’s still that same greeting that you have when you’re in the mall. But the good thing about it is Santa is actually calling you from his workshop. If they hear noise in the background, those are the elves, making toys. Mom and Dad have already given us some detailed information about what the kids got for Christmas the year before, how they were performing in school, you know, are they helping at home. As a Santa, you have to be a better performer, and know how to talk to somebody as if they were standing in front of you. Most guys who are doing Santa — we’re a little older. We’re in that category where we’re overweight, a lot of the guys are diabetic, have heart problems, and so forth. It’s hard for us not to be in front of the kids. And though I want to be out there doing events, I don’t want to be behind a partition while kids are in front of me. I think that’s more impersonal than not being there. And I’d hate to sit in front of 20 kids, and I have something or contract something and pass it on to somebody else. I have a lot of clients that are still calling wanting us to do in-person visits right now. And as much as I want to, I’m shying away from it. Usually, the day after Christmas I’m getting event bookings for the following year. I had to cancel the ones that we’ve already booked. So yeah, this definitely is a hit on the pocket. The Home-Visit Santa: Willie Williamson, 66, Marietta, Georgia I’ve been working with my clients to determine what they’re expecting from Santa; some of them want Santa with the mask, some of them don’t. l show up at the residence, we’ll social distance, and then when we get ready to take pictures, I’ll get seated and then the kids will back up into me so that we’re not facing each other. Once the pictures are over, if they want to have a one-on-one with Santa, then I’ll put a mask on. I’ve had 14 different masks made by a local seamstress, with snowflakes and reindeer and that kind of thing. I’ve bought tons of sanitizer, so I’m sanitizing before and after each visit. I bought an extra four dozen gloves, so I’ll change my gloves after every visit. I went ahead and bought two more suits this year, which will give me seven so I can change my suit every day of the week. I’ve got a UVB light set up in a closet, and I can also sanitize them that way. Courtesy of Willie Williamson Santa Willie Williamson, on a past Christmas. My business is probably down 50 percent this year, but I’m seeing a little bit of an uptick in home visits. They’re around 60-40 indoors-outdoors. I looked into the Zoom thing, and to be honest with you, there’s a pretty good capital outlay. You have to buy green screens, cameras, and ring lights and backdrops and all that stuff. And I’m more about the personal visit anyway. That’s kind of why I don’t do the malls, because that’s more about the picture. The weekend after Thanksgiving through Christmas, I’ve got 48 visits booked, and I usually run about 70 a year. I’m going to go try to get tested at least 14 days prior to that. I’ve also invested in a thermometer, so that if people would like to check temperatures, we can do that before we get started. I’m going to be cautious and use common sense. And if something gets out of hand, I will stop whatever we’re doing. But I’m not too worried about it. I’m probably one of the younger Santas around here, and I don’t have any underlying health issues. If I get it, I get it. The Bad Santa: Rafe Wadleigh, 47, Tacoma, Washington Courtesy of Rafe Wadleigh “Bad” Santa Rafe Wadleigh, drinking for the holiday. Gigs were starting to come in, and then Washington recently put a moratorium on gatherings larger than five. It’s definitely a big hit. In a normal year, I personally do about 10 to 12 [bookings] through the holiday season. It’s not a ton, but I can always depend on a good little paycheck in January from it. But also, it’s just super fun. My Bad Santa is the jolly, drinky uncle that comes to the party — like, you don’t want him to sleep over, but for 30 minutes, people love it. He’s fun, he doesn’t upset anybody, he tells all the ladies they’re pretty and tells some very off-color jokes. I have a lot of clients that come back to me year after year for corporate parties. Some of these groups have been coming back to me for years. I’ve always felt a little bit like a part of the family coming in on a special party night, like, “Remember, last year when you made that North Pole joke, and my wife spit up her drink?” Usually, depending on the client, I’ll get a little bit of roasting information so I can come prepared to zing people. I’ll probably end up using technology a little bit, maybe some silly virtual backdrops that’ll kind of elevate the comedy, ideally. But nothing beats the live in-person improv in the physical space, right? You can still improv, but as we all know, these Zoom things are a little hard to manage, because people want to talk over each other and laugh, so that dynamic tends to be a challenge to kind of manage the flow of the party in the comedy. But I think people are so hungry for connection right now. I think if anything, people will, to some degree, suspend their disbelief and be like, this is as good as we can get right now. Let’s really lean into it and enjoy the togetherness even if it’s through a screen.
vox.com
Religious conservatives have won a revolutionary victory in the Supreme Court
President Donald Trump stands with newly sworn-in US Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett during a ceremonial event on the South Lawn of the White House October 26, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images Roman Catholic Diocese v. Cuomo is one of the most significant religion cases in the past 30 years. For the past six years, the Supreme Court’s right flank has wanted to revolutionize the law governing so-called “religious liberty” cases, in which a plaintiff who objects to following a particular law on religious grounds seeks an exemption from that law. Late on Thanksgiving eve, in a decision handed down while much of the country was already asleep, the Court made this vision a reality. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, a decision allowing some houses of worship to operate in defiance of New York state’s rules seeking to limit the spread of Covid-19, is one of the two most significant religion cases of the past 30 years, and may prove to be one of the most important religion decisions in the Court’s history. New York state limited attendance at religious services in areas with coronavirus outbreaks to 10 people in areas with the most severe outbreaks, and to 25 people in areas where the state is concerned that a severe outbreak could occur. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that the state may not enforce these restrictions. Roman Catholic Diocese marks a sea change in the Court’s approach to religious objectors, and it is an early sign of the significance of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Under the old rules, religious objectors typically could not seek exemptions from the law if granting them an exemption could harm people who do not share their faith. And the old rules were much more concerned with preserving equality between secular and religious individuals than with giving special advantages to people of faith. In the business context, for example, the Court was primarily concerned with ensuring that religious business owners did not obtain legal exemptions that would give them a leg up over their competitors. As the Supreme Court held in United States v. Lee (1982), “when followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” But the Supreme Court started to dismantle decisions like Lee in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), which permitted private businesses to refuse to include birth control coverage in its employees’ health plan despite a federal regulation requiring these businesses to do so. Just as significantly, Hobby Lobby established a strong presumption that when a religious objector seeks an exemption from a federal law, the objector will get that exemption barring unusual circumstances. Yet, for reasons explained below, Hobby Lobby only benefited religious objectors who sought exemptions from a federal law. State law still applied with considerable force against religious objectors, even after Hobby Lobby. The practical effect of Roman Catholic Diocese is that it extends the Hobby Lobby regime to a wide range of cases involving religious objections to state law. There are still technical differences between the law governing plaintiffs who seek exemptions from a federal policy and those who seek to avoid state law, but the practical differences are now thin or even potentially nonexistent. To be sure, Roman Catholic Diocese involves actual houses of worship that seek an exemption from legal restrictions, so the argument for a “religious liberty” exemption is stronger in this case than it was in Hobby Lobby, which involved for-profit businesses. But the majority opinion in Roman Catholic Diocese is written fairly broadly — broadly enough that the case is likely to have sweeping implications for for-profit businesses and other, similar institutions seeking a religious exemption from the law. The implications of this doctrinal revolution are profound. Among other things, the Court is currently weighing whether religious objectors have a right to defy laws barring discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Subsequent cases could potentially give religious conservatives a right to engage in gender discrimination, or to violate a bevy of other laws. And, as Roman Catholic Diocese involves a challenge to state rules seeking to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, religious objectors may even prevail when their claims could endanger human life. “Religious liberty” before Hobby Lobby, briefly explained Although the old regime was less favorable to certain religious objectors than decisions like Hobby Lobby and Roman Catholic Diocese, the Court was often fairly protective of religious liberty plaintiffs prior to Hobby Lobby. So long as those objectors did not seek an exemption that, in Justice Ginsburg’s words, would “detrimentally affect others who do not share [the objector’s] belief,” such exemptions were often granted by federal courts. The prior regime began with Sherbert v. Verner (1963), a seminal decision holding that the Constitution limits the government’s ability to enforce laws that impose a “substantial infringement” on someone’s religious beliefs. Sherbert also declared that such an infringement may only be “justified by a ‘compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate.’” The Court’s use of the three words “compelling state interest” sowed considerable confusion into religious liberty doctrine. Typically, when the Supreme Court uses the words “compelling interest,” it signals that the Constitution applies the highest possible safeguards against a particular kind of government action. Laws that discriminate on the basis of race, for example, must overcome a “compelling interest” test. Lawyers refer to this highly rigorous test as “strict scrutiny.” Under strict scrutiny, a law cannot be enforced unless it uses the “least restrictive means” to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” Most laws that are subjected to strict scrutiny are struck down. Yet, while the Supreme Court used the loaded words “compelling state interest” in its Sherbert opinion, empirical data shows that the judiciary applied something far less rigorous than strict scrutiny in cases involving religious objections — so religious objectors typically lost their cases under the Sherbert regime. A 1992 study by James Ryan, now president of the University of Virginia, found that federal courts of appeals heard 97 free exercise of religion cases applying the “compelling interest” test between 1980 and 1990, and they rejected 85 of these cases. A similar study by UCLA law professor Adam Winkler looked at cases between 1990 and 2003. Winkler found that federal courts upheld 59 percent of “religious liberty burdens” during that period. By contrast, federal courts applying the compelling interest test upheld only 22 percent of free speech restrictions and 27 percent of laws that engaged in discrimination on disfavored grounds such as race. Courts during the periods studied by Ryan and Winkler, in other words, often used the rhetoric of strict scrutiny. But they treated cases brought by religious objectors very differently than cases that applied full-bore strict scrutiny. Religious objectors typically lost their cases during these periods, while victims of race discrimination or other such activity were far more likely to prevail. The Supreme Court, moreover, often encouraged lower courts to treat religious liberty cases with a fair amount of skepticism, even as the justices maintained that Sherbert was still good law. The Court’s 1982 decision in Lee, holding that business owners are broadly prohibited from seeking religious exemptions for their business, for example, is very much at odds with the Court’s approach to cases where strict scrutiny applies. Then, in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court appeared to abandon Sherbert altogether. “To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling,’” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court in Smith, is “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself.’” Such an outcome, according to Scalia, “contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.” Under the new rule announced in Smith, a religious objector must follow “neutral law[s] of general applicability.” Thus, so long as a law applies equally to religious and secular actors, the religious objectors cannot seek an exemption under Smith. Smith’s effective decision to overrule Sherbert, however, triggered a bipartisan backlash from lawmakers who believed it did too much to limit religious liberties. Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which sought to “restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert” and one other related case. RFRA, however, only applies to the federal government. Smith’s permissive rule still allowed the 50 states to enforce any “neutral law of general applicability” against religious objectors. After RFRA, but before Hobby Lobby, states had a broad power to enforce their laws against religious objectors, so long as those laws did not single out people of faith for inferior treatment. The federal government, by contrast, had to comply with “the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert,” although that test, as Ryan and Winkler’s research demonstrated, was less rigorous than full-bore strict scrutiny. Thus, under RFRA, most lawsuits brought by religious objectors against the federal government would fail. Hobby Lobby applied full-strength strict scrutiny to federal religious liberty lawsuits Hobby Lobby held that two businesses, whose owners object on religious grounds to certain forms of birth control, could refuse to cover those forms of contraception in their employee health plans, even though a federal regulation required employers to provide such coverage. This decision was a doctrinal earthquake. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, until Hobby Lobby, “no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.” Hobby Lobby was also significant for another reason. Rather than applying the watered-down version of the compelling interest test required by Sherbert, Hobby Lobby applied the full force of strict scrutiny to the federal birth control regulation — a test that, as Justice Samuel Alito noted in his majority opinion, is “exceptionally demanding.” Thus, Hobby Lobby effectively abandoned Lee’sholding that businesses generally must comply with the law, at least with respect to federal laws. It also held that plaintiffs with religious objections to a federal law benefit from the strong version of strict scrutiny applied to race discrimination cases — not the less rigorous test created by Sherbert. Because Hobby Lobby was an RFRA case, however, its holding only applied to federal laws. After Hobby Lobby, religious liberty cases involving state laws remained subject to the permissive test announced in Smith. Roman Catholic Diocese transforms Smith into little more than an empty husk The holding of Smith is that the state may apply a “neutral law of general applicability” to a religious objector — only laws that single out people of faith for lesser treatment than secular individuals are suspect under Smith. The Court’s opinion in Roman Catholic Diocese upends this balance by defining what counts as a “neutral law of general applicability” so narrowly that it is virtually meaningless. The punchline is that, with few exceptions, the Hobby Lobby rule will apply equally to state and federal laws. Nearly any law could be unenforceable against religious objectors, unless that law survives strict scrutiny. The New York state rules at issue in Roman Catholic Dioceseinvolve a complicated regime the state uses to prevent the spread of Covid-19. New York classifies areas with an elevated risk of coronavirus transmission as “yellow,” “orange,” or “red” zones. Houses of worship in orange zones may only admit a maximum of 25 people, while places of worship in red zones may only admit up to 10 people. While these restrictions are quite severe, they are actually less harsh than the restrictions imposed on secular businesses that are similar in character to places of worship. As a lower court that upheld New York’s restrictions explained, “public gatherings with scheduled starting and ending times such as public lectures, concerts or theatrical performances” must “remain closed entirely” in the relevant zones. Thus, the state effectively banned all public gatherings where large numbers of people gather in auditorium-like settings. It then gave a special exemption to houses of worship that allowed them to have small, limited gatherings. Whatever you think of that policy, it does not single out places of worship for inferior treatment. Indeed, it does the opposite. Nevertheless, a majority of the Supreme Court struck down New York’s headcount limits on houses of worship because the state’s rules treat those institutions less favorably than businesses that do not involve public gatherings in auditorium-like settings. “In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons,” a majority of the justices explained in an unsigned opinion, “businesses categorized as ‘essential’ may admit as many people as they wish.” The opinion then lists several examples of “essential” businesses, including “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, [and] garages.” Yet, while it is true that garages and acupuncturists are subject to different rules than churches, the reasons are hardly arbitrary. As Justice Stephen Breyer writes in dissent, “members of the scientific and medical communities tell us that the virus is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when a person or group of people talk, sing, cough, or breathe near each other.” Large groups of people typically do not gather in an acupuncture facility for hours at a time and sing. But they do engage in such potentially dangerous activity in churches and many other houses of worship. So it makes sense that places of worship should be treated differently than businesses that bear little, if any, resemblance to those places of worship. The point is this: Justice Breyer’s dissent suggests that a state law is a “neutral law of general applicability” so long as that law treats religious institutions the same way as similar secular institutions. The majority opinion, by contrast, suggests that a law is suspect if a court can find any example of a secular institution that is treated differently than a religious institution. Although Roman Catholic Diocese is a case about houses of worship, the majority’s reasoning has profound implications for other institutions that seek religious exemptions, including for-profit businesses. Consider, for example, Justice Alito’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Stormans v. Wiesman (2016). Stormans involved a Washington state regulation that required pharmacies to “deliver lawfully prescribed drugs or devices to patients.” Pharmacy owners who object to certain forms of birth control on religious grounds sought an exemption from this regulation, claiming they should have the right to refuse to dispense medications that they find religiously objectionable. Though Washington’s regulation is neutral and generally applicable on its face — it ordinarily requires all pharmacies to deliver all lawfully prescribed drugs, regardless of whether the pharmacy owners are religious — Alito argued that the law is not neutral because it contained some secular exemptions. A pharmacist, for example, could refuse to dispense a prescription if it does not accept the patient’s insurance. Or if the prescription might be fraudulent. Or if the patient was already taking another drug that could cause negative health effects if mixed with the new prescription. Alito’s Stormans opinion, in other words, suggests that Washington had to make a devilish choice. Either the state had to give broad exemptions from its pharmacy regulation to religious objectors, or it might have to force pharmacists to fill fraudulent prescriptions or even to endanger the health of their customers. Given such a choice, it’s hard to imagine that any state would refuse to provide an expansive religious exemption. Roman Catholic Diocese effectively writes the rule that Alito advocated in Stormans into the law, and the implications of this decision are likely to be profound. It means that, when someone objects to a law on religious grounds, they will typically be exempt from the law unless the law survives strict scrutiny, because it is very easy to find secular exemptions to even the most unobjectionable laws. A state’s ban on murder, for example, may have an exemption for people who kill in self-defense. State bans on animal cruelty typically permit livestock to be slaughtered for food. Laws banning individuals from possessing machine guns still permit members of the military to carry such weapons as part of their service. The tax code is absolutely riddled with provisions allowing people not to pay some part of their federal taxes if, for example, they have a mortgage or are raising a child. Does this mean that the Supreme Court is likely to permit religious objectors to kill? Or to refuse to pay taxes? Or to allow them to torture animals (provided that the state’s ban on animal cruelty doesn’t single out people of faith for inferior treatment)? Most likely not. Among other things, such laws would still be enforceable so long as they survive strict scrutiny — meaning that the law uses the “least restrictive means” to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” But the new approach announced in Roman Catholic Diocese suggests that any law is subject to strict scrutiny if a religious objector can point to any exemption to that law. And, as Winkler’s research shows, the overwhelming majority of laws subject to full-bore strict scrutiny fail that test.
vox.com
The government’s failure to provide economic relief is killing people
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). | Tom Williams/Getty Images The lack of funding from Congress is making the pandemic worse. When Covid-19 began spreading across the United States this spring, the federal government put in place a series of protections to help workers and families weather the economic impact. Then, one by one, the government took them all away. Expanded unemployment insurance, which helped keep millions of laid-off workers out of poverty, expired at the end of July. Federal stimulus checks were issued to millions of taxpayers once, beginning in April, but never again. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans meant to keep small businesses afloat expired in August, even as many of those businesses faced a second surge in cases. And it’s about to get a lot worse, with a host of benefits from student loan forbearance to the federal eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of December. Many economists agree that the federal government’s insufficient economic protections are driving Americans — especially low-wage workers who have been especially hard-hit in the crisis — further into poverty. But something else is also becoming abundantly clear: The lack of economic safeguards for Americans is making Covid-19 worse, too. The latest evidence is a study showing that lifting state-level eviction moratoriums, which allowed landlords to once again kick out renters for nonpayment, was associated with an increase in Covid-19 infections. Between March and September, getting rid of the bans and allowing evictions to continue led to as many as 433,700 excess Covid-19 cases and 10,700 deaths, the researchers found. Meanwhile, the lack of relief for small-business owners is forcing many to choose between closing their doors forever or staying open during the pandemic — and contributing to transmission rates. “They’re making heartbreaking decisions every day,” Lindsey Leininger, a public health educator and professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told Vox. And with unemployment benefits running out, workers, too, are forced to go back to unsafe occupations, even if they have underlying conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus. “We have not made it feasible for most people to safely shelter in place,” Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist, and past president of the American Public Health Association, told Vox. Those most affected by the lack of economic protection are those most impacted by Covid-19: Black Americans, other people of color, and people living in poverty. And as the country enters a dark winter, inaction by the Trump administration and Congress isn’t just hurting Americans’ livelihoods — it’s costing them their lives. The federal government gave Americans some economic relief in spring. Then it dried up. Covid-19 caused unprecedented economic devastation when it first began spreading in the US earlier this year. As restaurants, hotels, and other businesses shuttered, unemployment reached heights unseen since the Great Depression. In late March, more than 6 million people filed for unemployment in a single week; before the pandemic, the highest number of initial claims in a week was about 700,000 in 1982. Food banks were overwhelmed with individuals and families unable to afford groceries, and the nonprofit Feeding America projected that one in six Americans — including one in four children — could experience food insecurity in 2020. Meanwhile, 5.6 million workers lost their employer-provided health insurance in March and April, leaving many without a way to pay for medical care during a public health crisis. To help blunt the pandemic’s economic impact, Congress instituted a number of measures: a $600-per-week addition to unemployment benefits, an expansion of unemployment insurance to cover part-time and gig-economy workers, a stimulus check of up to $1,200 paid to many Americans, and PPP loans to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll. Some state and local governments also announced eviction moratoriums, and in September, the federal government ordered its own ban through the end of the year. The programs were far from perfect, but they helped many Americans stay afloat: Despite skyrocketing unemployment, some estimates found that poverty actually fell in April and May thanks to the availability of federal aid. But as the virus continued to rage, that aid started to dry up. It’s now been four months since expanded unemployment benefits expired, and Congress hasn’t approved any new relief in that time. That’s hurting Americans’ ability to pay their bills and provide for their families — especially if they previously worked in low-wage service-sector jobs that were disproportionately hard-hit in the spring and have been slow to return. But it’s also hurting the country’s ability to fight the virus. Small businesses are one example. While experts don’t yet have a complete picture of what’s driving Covid-19 transmission right now, they generally agree that some of the most dangerous venues for spread are places like restaurants, bars, and gyms — venues “where almost by definition, people can’t wear masks and are indoors,” as Brandon Guthrie, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington, told Vox. For example, one study found that people who tested positive for Covid-19 were about twice as likely to have recently eaten in a restaurant compared to those who tested negative. However, many states and cities have been slow to shut down such businesses, even in the face of a devastating third wave this fall. In New York, for example, restaurants remain open for indoor dining while schools are closed, though Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to bring elementary school students back later in December. In much of Florida, restaurants and bars opened at full capacity in September, despite continued spread of the virus. Many factors (including pressure from the Trump administration to just open everything) have gone into state and local leaders’ decisions about business restrictions. But since the summer, one big factor has been the lack of federal aid to small businesses and workers. Policymakers know that if they institute shutdowns, restaurants and bars will go out of business and workers will lose jobs. This likely factors into their decision-making. “You’ve heard governors saying that the availability of those federal funds has been important,” Guthrie said, and they “are really concerned about what is going to happen if those resources dry up.” In the absence of those resources, meanwhile, individual businesses can’t easily decide to stay closed — even if their owners know it might be dangerous to remain open. Restaurants and bars “are not high-margin businesses even in the best of times,” Leininger said. Their proprietors often “want to do right by public health, but also want to do right by their families and their workers in terms of livelihoods.” It’s hard to quantify exactly how much the lack of federal support for businesses and workers has contributed to coronavirus spread. But clusters of infections have been linked to reopened bars and restaurants, including a Friendly’s in Riverhead, New York, and a brewpub in East Lansing, Michigan. Between March and August, around a quarter of Louisiana’s Covid-19 cases outside of nursing homes and prisons “stemmed from bars and restaurants,” the New York Times reported; in Colorado, 9 percent of all outbreaks as of August had been traced to such venues. “Every time we see an outbreak that’s seeded in a bar or from a restaurant establishment with indoor dining, that is something that could have potentially been prevented if those settings weren’t open,” Leininger said. The lack of aid is forcing Americans to put themselves and others at risk It’s not just about supporting businesses. Individual Americans haven’t gotten the help they need from their government to keep themselves safe, either. Earlier in the year, expanded unemployment may have helped people reduce their exposure to the virus because they “felt less pressure to have to go back into higher-risk settings” for work, Guthrie said. But the expiration of those benefits, along with the ongoing damage to the job market caused by the pandemic, has forced many people to take any job they can get — even if that means exposing themselves and their families to the virus. “If you are a waitress, and you managed to get some hours at the place where you work but they’re not doing social distancing and they’re not providing PPE [personal protective equipment], are you going to take the chance to quit and try to go work somewhere else?” asked Janelle Jones, managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative. Especially with a lack of help from the federal government, many Americans can’t afford to take that chance. Others, meanwhile, have been unable to find work or pay their bills — and an increasing number face eviction from their homes. Forty-three states and Washington, DC, passed eviction bans earlier this year, but some lasted as little as 10 weeks and many expired in the summer. As of July, large shares of renters in many states — 58 percent in Tennessee and 59 percent in West Virginia, for example — were at risk of being evicted, according to CNBC. The authors of a new study found that lifting state-level eviction moratoriums, in addition to costing people their homes, also contributed to the spread of Covid-19. “When people are evicted, they often move in with friends and family, and that increases your number of contacts,” UCLA’s Kathryn Leifheit, one of the study’s co-authors, explained to CNBC. Others may move into a shelter, also increasing their risk. Whether it’s unemployment or evictions, Black and Latinx Americans, who are less likely than white people to have the accumulated wealth to weather an economic crisis, have been disproportionately affected — likely contributing to the high rates of infection and death in many communities of color. “People of color are more likely to be infected because we’re more exposed and less protected,” Camara Phyllis Jones, the epidemiologist, said. The lack of economic protections is as important to understand as the lack of PPE and other safety measures. “When you force people to enter into situations that are more dangerous because of an economic need when you could address the economic need,” Jones said, it means “we have prioritized some people’s profit over other people’s lives.” The situation is about to become even more dire, since a number of programs, including the nationwide moratorium on evictions and the extension of unemployment to part-time and gig-economy workers, are slated to expire at the end of the year. “We’re already in a situation that is like a terror state of economic disasters,” the Groundwork Collaborative’s Janelle Jones told Vox, “and it will just get worse at the end of the year.” Economic relief would help people support their families — and help the country control the virus Experts are clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. Additional federal support for bars and restaurants would allow these businesses to shut down until it’s safe to reopen. “This is restaurant owners’ and bar owners’ time of need,” Leininger said. Meanwhile, a continuation of unemployment benefits, along with paid leave and affordable health care, could help ordinary people stay safe at home and help the US control the virus, Janelle Jones said. More direct payments like the spring stimulus checks may also be necessary: “We can send people money,” Janelle Jones added. “We know how to do it.” After months of deadlock in which Republicans opposed more generous proposals by Democrats, Congress may be starting to move on the issue: On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators announced a $908 billion stimulus plan that would include $300 per week in additional unemployment benefits for individuals, as well as support for state and local governments and small businesses, the Washington Post reported. But even this compromise, which leaves out additional stimulus payments to individuals and is significantly slimmer than the $2 trillion package sought by Democrats, will have a difficult road in a Republican-controlled Senate. And while Congress fights it out, millions of Americans will have to continue living and working through a pandemic without the economic cushion needed to keep themselves and others safe. “It is a choice we’re making every day to leave millions of people this insecure and vulnerable,” Janelle Jones said.
vox.com
The death and rebirth of America’s department stores, in charts
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox A look at the finances, footprints, and futures of department store chains. The pandemic has been terrible for numerous industries, and department stores are no exception. Once the main place many Americans did their clothing and other retail shopping, department stores have long been in decline, along with the malls that they anchored. The decline of department stores, which have substantial footprints in physical real estate, is indicative of how shopping in America is continually moving online. Americans are still buying plenty — retail sales have already risen beyond their pre-pandemic highs, according to census data — but the shopping landscape has changed. A spate of department store bankruptcies, declining sales, and closures, as well as a variety of new businesses popping up in their place show that retail in America is in a state of rapid transition. These trends also provide a number of clues as to where this will all land. Death of department stores by the numbers A big challenge for department stores in recent years is the sheer overhead of the physical space they occupy. This is part of the reason why online retailers have an edge. They sell all the same stuff as department stores, but their real estate footprint is much smaller. And the pandemic meant that Americans couldn’t go to these stores safely — or legally — exacerbating a long-term trend away from shopping in stores. In turn, e-commerce sales surged this year. Online retail sales jumped 32 percent in the second quarter compared to the first quarter, reaching $211.5 billion, according to Census Bureau data. That’s 16 percent of all retail sales. It has since modulated a bit to 14 percent as more businesses reopened in the third quarter, but a new spate of shutdowns could reverse that. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-G7mNU");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-G7mNU");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Meanwhile, department store sales have been declining, according to data from the Census Bureau. After sales took a dive in the spring when stay-at-home orders kept people out of stores, the sector is having trouble recovering as Covid-19 numbers are surging again this fall. (Note that if department stores used separate establishments to fulfill their online orders, that wouldn’t be included in the data below, so total revenue should be higher.) !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-yIG3S");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-yIG3S");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Department stores have upped their online presence, with digital sales at Kohl’s, Nordstrom, and Macy’s up double digits in the second quarter of 2020, according to Coresight Research. But that hasn’t been enough to compensate for overall revenue decline. For the publicly traded department stores, total revenue — which includes online sales — has generally been stagnant if not declining for the past decade, with a precipitous drop this year due to the pandemic. According to earnings reported at the beginning of 2020, annual profit declined for Kohl’s, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Nordstrom, and J.C. Penney. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-qM0X6");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-qM0X6");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Foot traffic is another way to look at how department stores’ physical retail operations have declined. Nationwide, foot traffic to major department stores is currently about half what it was last year, according to data from SafeGraph. A new round of lockdowns could bring foot traffic back to where it was this spring: next to nothing. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-gsoLS");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-gsoLS");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() As a result of these pressures, a slew of department stores filed for bankruptcy this year, beginning with J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, and Stage Stores this spring, followed by Century 21, Stein Mart, and Lord & Taylor this summer. Retailers in general have filed for bankruptcy en masse this year, according to a CB Insights report. “The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated the fall of several retailers, which have faced dwindling sales and growing debt over the past few years as consumer preferences change,” the report states. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-QqTBU");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-QqTBU");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Even department stores that haven’t gone bankrupt are shuttering stores in an effort to cut costs and rightsize their sprawling footprints. As a result, the total number of department stores has declined precipitously in the past few years. There are currently about 6,000 department stores in the US, according to market research firm IBISWorld, and that number is expected to decline by about another 2,000 in the next five years. In February, even before the pandemic began to shutter businesses in the US, Macy’s announced it would be closing more than 20 percent of its stores. This spring, J.C. Penney announced it would close nearly 200 stores this year and another 50 next year — about 30 percent of its stores. Nordstrom announced closures of its own in May. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-paJAA");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-paJAA");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Additionally, department stores like Macy’s are opting for smaller footprints as fewer people go to stores and more people shop online. Instead of a place to buy things, the remaining physical stores are functioning as showrooms. “They show you the sexiest goods to stimulate demand and start you thinking, knowing you’re going to pull out your phone and shop there,” Victor Calanog, head of commercial real estate economics at Moody’s, told Recode. They’re also experimenting with different store formats to better serve the areas they’re in, according to MJ Munsell, chief creative officer at architecture and design firm MG2. That can mean smaller stores with merchandise particular to the location, stores geared toward picking up merchandise purchased online, and stores that offer, for example, services like tailoring or makeup application. “The idea that you build the same store throughout the country and people will come is archaic,” she said. The second lives of the fallen department stores The story of dying department stores is also one of new beginnings. Half of department stores within malls could close by the end of 2021, according to Green Street Advisors, and the average department store ranges from 100,000 to 160,000 square feet. All these closures are going to leave behind lots of empty space and unpaid bills — retailers owe $52 billion in back rent — as well as the potential for new businesses to overtake the old. Whether or not it’s viable to repurpose old department stores depends on a number of factors, including location, the building itself, and the needs of other growing businesses. What department stores have been repurposed into falls generally into three buckets: other traditional retail space; something entirely different like restaurants or apartments; or — what has become the de facto replacement — warehouses or fulfillment centers for online retailers like Amazon. Department stores located in regional malls — that is, large malls in densely populated areas — have the best odds of being repurposed, according to Brandon Hardin, a research economist at the National Association of Realtors who worked on the report. “Assuming they’re in the right location, a significant portion could be repurposed into something more useful,” Hardin told Recode. Smaller malls located in less populous areas will have a harder time finding new uses. Department store locations in city centers, especially those in historic buildings, lend themselves well to upscale apartments and offices. Meanwhile, ones located in the suburbs can benefit from conversions that make the space feel more urban. “There’s convenience to living in the suburbs because there’s a lot there, but not a sense of community necessarily,” MG2’s Munsell said. “People are craving the notion that they can go to a space, get something to eat, exercise, meet friends — it gives a sense of place to suburban environments.” As such, MG2 is in the process of reconceptualizing suburban malls, one in Florida and one on the West Coast, to be mixed-use community destinations. The plans include turning the malls and their giant parking lots into a combination of housing, entertainment, restaurants, and pedestrian-friendly green spaces, in addition to new retail space. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) compiled a number of case studies about how malls and the department stores that serve as their anchor tenants have been or are already being repurposed. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-8Sl5k");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-8Sl5k");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() According to an NAR survey in March, among 94 malls identified as formerly vacant, about a third were simply turned into other types of retail stores or popups. A number of malls have been turned into mixed-use buildings, with much of the retail being replaced by a combination of offices, apartments, and hotel rooms. A handful of others were turned into a wide variety of businesses, including medical offices, fitness centers, churches, and even one cricket stadium. For example, Los Angeles’s Westside Pavilion — this is the iconic mall that used to house Macy’s and Nordstrom and was featured in the movie Clueless — has been converted into office space for Google. Creative Commons The Westside Pavilion mall in Los Angeles, which was featured in Clueless, is being converted into Google office space. Hudson Pacific Properties An artist rendering of repurposed space at the Westside mall. The million square feet of retail space of Worcester Center Galleria in Massachusetts has been converted into 500,000 square feet of office space, 1,000 residential units, and 168 hotel rooms, as well as 350,000 feet of new retail. And then there are warehouses and fulfillment centers. A lot of the conditions that once made department stores in large malls viable also work well for online fulfillment centers. They’re centrally located spaces large enough to hold the goods needed for large nearby populations. Becoming distribution centers represents a productive second life for department stores — albeit one coated in a bit of irony, since the online retailers who use them are part of the reason for department stores’ decline in the first place. The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that Simon Property Group, the biggest mall operator, was discussing turning some of their 11 Sears and 63 J.C. Penney stores — both of which have filed for bankruptcy — into fulfillment locations for Amazon, their biggest competitor. That would provide a much-needed source of revenue for Simon, which received only 85 percent of its expected rent last quarter. Amazon has already converted a number of former retail spaces into online facilities. Last year, Amazon finished construction on an 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in the place of what had once been the closed and condemned Euclid Square Mall in Ohio. That was the second time an Amazon fulfillment store rose from the ashes of a dead Ohio mall. Indeed, it’s likely many malls and department stores will meet a similar fate. Industrial space commands lower rent than retail, so mall owners will not be getting their previous premiums on those locations. For now, though, anything is better than empty space.
vox.com
The battle over Trump’s huge UAE arms deal, explained
Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, speaks as President Donald Trump looks on during the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images Trump wants to send $23 billion in advanced weapons to the Middle Eastern autocracy. Some aim to stop him. On Monday evening, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met for a classified briefing with Trump administration officials to hear about a proposed $23 billion weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates. Right when it ended, one of the attendees blasted what had transpired behind closed doors. “Just a mind blowing number of unsettled issues and questions the Administration couldn’t answer,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. “Hard to overstate the danger of rushing this though.” That remark underscored the growing political fight over the arms deal announced in early November, a standoff that could severely impact America’s relations with its authoritarian ally and the military balance in the Middle East. President Donald Trump wants to sell up to 50 F-35 fighter jets, nearly 20 Reaper drones, and around 14,000 bombs and munitions to the UAE — and he wants to do it before President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office and potentially scuttles the sale. The administration has explicitly linked the massive arms package to Trump’s broader efforts to counter Iran and to the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel in August. “This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing his authorization of the sales. “The UAE’s historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape.” But some Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with certain activist groups, oppose the proposed weapons transfer, saying a country responsible for killing civilians in Yemen and funding Russian mercenaries in Libya doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with even better US-made weapons. “To sell such advanced military equipment to the UAE now would be to endorse those policies and threaten US interests and regional stability,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, who’s leading an effort by arms control organizations and human rights groups to stop the sale. Which means the next 50 days before Biden takes over will see a nasty tussle over one of Trump’s last major foreign policy initiatives, one he’s trying to ram through before the clock runs out. “This is happening way too fast,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East security expert at the Century Foundation in New York City. “Process is important, substance is important, and neither is good here.” Why the UAE wants US-made weapons The UAE has long wanted advanced fighter jets and top-of-the-line drones, which would make it a greater, more powerful player in the region — not just militarily, but politically, too. “We’re not talking about going to war here. We’re talking about affecting change in the Middle East,” said Dalia Fahmy, an expert on the UAE’s foreign policy at Long Island University. “The UAE is reasserting itself in the region. It’s all about being able to leverage that perceived power.” In other words, the UAE wants the world’s most advanced warplane, the F-35, and surveillance and attack drones because it could then throw its weight around in the Middle East. That sounds fine in principle — after all, most nations seek to increase their power and influence whenever they can. But one big question is how — and where — exactly the UAE may try to do that. The sale is “not helpful [for the US] if there is greater adventurism in Libya or the Horn of Africa,” said a State Department official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to press. “It’s maybe helpful in a theoretical multilateral framework” against Iran. Both Trump and Biden would certainly rather see the country use the weapons against Iran in case of a war and not, say, to bomb innocent men, women, and children in Yemen, where the UAE is fighting a war as part of a Saudi-led coalition. Figuring out what assurances the US received from the UAE ahead of the sales took up much of Monday’s classified Senate hearing, according to two Senate sources familiar with the discussion. Murphy’s tweet made clear the answers senators received weren’t satisfactory — and now he and others are trying to stop the transfers from happening. There’s a five-pronged case against the UAE arms deal On November 18, three senators — Democrats Murphy and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, along with Republican Rand Paul — introduced four joint resolutions to stop the UAE arms deal from happening. “Congress is once again stepping in to serve as a check to avoid putting profit over US national security and that of our allies, and to hopefully prevent a new arms race in the Middle East,” Menendez said in a statement at the time. Those resolutions must be voted on and passed by December 11 or they will expire, clearing Trump’s pathway to the sale. But whether or not the blocking effort works, the resolutions do help make clear the five main arguments against the deal. The first, as mentioned above, is that the UAE could use the weapons indiscriminately, killing civilians in Yemen or elsewhere. Without clear guarantees that that won’t happen, the senators and activists don’t want the measure moving forward. The second concern is that Israel could lose what’s called its “qualitative military edge” (QME) in the Middle East. Simply put, US policy since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has been to ensure that Israel has more powerful forces than its Arab neighbors. Israel and others fear giving the UAE F-35s and drones might erode that advantage. However, that issue “has receded in importance” more recently, said Barbara Leaf, the US ambassador to the UAE from 2014 to 2018. The main reason is that in October, Israel’s government dropped its objection to the F-35 transfers in particular, soon after the Pentagon promised Jerusalem its edge would remain intact. “It’s now more about the foreign policy dimensions of the proposed sale,” Leaf told me. Which brings us to the third objection: that the UAE having this advanced weaponry could change the balance of power in the Middle East, making the Gulf country an even stronger, more influential regional player. If that were the case, experts told me, the UAE might use its newfound strength to attack its enemies, namely Iran, on its own and back other proxies in the area. But some aren’t so worried about that possibility. “This won’t change the military balance in the Middle East,” said Leaf, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC. “Iran’s missile and nonconventional arsenals are formidable and could wreak immense damage, even if the UAE gets the F-35.” The fourth concern is the potential for an arms race. Basically, if the UAE gets a lot of advanced weapons, others — like Qatar and Iran, the UAE’s adversaries — might want them, too. At that point, each country may continue to buy more and more weapons until the region becomes increasingly militarized and dangerous. That’s an outcome many experts hope to avoid, although such a possibility remains far off. The fifth worry is that the Trump administration is ramming through in a matter of months a deal that would normally take years to complete. “This is definitely being rushed through. That’s abnormal and bad practice,” said the Century Foundation’s Hanna. What normally happens is that a deal is painstakingly worked out between the two parties first, then reviewed closely by the State Department and the Pentagon, and then long-term consultations with Congress begin. One item up for debate would be the Israel issue, for example, which could take years to hash out. In this case, the Trump administration wants to go from an announcement in November to a sale before January 20, the day Biden is sworn in as president. That’s just unheard of, especially for an arms package of this size. That’s why one Senate aide told me they don’t want to see the deal go through before “they’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.” Until then, the backlash against the deal is likely to persist.
vox.com
A bipartisan group of senators wants to pass emergency Covid-19 relief
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images The latest competing Covid-19 relief proposals in Congress, explained. A bipartisan group of senators and members of the House unveiled a new $908 billion plan for emergency Covid-19 relief funding on Tuesday to extend unemployment benefits and small business loans. The proposal comes after months of stalemate on stimulus talks, and during a critical time in the Covid-19 crisis. About 14 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits will see those programs expire at the end of the month unless Congress takes action, and cities and states around the country are also facing massive budget shortfalls. The plan, spearheaded by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and also supported by the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, is designed to be a short-term extension of federal aid heading into a winter where Covid-19 cases are spiking again and unemployment claims are ticking up. The funding would extend benefits until April 1, when many public health experts expect distribution of a vaccine. “This is going to get us through the most difficult times,” Manchin said at a Tuesday press conference announcing the framework. The question going forward is whether the plan can garner the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Multiple Senate votes for a “skinny” $500 billion stimulus bill backed by McConnell and Republicans have failed, with no Democratic support. House Democrats, meanwhile, most recently passed a revised $2.2 trillion version of their HEROES Act in October. “We have not had assurances from them on that for a vote, but I think the American people will put [on] the pressure,” Manchin told reporters. “We’re determined not to go home until we do something, so it’s up to them to work with us. We want to work with them.” No new coronavirus aid package is going to get through the Senate without bipartisan support, so the new plan is a signal that Republicans and Democrats are indeed talking. Lawmakers supporting the plan emphasized on Tuesday that while each party is not going to get exactly what they want, their framework contains key points of agreement. McConnell is circulating his own proposal among Senate Republicans, after he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy met with White House officials on Tuesday to suss out what President Donald Trump wants to come out of a coronavirus relief deal. McConnell’s version of an emergency package is more limited, providing just a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, rather than the three-month extension in the bipartisan proposal. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also sent McConnell a separate proposal on Monday night. “Additional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame duck session,” Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday. With the November election in the rear-view mirror and coronavirus cases spiking across the country, there could be new momentum behind getting a deal done. But there’s still a long way to go, and Trump — who has proved the wild card for many a congressional deal — is still very much in the picture. What’s in the bipartisan proposal This new proposal is a $908 billion package that repurposes $560 billion in unused funds from the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that passed in March, meaning that this new proposal adds only $348 billion in new spending. It’s much smaller than the $2.2 trillion revised HEROES Act that House Democrats passed in October, but larger than the $500 billion Senate Republicans were proposing in October. Two large sticking points in negotiations have been whether there should be another round of stimulus checks (a priority for Pelosi and Trump) and liability protections for businesses worried about being sued for exposing customers and workers to Covid-19 (a priority of McConnell’s). Republicans came out on top on both of these issues (at least in this initial proposal) — stimulus checks are not included in this new bipartisan proposal and the framework provided by Sen. Manchin’s office notes that the proposal will “provide short term Federal protection from Coronavirus related lawsuits with the purpose of giving states time to develop their own response.” Stimulus checks could be a larger issues; both Pelosi and Trump have signaled support for another round of stimulus payments going out to working Americans. Here’s what actually made it into the proposal: $160 billion for state, local, and tribal governments. For context, US cities alone are facing a $360 billion shortfall and are being forced to pursue austerity measures to balance their budgets and as Emily Stewart has reported for Vox, state budget shortfalls could exceed $500 billion. In other words, this money could be a drop in the bucket. State and local government woes have been lower on McConnell’s list of priorities — at one point he suggested that states declare bankruptcy. $180 billion in unemployment insurance (UI). The CARES Act gave unemployed Americans a weekly $600 lifeline on top of state unemployment insurance, a move widely regarded as staving off catastrophe for the millions of Americans who lost their jobs this year. As Dylan Matthews has reported for Vox, research has shown that “the average UI recipient is getting 134 percent of their previous salary,” and it may have temporarily lowered the poverty rate. This program expired in August, so any relief will be welcome for those still unemployed. Congress originally estimated that the UI program would cost $260 billion which the Tax Policy Center viewed as an underestimate, so it’s likely this extension wouldn’t cover the full cost of unemployed workers’ needs. The Washington Post reported that this amount would cover an additional $300 a week for four months. $288 billion in support for small businesses. This support will partially come through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. As Forbes has reported, an August 2020 survey from the US Census showed that almost 79 percent of small businesses reported being negatively affected by Covid-19. $25 billion in rental assistance. Notably, the new bipartisan proposal only provides for $25 billion in rental assistance even as economists are predicting that tenants could owe nearly $70 billion in back rent by year’s end. Vox has reported that policy experts and advocates have been pushing for $100 billion to be included in stimulus negotiations in order to prevent an eviction crisis that could impact as many as 40 million Americans. The framework also includes $45 billion for transportation including airlines and Amtrak, $16 billion for vaccine development and more Covid-19 testing and tracing, $82 billion in federal education funding, $10 billion for the struggling US postal service, and $10 billion for child care, among other things. “This is emergency relief, this is designed to get us through this next quarter,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told reporters. “We know we have more to do, but ... we cannot abandon the American people.” What’s next for this proposal In the coming weeks, Collins, Manchin and other bipartisan senators will have to reach out to a lot of other senators to see if they can increase the support for the bill. They’ll also have to do a lot of additional work to get McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on board. Trump is still president until Biden is sworn in on January 20, and McConnell told reporters he doesn’t want to pass anything that Trump won’t sign. That said, McConnell and Trump in the past have supported two very different numbers for stimulus relief. McConnell repeatedly tried to pass a $500 billion package, while Trump voiced support for a package closer to $1.8 trillion. McConnell’s version of an emergency package he sent to his Republican members on Tuesday contains no funding for state and local aid, no money for rental assistance, and provides just a one-month extension of unemployment benefits rather than the bipartisan proposal’s three-month extension. McConnell’s bill contains $332.7 billion for PPP loans, $100 billion for education funding, and $47 billion for vaccine distribution and testing and tracing. While Schumer hasn’t explicitly endorsed the bipartisan bill, Manchin told reporters that the Senate minority leader has “encouraged us to work on a bipartisan way on this agreement.” Any emergency relief bill will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, and McConnell’s previous smaller bills have failed along party lines. But Democrats are also wary of what Trump — still stinging over his election loss and refusing to concede to Biden — will do about a package should it reach his desk. Congressional and White House leaders may be talking, but there’s a long way to go in a short amount of time before a deal can be reached.
vox.com
The 12 Days of Christmas: the story behind the holiday’s most annoying carol
Shutterstock It might seem unbelievable given that the "Christmas creep" now begins before Halloween, but the true Christmas season actually starts on Christmas Day itself. That's right: December 25 marks the official start of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christian tradition that shares its name with a relentlessly stick-in-your-head Christmas carol. Here are a few things you may not know about the song and the season. What are the 12 days of Christmas? The 12 days of Christmas is the period that in Christian theology marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings' Day). The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24. Some families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many, after December 25 things go back to business as usual. "The 12 Days of Christmas" is also a Christmas carol in which the singer brags about all the cool gifts they received from their "true love" during the 12 days of Christmas. Each verse builds on the previous one, serving as a really effective way to annoy family members on road trips. The lyrics to "The 12 Days of Christmas" have changed over the years The version most people are familiar with today begins with this verse: On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me A partridge in a pear tree. The song then adds a gift for each day, building on the verse before it, until you're reciting all 12 gifts together: Day 2: two turtle doves Day 3: three French hens Day 4: four calling birds Day 5: five gold rings Day 6: six geese a-laying Day 7: seven swans a-swimming Day 8: eight maids a-milking Day 9: nine ladies dancing Day 10: 10 lords a-leaping Day 11: 11 pipers piping Day 12: 12 drummers drumming The history of the carol is somewhat murky. The earliest known version first appeared in a 1780 children's book called Mirth With-out Mischief. (A first edition of that book sold for $23,750 at a Sotheby's auction in 2014, but you can also buy a digital copy on Amazon.) Some historians think the song could be French in origin, but most agree it was designed as a "memory and forfeits" game, in which singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to award their opponents a "forfeit" — a kiss or a favor of some kind — if they made a mistake. Many variations of the lyrics have existed at different points. Some mention "bears a-baiting" or "ships a-sailing"; some name the singer's mother as the gift giver instead of their true love. Early versions list four "colly" birds, an archaic term meaning black as coal (blackbirds, in other words). And some people theorize that the five gold rings actually refer to the markings of a ring-necked pheasant, which would align with the bird motif of the early verses. In any case, the song most of us are familiar with today comes from an English composer named Frederic Austin; in 1909, he set the melody and lyrics (including changing "colly" to "calling") and added as his own flourish the drawn-out cadence of "five go-oldrings." The song is not a coded primer on Christianity A popular theory that's made the internet rounds is that the lyrics to "The 12 Days of Christmas" are coded references to Christianity; it posits that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. Under that theory, the various gifts break down as follows, as the myth-debunking website Snopes explained: 2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments 3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues 4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists 5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch," which gives the history of man's fall from grace. 6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation 7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments 8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes 9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit 10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments 11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles 12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed The partridge in the pear tree, naturally, represents Jesus Christ. This theory seems tailor-made for circulation via chain emails, but it actually makes little sense once you examine it. Snopes has a great explanation of the many, many holes in its logic. The most egregious: First, the song's gifts have nothing to do with their Christian "equivalents," so the song is basically useless as a way to remember key pillars of the faith. And second, if Christians were so restricted from practicing their faith that they had to conceal messages in a song, they also wouldn't be able to celebrate Christmas in the first place — much less sing Christmas carols. The late historian William Studwell, known for his Christmas carol expertise, also refuted the coded message idea. As he told the Religion News Service in 2008: This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source. Sorry to spoil your dinner party fun fact; while I'm at it, I might as well tell you "Ring Around the Rosie" isn't about the Black Plague, either. Giving someone all the gifts in the song would be ... pricey To calculate the cost of all the gifts in "The 12 Days of Christmas," I'll turn to the PNC financial services group's annual Christmas Price Index, which PNC has been putting out since 1984 (and which occasionally makes its way into school lesson plans). The index calculates the cost of all the gifts in the song based on current market rates; the total for 2019, the most recent year for which numbers are available, comes to a hefty $38,993.59, or $170,298.03 if you count each mention of an item separately (which would amount to 364 gifts in all) — up a mere 0.2 percent from 2018. The takeaway: Swans are damn expensive (at $1,875 each, or $13,125 for all seven) but at least stayed the same price as 2018, while the cost of the five gold rings ($825 total) increased 10 percent. No matter the cost, though, actually giving someone all this stuff is probably not a great idea; just think of all the bird poo. Are there any other versions of "The 12 Days of Christmas"? The structure of "The 12 Days of Christmas" lends itself easily to parodies, of which there have been many. There's Jeff Foxworthy's redneck version, Twisted Sister's heavy metal take, and, of course, a Muppets version (featuring John Denver): There's also a 12 Days of Christmas diet of sorts, which the Atlantic's Olga Khazan attempted in 2013. She calculated the calories in a serving of each bird mentioned in the song, and offset them with the calories burned by the various activities (milking, leaping, etc.). Turns out all that poultry is somehow less indulgent than the typical American holiday meal. She sums up: If you ate all of the birds in one day, including the pheasant pie, but not including all the trimmings for the other dishes, and subtracted the energy you expended milking, dancing, leaping, and drumming, you’d have consumed 2,384 net calories. That’s really not bad, considering the average American Thanksgiving dinner adds up to about 4,500 calories. It seems even more reasonable, relatively speaking, when you consider thatif you wanted to burn off your meal by just singing its namesake tune, you'd have to make it all the way through roughly 300 times — about 17.5 hours of caroling. And that's a gift we doubt anyone would welcome.
vox.com
Advent, explained
A delicious Advent calendar | Mahony Chocolate calendars, wreaths in church — the season is all about anticipation. Most Christmas customs in the US share two characteristics. First, it’s usually hard to pin down their origins to a single source. And second, their roots almost always reach back to religious custom — Christmas being the second most important feast day (behind Easter) on the Christian calendar — but have since been adapted and, in some cases, scrubbed of religious content to make them more broadly palatable. The celebration of Advent, whether with wreaths in church or calendars at home, is among these customs. On the one hand, it’s one of the major seasons celebrated by most Christian churches in the Western tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many additional Protestant churches mark the roughly month-long period with special observance. But the word Advent comes from the Latin word for “arrival” — adventus — which means non-Christians can celebrate it simply as a fun countdown to Christmas. In that respect, it’s also become a marketing opportunity for retailers, mostly through Advent calendars, which have been around since the 19th century and have of late grown steadily more, shall we say, creative. Most modern Advent calendars don’t technically cover the season of Advent Most Advent calendars start on December 1. But the actual first day of the Advent season changes every year. In 2020, that day is November 29. In 2021, it will be November 28. The final day is the same every year: December 24, Christmas Eve — though many calendars run through Christmas Day. The reason for the shifting start date is somewhat straightforward. As celebrated by Christian churches in the Western tradition (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox churches, which keep a different calendar), the season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is celebrated on each successive Sunday leading up to Christmas. There are always four Sundays during Advent prior to Christmas, but Christmas could be any day of the week — which means the distance between the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day varies. So the length of the season shifts from year to year: In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday, which means the season stretched over a total of 28 days. Last year, it was 24 days long. This year, it’s 26 days long. Advent calendars, though, are more consistent. They’re all set up for a 24- or 25-day season, beginning December 1 and ending on Christmas Eve or, sometimes, Christmas Day. The reason for this is practical: Since the length of the Advent season changes from year to year, it’s easier to pick a fixed number of days for a calendar that can be reproduced or reused every season. And Advent calendars are reused all the time. When I was growing up, the Advent calendar in our house had a picture of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger, with little windows that we opened and read aloud — each contained a verse from the Christmas story. Other people had Advent calendars that held a piece of chocolate to be eaten each day. FooTToo Everybody’s dream Advent calendar: big presents, every day! Since the mid-19th century, Advent calendars have morphed to fit their time Advent calendars (in one form or another) were adapted some time in the 19th century by German Lutherans as a way to mark the days of the season leading up to Christmas. By the early 20th century, calendars were being manufactured and published in Germany, aimed at delighting kids during the holidays. In a chilling development, when Nazi Germany attempted to change Christmas from a religious holiday to an occasion to praise the fatherland (Jesus’s Jewish origins being troublesome for Nazis’ racist ideology), it latched onto the Advent calendar as a way of inculcating loyalty into children. In 1943, a full-color calendar was produced by the Third Reich for distribution to German mothers; it included, among other things, designs that incorporated swastikas and other Nazi symbols. On one day, it has pictures that appear to tell the traditional Christmas story — Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger — but the text that accompanies the images is about a woodcutter, a soldier, and a king who get lost in the woods and encounter a woman with a baby who has wise words for them. Following the war, with cardboard no longer rationed, Christian-themed Advent calendars made their way stateside thanks to the boom in production and the GIs who sent them home to their families. They got a boost in popularity when Newsweek published a photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandchildren with an Advent calendar in 1953: Eisenhower’s grandchildren with an Advent calendar, published in Newsweek in 1953. Advent calendars have remained popular in the years since, often marketed with the suggestion that they help children count down the days to Christmas, presumably to keep them from bugging their parents every day about how many days are left until they can open presents. Sometimes pockets in the calendar can be filled by parents with toys or treats, small gifts to satiate the excited child. (One can detect some commonality between this and traditions around gift giving during Hanukkah.) As such, Advent calendars aimed at children abound. Parents can help children put together a charm bracelet, or let them discover the art of Norman Rockwell. There are chocolate Advent calendars in all shapes and sizes. There are calendars with puffy, soft shapes that slowly form a nativity scene or depict the adventures of Olaf from Frozen. There’s a Funko Fortnite Advent calendar, a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar, and a whole bunch of Playmobil Advent Calendars. A specifically Christian variation called a “Jesse Tree” combines the Christmas tree with an Advent calendar, taking its cues from Isaiah 11:1, which many Christians take to be a prophecy about Jesus: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Jesse was the father of King David, who is said to be an ancestor of Jesus, and a tree depicting this lineage was often the subject of stained-glass windows in churches. Ornaments with symbols that tell the Christmas story are placed on the Jesse Tree each day until, by Christmas, it’s full. Participants can buy all kinds of Jesse Tree ornament sets, from rustic wooden ones to whimsical felt ones, or just make their own. While Advent calendars were mainly used by religious families (and the Third Reich) for much of their history, they’ve now expanded to include non-ideological and adult audiences. Today, Advent calendars are available for virtually any taste, interest, or price point. Many Advent calendars serve as a way for brands to deliver 24 samples of their products into the hands of potential customers — not a bad marketing move in a month typically associated with spending money. If customers like the sample, the reasoning goes, they’ll be inclined to buy the full-size version with their Christmas money. (This is in keeping with custom: The first chocolate Advent calendar was produced by Cadbury in 1958.) Among the Advent calendars aimed at disposable-income-laden adults, there are calendars for Godiva chocolate, Diptyque scents, Sephora beauty products, Bonne Maman jams and honeys, and dog treats. Pop culture fans can indulge their love of TV shows like Friends or The Office or films including The Nightmare Before Christmas or the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (by way of Funko Pops). Or you can sample a variety of themed products: jerky, whisky, gin, scotch, rum, craft beer, cheese, and candles. Advent calendars don’t necessarily have to be physical objects, however. Music lovers can download a musical Advent calendar app from Naxos, and web design geeks can indulge in the digital 24 Ways Advent calendar, which dispenses design and coding advice over the 24 days leading up to Christmas. Some towns — like the English city of Henley-on-Thames — create living Advent calendars. In a very cool custom I think the US ought to adopt immediately, some Nordic countries traditionally show an Advent television series, called a Julekalender, beginning on December 1 and running until Christmas Eve — think of it as a limited miniseries. The tradition started on radio in 1957 and first ran on Swedish television in 1960. Sometimes the show ties into a paper calendar that can be purchased in stores, and each day what’s behind the day’s calendar flap ties into the show. (An American radio show called The Cinnamon Bear was broadcast in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and was similarly arranged — six times a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas.) But though Advent customs differ, they all circle back to adventus: the anticipation of something. Advent calendars are designed for anticipating the arrival of Christmas Day, in both its explicitly religious and more secularized versions. The roots of Advent celebration, though, predate 19th-century Germany — stretching way back into the traditional Western Christian tradition, before Advent calendars were invented. That celebration has its own symbolism tied to the Christian calendar, and it’s still carried out in churches all over the world to this day. Advent’s roots in Christian tradition persist to this day Nobody seems to know precisely when the Western Christian church started marking Advent as a season on its calendar. But it seems to have popped up early in church history, and has stayed remarkably stable since about the Middle Ages. The easiest way to understand the Christian church’s calendar is as a sort of live immersive theater, designed by tradition to reenact the life of Jesus every year from Christmas (birth) to Easter (resurrection), with readings in traditional churches that revisit stories from the gospels each year during that time. Advent — adventus — is the part of the calendar that’s all about anticipation. In Christian teaching, there are two events being anticipated. Part of the observance of Advent, celebrated for the four Sundays before Christmas, is reenacting the centuries of anticipation of the birth of Jesus as written about by prophets like Isaiah in the Old Testament. Many songs traditionally sung during the season have lines recalling this waiting period, such as “O Holy Night” (“Long lay the world in sin and error pining / ’Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth”). That’s also why the early parts of Handel’s Messiah quote the prophet Isaiah before they get to the more familiar Christmas parts: The lyrics for “Comfort Ye My People” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” for instance, correspond directly to the readings from Isaiah 40 that a person might hear in a church pew during Advent. But Christian theology also contains a belief that at the end of days, Jesus will return to set things right in the world, erasing death and suffering — a concept usually called the Second Coming. So in addition to being about the anticipation of Jesus’s birth (the first coming), Advent is also set aside as a time of quietness and austerity, meant to keep Christians from glossing over the brokenness of the world and to encourage them to anticipate the Second Coming. “Joy to the World” — which, in traditional Christian practice, should only be sung at the conclusion of Advent — contains a verse summarizing this side of the celebration: “No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” Religious observance of Advent comes with its own set of symbols In churches that celebrate Advent, the most common factor across denominations is the Advent wreath, which was adopted around the Middle Ages. It’s like a normal Christmas wreath, but presented horizontally, often on a podium at the front of the church (though people often have them in their homes as well). There are typically candleholders for tapers in the wreath. The colors vary slightly from denomination to denomination, but the wreath always has four candles on it — typically three dark purple or blue, one rose-colored — and a white candle in the middle to light on Christmas Eve. Xavier DeMarco A typical Advent wreath, with traditionally colored candles. On each of the four Sundays of Advent, the corresponding number of candles are lit: one on the first Sunday, two on the second, and so on. If there’s a rose candle (which is meant to symbolize joy), it’s lit on the third Sunday, which is around the midpoint of Advent, a time to celebrate that the waiting is nearing its close. In keeping with the theme of waiting and remembering, Advent is also traditionally marked with a fast, similar to the Lenten fast that many people (even those who are only marginally observant) practice during the 40 days before Easter. Advent is shorter than Lent, and the fast is less widely practiced, but generally people choose to give up something — a type of food, a practice or habit, and, in many recent years, social media — in order to focus on prayer and preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Additionally, some churches change the colors of the cloths and linens used in the sanctuary during Sunday services — often to purple. Churches hold off on singing jubilant Christmas songs, instead opting for Advent hymns, the most popular of which is probably “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a translation of a Latin hymn. Some churches make a practice of giving away more money or participating in other community-wide practices during the season of Advent. (One newish example is the Advent Conspiracy, started by a loose affiliation of mostly evangelical churches in 2006 to combat hyperconsumerism and help fund clean water initiatives.) As with pretty much every Christmas custom, though, Advent doesn’t just belong to Christians who celebrate it — it has expanded to include everyone who takes part in the holiday, whatever meaning they take from it. Every Advent observance, regardless of whether it includes a religious element, touches on a need to have a bit of beauty each day during the season. And it’s all in anticipation of future joy.
vox.com
Is the pandemic making people more generous — or more selfish?
Getty Images The data on how people are giving in 2020 may surprise you. Today is Giving Tuesday, a day that encourages everyone to refocus on doing good after the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping blitz. People have donated millions to charity through Giving Tuesday fundraisers every year since the movement kicked off in 2012. But what does generosity look like in 2020? Has the Covid-19 pandemic — and its attendant recession — made us more or less generous this year? Has it changed the way we give? We won’t fully know until 2020 is behind us because around 30 percent of total annual giving happens in December, with many people makingtheir tax-deductible donations on the very last days of the year. But we’ve already got some telling data about how much people are giving. “As far as we can tell, the overall trend line is up,” Victoria Vrana, a deputy director at the Gates Foundation, told me. She cited a study from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, which collects real-time data from several online fundraising platforms. “They’re showing an overall increase in the whole first half of the year. And the exciting part is really the increase in small gifts and new donors.” While you’d expect high-net-worth donors to give more during a crisis, you wouldn’t necessarily expect similar behavior from average people hurting from an economic downturn. Yet 56 percent of US households gave to charity or volunteered in response to the pandemic, and the first half of 2020 saw a 12.6 percent increase in the number of new donors to charity compared to one year ago. The causes that are faring especially well are the ones with an obvious connection to the pandemic, like hunger relief and health care. According to a Harris Poll survey conducted forFast Company, “hunger relief has seen the most charitable giving — 34 percent, among those who have given to charity during the pandemic — followed by religious organizations (31 percent) and health and medical organizations (29 percent).” That tracks with what Charity Navigator saw from March to October: Donations to Feeding America increased 1,980 percent year over year, and donations to Doctors Without Borders increased 131 percent year over year. It’s obviously great that donors are trying to make sure people get food and health care during a pandemic. But while nonprofits focused on Covid-19 relief are getting substantial funding in every US state — including rapid-response grants from community foundations that have raised more than $1 billion for the purpose — nonprofits doing crucial non-pandemic-related work are getting left out. “You’re seeing some cause areas get a tremendous influx, and others that are just drying up,” Vrana told me. “It’s a huge concern.” The Wall Street Journal reported in August that even as Covid-19 donations were soaring, other charities were taking a big hit; with galas, auctions, and fundraisers canceled, nonprofits were really struggling to raise the funds they rely on. A sobering reflection of this is that some 1 million nonprofit workers in the US have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. A banner year for direct cash transfers On the plus side, the global nature of the pandemic has prompted some donors to think beyond their own backyards and to embrace direct cash transfers as a way of offering relief to people across the world. “A super-interesting, huge new trend we’ve been seeing is this interest in directly giving to individuals,” Vrana said, noting that the Gates Foundation’s recently created site PowerOf.org, which aggregates vetted donation opportunities for helping people through the pandemic, includes more than 40 funds that direct cash to individuals in need. She added that trusted nonprofits like GiveDirectly, a charity with over a decade of experience distributing cash transfers, have come out in a huge way during the pandemic. GiveDirectly set up two emergency responses: one in the US, for which it has raised $118 million, and one in African countries, for which it has raised $76 million. The charity has sent cash relief to 116,000 families in the US and 342,000 families across Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, and Rwanda. “There’s something unique about how central cash has been to people’s response to this crisis. It feels different from prior crises,” Joe Huston, managing director at GiveDirectly, told me. “You’re seeing a ton of cash relief funds spin up, including people giving out cash themselves on Twitter. I haven’t seen a period like this where so many people from so many different types of philanthropy have started with cash transfers as a primary tool in their toolbox.” This year has also seen increased support for cash transfers in the form of a universal basic income (UBI). With the pandemic generating so much financial loss and uncertainty, and with federal stimulus packages failing to meet the needs of millions, advocates argued that citizens desperately need some sort of guaranteed income. Spain’s government seemed to listen, offering payments of up to 1,015 euros ($1,145) to the poorest families in the country, and Germany started a new basic income experiment in August. On both sides of the Atlantic, public support for UBI is higher than usual. When cognitive scientists Daniel Nettle and Rebecca Saxe surveyed people in the US and UK in April, May, and September, they found that the pandemic boosted support for UBI in both places. However, they also found some preliminary indications that people believe others will act more selfishly than cooperatively in a pandemic. When disasters strike, do people behave more generously or more selfishly? As the Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki has documented, there are two basic stories people like to tell about how human beings behave in times of crisis. According to one story, individuals panic, flout social norms, and behave selfishly. The crisis unleashes an amoral free-for-all as each person gives in to a scarcity mentality and decides to look out for their own interests — to hell with everyone else. The other story holds just the opposite: People are wonderfully generous in the wake of disaster! They donate money, they volunteer, they try to help their neighbors. We see more altruism and prosocial behavior during a crisis than we do in normal times. The first narrative is often seen reflected in media coverage. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, the New York Times described New Orleans as a “snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs.” And partly because of media portrayals, this lawless behavior is what many people have come to expect in times of crisis. In one study, people generally agreed with statements like “When there is an emergency, crowd members act selfishly” and “When there is an emergency, social order breaks down.” But when you look at the historical record, it actually offers a lot of support for the second narrative. “Catastrophe compassion,” Zaki writes, “is widespread and consistent; it follows earthquakes, war, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and tsunamis, and — now — a pandemic.” For example, as Covid-19 spread, volunteers around the world began creating mutual aid Google docs. In these shared spreadsheets, they jotted down their contact information and offers to bring groceries or medications to vulnerable neighbors. (Likewise, in the wake of Katrina, most people in New Orleans were peaceful and helpful to each other.) Yet people in general still tend to believe the more pessimistic story about human nature. Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University, told me that’s partly because people have internalized work from the annals of psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology (think The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins) to mean that we generally look out for No. 1 when faced with adversity. But recent work in psychology, including Aktipis’s own research with the Human Generosity Project, complicates that picture. It’s convinced her that times of crisis can bring out the best in us, so long as we’re not worried that others will take advantage of our willingness to cooperate. In early March, she and her colleagues started asking people around the world questions meant to gauge their feelings of cooperativeness. As the pandemic spread, they found that people increasingly agreed with statements like “My neighborhood and I rise and fall together” and “All of humanity and I rise and fall together.” In other words, people’s perceived interdependence with others generally increased. In fact, people’s ratings of interdependence with all of humanity were actually higher than with their own neighborhoods. And the survey respondents’ willingness to help citizens of other countries increased. So the surge in pandemic-related generosity hasn’t come as a surprise to Aktipis. As she told me, “When people are most in need, that’s when most of the giving happens.” Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.
vox.com
Joe Biden should do everything at once
Use it or lose it. | Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post/Getty Images How to succeed in hyperpolarized politics: run a blitz. Joe Biden will become the US president during an extraordinary moment in history, one that could very well prove to be the calm before the storm, a brief prelude to dissolution and illiberalism. Trump’s bid to become a full-on authoritarian failed, but Democrats could easily lose the House in a 2022 backlash. Biden could face total congressional opposition, even impeachment — as the recent baseless “stolen election” narrative has shown, if Republicans don’t have any evidence, they’ll just make something up. Or maybe Democrats will keep the House and take the Senate in 2022, and legislation will become possible! Who knows? (The Georgia Senate runoffs are another big question mark.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past five years, it’s that I definitely don’t know what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does either. What we do know is that Republicans will wage full-on war on Biden from the second he takes office. They will generate fake conspiracies and controversies through right-wing media and social media. Conservative voters will be told again and again that Biden and Kamala Harris are uniquely dangerous traitors engaged in all sorts of elaborate evil plots. The entire conservative movement, from top to bottom, will view limiting Biden to one term as its primary strategic objective. And the movement will engage in misinformation, norm violation, procedural fuckery, and outright lawbreaking, if necessary, to achieve that objective. Samuel Corum/Getty Images President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani speaks during a public hearing on November 25, 2020, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Trump and Giuliani have spread false claims about the election. The right will be what it is, what it has been becoming for decades now; expecting anything else would be madness. The question is how the Biden administration should behave, knowing all this. It would be foolish for anyone to claim to have all the answers, or any of the answers really, but in my mind the most pointed lesson about how to behave in a hopelessly partisan environment comes from Donald Trump himself. Before getting to that (suspense!), it’s instructive to take a look back at some of the experiences of the administration for which Biden was vice president. Obama’s efforts to collect and spend “political capital” were mostly for naught When Barack Obama took office in 2009 in a deepening recession, he expected to receive some Republican help bailing out the economy. It’s easy today to look back on that expectation as naive, but at the time it wasn’t unreasonable. The economy was on the brink of disaster, the need was clear, and the depth of conservative backlash was not yet as evident as it would become later. What happened instead was a wall of opposition from Republicans, built on bad-faith objections about deficit spending and government waste. With so little room to maneuver, Democrats were forced to negotiate with the tiny handful of moderate Republicans and the large handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate, holding the stimulus bill down to their arbitrary spending caps. In the end, the stimulus bill passed with zero Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate. The result was an inadequate economic boost and a sluggish recovery that hobbled the rest of Obama’s presidency. Since it was widely agreed that “political capital” was limited and Democrats could only take on one fight at a time, the question then became what to tackle next. The answer proved to be health care reform, perceived as a policy better developed and more widely supported in the Democratic caucus. In July 2009, Democrats in the House introduced a health care plan based on a system that had been road-tested by Mitt Romney in his recent tenure as governor in Massachusetts. Many Democrats thought the process would take a few months, and then Congress could move on to climate change. Instead, again and again, Republicans lured Democrats into extended negotiations, only to withdraw support at the last minute over some new bad-faith objection (see: “death panels”). That left Democrats negotiating with their most conservative members, who did much the same thing (Joe Lieberman, may his name live in infamy). In the end, talks dragged on until March 2010, when Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act. It got no Republican votes, in the Senate or the House. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images President Barack Obama and walks back to the Oval Office with Vice President Joe Biden after a statement on the Affordable Care Act in April 2014. Then it was finally time for climate change, and the strategy there was yet more clever sequencing. Obama told Republicans that if they didn’t cooperate on climate change legislation, he would regulate greenhouse gases via the Environmental Protection Agency, which would offer less flexibility and less ability to compensate hard-hit communities. The idea was that the threat of EPA regulations — made inevitable by the Supreme Court’s 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA judgment that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to the Clean Air Act — would frighten Republicans to the legislative table, where they could better defend their interests. Instead, Republicans vowed implacable opposition to all of it. They would fight furiously against legislation when it was on the table and then fight regulations just as furiously when they came up. To a cool Vulcan mind like Obama’s, it seemed entirely irrational, against Republicans’ own best interests. At that point, he had not fully internalized the extent to which the conservative movement has become unleashed id, driven more by right-wing media than by Republican politicians, fueled by resentment and organized purely to defeat the libs. In June 2009, when the climate bill passed the House, it got eight Republican votes. By mid-2010, it was dead in the water, with no hope of any Republican votes in the Senate. Democrats no longer had their filibuster-proof 60 seats, and there was nothing like the same support in the caucus that health care reform generated, so it never came to a Senate vote. It ended with a whimper, not a bang. As promised, Obama’s EPA began slowly rolling out regulations, one at a time. It wasn’t until late in his first term that auto mileage standards were finalized and into his second term before EPA got to power plants. Republicans were able to keep Obama’s Clean Power Plan tied up in court through the end of his second term. Then Trump took power and began a simultaneous all-fronts assault on Obama’s regulations, unrolling them so fast it was difficult to even keep track. Two-party partisan politics really is a zero-sum game The theme of these stories is that Democrats relied on clever sequencing over and over again, imagining some amount of political capital (“credibility”) that they could husband and spend strategically to get assistance across the aisle, at every juncture underestimating the ferocity and unanimity of Republican opposition. They kept behaving as though they would find good-faith negotiating partners, as though they were still in the postwar American era of relatively low (or at least manageable) polarization. What too few of them realized was that they were already in a new era of near-total polarization, with the population sorted into like-minded enclaves, a bifurcated media ecosystem nurturing stacked (and diametrically opposed) “mega-identities,” and voters motivated primarily by “negative partisanship,” which is to say, hatred of the other side. Nathan Howard/Getty Images Armed Trump supporters at a protest over the election results in Salem, Oregon, on November 21. A fully polarized two-party system really is a zero-sum game. Any victories or gains by one side come at the other side’s expense, even if the victory secures shared goals. The rational course for the party out of power is to fight with full intensity against everything, always, and that’s what Republicans did under Obama. With scarcely any exceptions, from 2010 through 2020, they pushed in every case for maximal partisan advantage, no matter the stakes or possible cost. The GOP has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite a few close calls, but otherwise, its unprincipled pursuit of raw power has paid off handsomely. The party captured state legislatures in 2010 and was able to gerrymander itself minority rule in several states. It practically shut down Congress as a legislative body for six years of Obama’s term. It blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and for its efforts got Neil Gorsuch. It ignored Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wishes and for its efforts got a 6-3 conservative Court majority that could last for generations. Republicans blocked so many Democratic judicial nominations that Senate leader Harry Reid had to get rid of the judicial filibuster to keep the courts staffed. Then, when the GOP took control of the presidency and Senate, it used the absence of the filibuster to pack the federal courts full of hyper-ideological, young, often woefully unqualified judges. Rather than paying any price for total partisan warfare, Republicans were rewarded in 2016 with the presidency and both houses of Congress. After carrying the country to the brink of authoritarian crisis, it has now lost the House and the presidency. But Joe Biden has been left to tackle a virtually uncontrolled pandemic and millions of people out of work and on the verge of homelessness or food insecurity. The GOP will likely retain control of the Senate, which means there will be no adequate economic recovery package and none of Biden’s ambitious campaign plans will come to fruition. It has kept control of key state legislatures, so it will be able to gerrymander itself an advantage for another decade. FairVote Gerrymandering, illustrated. The elections of 2022 will be another partisan brawl, and the odds are stacked against Democrats; the president’s party has lost seats in every first-term midterm in the past 100 years, save three (1934, 1998, 2002). If Republicans gain full control of Congress, impeachment becomes a real possibility, even if conviction is very unlikely. It’s a grim situation, and Biden is starting out behind the eight-ball. How should he proceed? Biden should run a blitz Here we return to the lesson that Trump has to teach Biden about life in hyperpolarized politics. To wit: blitz. Do everything at once. No matter what the Biden administration does, it will be accused of socialism and corruption by the right. And the past several years have richly demonstrated that conservative parts of the country, particularly rural areas and low-density suburbs, are almost completely captured by right-wing media, from Fox on the TV to AM conservative radio to Sinclair-owned local news to the profusion of shady Facebook sources and groups, where misinformation is rapid and rampant. Democrats badly need to address this media asymmetry. Despite what conservatives have convinced themselves, mainstream media outlets like CNN are not analogous to Fox, and Democrats have no comparable radio, local TV, or social media operations to carry their messages and narratives straight to voters where they live. But that is long-term work, and 2022 is right around the corner. The only thing Biden will have real control over is his administration and what it does. And his North Star, his organizing principle, should be doing as much good on as many fronts as fast as possible. Blitz. By constantly blundering forward, Trump has helped chart which US institutions and norms provide real resistance and which don’t. The courts have tangibly restrained Trump; they have been the primary bulwark against him. But the chattering of the media and the political classes? Moral outrage? Precedent and tradition? Civil protest? All of these have proven gossamer. Trump charged right through them like they were cotton candy. By constantly acting, being on the offensive, generating new stories and controversies, he simply overwhelmed the ability of the system to fasten on any one thing. Biden should learn the lesson. All that matters is what gets done, put on paper and into law. The rest is vapor. The administration should staff up as rapidly as possible with ambitious young progressives and tell every single civil servant that the next two years are going to be a full sprint. Start immediately rewriting and reimplementing the environmental, public health, and worker safety regulations Trump has weakened. Reverse his immigration policies. Drop his lawsuits. Reassess the social cost of carbon. Replace Trump’s weak Affordable Clean Energy rule with more stringent carbon rules for the power sector. Ditch EPA’s “secret science” rule and restock scientific advisory boards with actual scientists. Put a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases on public land. Pledge the purchasing power of the federal government — around $500 billion a year — toward clean energy technology. Shutterstock One significant change the federal government could make: electrify postal trucks. Through the Office of Budget and Management (OMG), direct federal financing toward carbon reduction and clean energy across agencies. Use the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to reject regulations from any agency that do not include both a climate and equity “screen” to ensure that they reduce emissions and help the most vulnerable. Use the powers conferred by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to integrate climate risks into the financial system. I’ve written more about what Biden can do on climate change without Congress. Vox’s Dylan Matthews took a wider policy view with 10 big things Biden can do with executive powers, from forgiving student loan debt to reigning in factory farming. More ideas can be found here, here, here, and here, among other places. There’s no shortage of ways for Biden to deploy the powers of the presidency, and he should maximize every one of them. The new rule of partisan politics is to act, not react All of these moves will elicit howls of outrage and court challenges from the right. Many will also infuriate the left, since they will inevitably fall short of Biden’s grand campaign promises. Biden can’t control any of that. Doing less, negotiating more, relying on clever sequencing, chasing after receding promises of cooperation — none of that will solve anything, any more than it did for Obama. He can reach across the aisle, make it clear his door is open, but he shouldn’t wait around for anyone to walk in. Biden’s best chance is to try to overwhelm the system the way Trump did, by doing so much that it’s impossible to make any one thing into a lasting story. He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people. To succeed, all this must happen alongside Democratic Party efforts to improve messaging and media, get persistent party infrastructure on the ground in communities the party has neglected, and innovate on voter outreach and persuasion. (Aaron Strauss has some good ideas on that front.) But Biden has something the rest of the party at the federal level does not have: the power to improve Americans’ lives in a visible way. More than anything else, cynicism about government’s ability to do that is corroding US politics. The best thing Biden can do, morally and politically, is act, as much and as fast as possible, and then talk about it, and do more of it, and talk about it more. (And he should be clear about exactly who stands in the way of bigger, better changes, and why his name is Mitch McConnell.) The rest of it, he should ignore: the Washington chatter about the latest Republican accusations or catty infighting among Democratic factions, the cable news story or Twitter drama of the day, the latest offensive thing Trump or some Trump surrogate said, all of it. Bulldoze through it. The president has limited ability to control political discourse and drama, but he has an enormous capacity to change policy and direct resources. Biden should use that power while he has it, without hesitation or apology.
vox.com
The high rate of executions during Trump’s last weeks in office, explained
Anti-death-penalty activist Judy Coode demonstrates in front of the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on July 13. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Trump has scheduled more federal executions than any president in at least a century. When five Black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park in 1989, prominent businessman Donald Trump bought newspaper advertisements calling on New York state to “bring back the death penalty” in the wake of the attack. Little did the country know, Trump’s views on capital punishment then would inform his presidency decades later: In July, the Trump administration reinstated the death penalty at the federal level after a 17-year hiatus. The return of federal executions demonstrates an unprecedented and grim picture of Trump’s legacy in contrast to previous administrations. The Washington Post’s editorial board described it as a “sickening spree of executions.” To put it in perspective, only three people had been executed by the federal government in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, in less than five months, eight people have already been put to death by Trump’s Justice Department, with five more executions scheduled to happen before Trump leaves office. “The Trump administration’s policy regarding a death penalty is just historically abhorrent,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a bipartisan organization that does not take a position for or against the death penalty, but rather is critical of the way capital punishment is administered. If the remaining executions in December are carried out — making a total of 10 for 2020 — it will mark more civilian executions in a single calendar year than any other presidency in the 20th and 21st centuries. “No one has conducted this number of federal civilian executions in this short period of time in American history,” Dunham added. Of the five upcoming federal executions during the lame-duck period, four of them are Black men, while the fifth will be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. These federal executions come in concert with the rallying cry for racial justice and an overhaul of America’s policing and criminal justice systems that has left a disproportionate number of Black people arrested, jailed, convicted, and dead. More than 44 percent of the remaining 54 people on federal death row are Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, even though Black people make up only 13 percent of the US population. “The fact that we’re having a record-high number of federal executions, at the same time that we’re near a record low in state executions, in the middle of a pandemic, shows how much the Trump administration is either out of touch or that it cannot resist gratuitous acts of cruelty,” Dunham said, adding that only seven state executions will occur this year — the lowest since states began carrying out executions in colonial times. “Nobody needs to carry out an execution during a pandemic.” Just last week, the Justice Department also published a rule that would allow other methods for capital punishment, such as firing squads, lethal gas, and electrocutions; Attorney General Bill Barr is currently racing to finalize that rule. Trump’s push for additional methods and a number of federal executions will be part of his presidential legacy and highlights a stark divide between the administration’s actions and dwindling support for the death penalty among Americans. Four Black men are scheduled for federal execution weeks before Trump leaves office On November 19, Orlando Hall, a Black man sentenced to death for kidnapping, rape, and murder in 1994, became the eighth and latest inmate to be executed by the federal government since it reinstated federal executions this summer. He is also the first in more than a century to be put to death during a lame-duck period. Shortly before Hall was executed by lethal injection, the US Supreme Court had denied his request to stop the execution — with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the majority ruling. While Hall is the second Black man to be executed out of the eight so far since July, the remaining men scheduled to be put to death are all Black. “In an apparent effort to forestall criticism that the federal executions were racist, the administration selected white prisoners first,” Dunham said; the executions were reinstated as racial justice protests broke out across the country this summer. “What’s striking about that, though, is that it still tells us a lot about whose lives matter because only one of the people executed so far was convicted for killing an African American.” Brandon Bernard, convicted of kidnapping and murder, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on December 10. Bernard, who is also Black, was only 18 years old when he committed crimes that resulted in the deaths of a young white married couple in 1999. But five of the nine surviving jurors who supported the death penalty at the time now believe it is inappropriate. Even Angela Moore, the federal prosecutor who helped put Bernard on death row, wrote an op-ed in the Indianapolis Star making a case for why the federal government should let him live. “I always took pride in representing the United States as a federal prosecutor, and I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor,” Moore wrote. During his time in prison, Bernard has been a model prisoner, mentoring at-risk youth. “Having learned so much since 2000 about the maturation of the human brain and having seen Brandon grow into a humble, remorseful adult fully capable of living peacefully in prison, how can we say he is among that tiny group of offenders who must be put to death?” Moore wrote. Alfred Bourgeois, a Black truck driver in Texas who was convicted of abusing and killing his 2-year-old daughter in 2002, is scheduled for execution the day after Bernard. Bourgeois’s execution was originally scheduled for January 2020 but was halted by a federal judge who blocked the Trump administration’s early moves to bring back the federal death penalty. Bourgeois’s lawyers then argued to suspend his death sentence on the grounds that he’s entitled to an intellectual disability evaluation under the Eighth Amendment. The next two inmates on death row are scheduled for execution in 2021 just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. Cory Johnson, who was convicted of murdering seven people during a drug trafficking operation in Richmond, Virginia, is scheduled for lethal injection on January 14. Like Bourgeois, Johnson’s lawyers argue that there is overwhelming evidence that Johnson has intellectual disabilities. On January 15, Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be put to death for a crime committed in 1996. The Justice Department claims that Higgs kidnapped and murdered three women, but the Daily Beast reports that while he was present at the scene of the crime, witnesses confirm that Higgs did not kill anyone. Co-defendant Willis Haynes fired the shots, but the Justice Department argues that Higgs coerced his friend Haynes into committing the crime. But Haynes, who was sentenced to life in prison, confirmed through a signed affidavit that Higgs did not coerce him, saying, “the prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit. Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.” The other person on the Justice Department’s execution schedule is Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first woman set to be federally executed in nearly 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery killed a pregnant woman and then attempted to pass off the baby as her own. Montgomery, who Dunham said has severe mental illness due to an abusive past, was initially scheduled for execution by lethal injection on December 8, but it was delayed due to her lawyers contracting Covid-19. The Justice Department is fast-tracking new rules on the death penalty before Biden’s inauguration Trump is the first president in 17 years to reinstate federal executions, despite a recent poll showing that a record-low number of Americans consider the death penalty “morally acceptable.” Even across party lines, the death penalty has been a historically contentious issue. Since the US Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, state governments have been doing most executions, though those have declined in the past two decades, too. In addition to pushing through federal executions over the past five months, the Justice Department published a new rule to the Federal Register on Friday that would allow the use of other methods for capital punishment. The new regulation reintroduces the use of firing squads and electrocutions for federal executions in addition to lethal injections. The new rule is set to go into effect in 30 days instead of the generally allotted 60 days. As it stands for the remaining inmates awaiting execution, only Higgs appears not to have a method of execution stated on the Justice Department’s schedule — the rest are marked for lethal injection. The Trump administration’s move, among many others, is another thing President-elect Biden — who has signaled at various times that he would end the federal death penalty — will have to face once in office. Biden, a political veteran, has repeatedly addressed criticism during his presidential campaign over the role he played in passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, also known as the 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton. The bill allowed the expansion of crimes eligible for the federal death penalty, which aided the conviction of some of the inmates now awaiting execution. (Hall was only eligible for the death penalty because the crime bill added kidnapping resulting in death to the list of crimes.) The Trump administration is trying to cut corners and fast-track dozens of rules that range from oil-drilling in the Arctic to immigrant restrictions, as well as the death penalty rule, before Biden takes over. If the rules are finalized, the new administration would have to go through a convoluted process to roll them back. But since Biden has pledged to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example, the new death penalty rule may virtually not be of use in his administration. “Unlike the environmental regulations or policies making it more difficult to negotiate on trade or world safety, the Biden administration can take as much time as it wants to undo this regulation,” Dunham said. “Undoing it isn’t that difficult. I believe the regulation is intended to make it easier for the Trump administration to carry out the remaining lame-duck executions.” The bigger question is how Biden’s administration will transform a historically racist criminal justice system while also healing the wounds brought by the Trump administration. “The Trump administration’s conduct, when it comes to criminal legal issues, has been highly political, and mostly out of step with the direction that most of the United States is heading,” Dunham said. “When push came to shove, it reverted to policies that are more extreme in their cruelty and the arbitrariness of their application than anything else we have seen in modern American history.” The Trump administration’s push for federal executions, while the country has been preoccupied with the election and the pandemic, is no different.
vox.com
Trump’s pardon shenanigans are ramping up
Rudy Giuliani speaks to the press about various lawsuits related to the 2020 election, inside the Republican National Committee headquarters on November 19, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Flynn is likely just the start. Outgoing President Donald Trump kicked off what will likely be the first in a series of pardons of his associates last week, with his pardon for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators back in 2017 — but that’s not all Trump pardoned him for. The typical way pardons work is that the recipient is pardoned for specific crimes. But Flynn’s stands out because it also has preemptive aspects — that is, it’s written broadly to try to pardon Flynn for possible crimes he hasn’t even been charged with. Preemptive pardons aren’t unprecedented, but they are unusual, and come far closer to a sort of presidential declaration that the president’s associates should be above the law. And Trump’s use of the tactic for Flynn hints at just how far he could go in his final weeks in office. Several of Trump’s former top campaign advisers — Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone — have been charged with or convicted of specific crimes, for which they could be pardoned. (Trump already commuted Roger Stone’s sentence but has not yet granted him a full pardon.) The universe of potential preemptive pardons, though, is far broader. For while many Trump associates have been charged with crimes, an even greater number have been investigated but have not faced any charges. For instance, there’s the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt reported Tuesday morning that, “as recently as last week,” Giuliani discussed “the possibility of receiving a pre-emptive pardon” from Trump (though Giuliani denied this on Twitter). Federal prosecutors in New York have probed Giuliani’s business activities and indicted two of his associates. And some of Trump’s allies are urging him to take preemptive pardons even further. “I’d tell President Trump to pardon yourself and pardon your family,” Fox host Sean Hannity said Monday. It remains unclear whether Trump will try to go that far (particularly, a self-pardon may not be legal and the president can’t pardon state crimes), but it’s clear enough that his lame-duck pardon shenanigans are only getting started. The Flynn pardon is very broad, and much of it is preemptive In December 2017, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements (lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador). Since then, his case has become a protracted legal saga — first Flynn tried to withdraw his plea, then a new Justice Department team sought to have the case against Flynn thrown out, and the judge in the case, Emmet Sullivan, has been weighing whether he should permit this latter move. Last week, Trump announced that he had pardoned Flynn, but no documentation for that pardon clarifying its parameters was released until Monday night. Here’s what it looks like: Court filing Flynn’s pardon The pardon begins by listing the crime to which Flynn pleaded guilty: making false statements to federal investigators. But it covers a whole lot more than that. Flynn is also pardoned for: “any and all possible offenses arising from the facts set forth in” the charging documents in his case (Flynn also admitted making false statements in Foreign Agents Registration Act filings about his work for the government of Turkey) any offenses “that might arise, or be charged, claimed, or asserted in connection with the proceedings” in his case (for instance, there has been some discussion about whether Flynn could be charged with perjury by admitting his guilt under oath in court and then changing course) “any and all possible offenses within the investigatory authority or jurisdiction” of special counsel Robert Mueller, and “any and all possible offenses arising out of facts and circumstances known to, identified by, or in any manner related to” Mueller’s investigation (that is, if Mueller found anything else that Flynn could be criminally charged for, the pardon is meant to cover that) So this is not a typical pardon, targeted at crimes someone has actually been charged with or convicted of. It’s a preemptive pardon, designed to shield Flynn from being charged in the future. In that respect, it’s similar to the unconditional preemptive pardon President Gerald Ford granted his former boss and predecessor Richard Nixon — a sweeping pardon for any criminal offenses Nixon may have committed during the course of his presidency. The Flynn pardon is not quite as broad as that, but it’s clearly tailored to try to wipe out the possibility that Flynn will face any further charges connected to the current case against him, or in any way related to the Mueller investigation. Will Trump issue more preemptive pardons? The New York Times has already confirmed that one preemptive pardon is under discussion — for Giuliani. Late last year, news broke that federal prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) were scrutinizing Giuliani’s business and finances, exploring his contacts with former top Ukrainian officials, and investigating a host of potential crimes (including obstruction of justice, money laundering, serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, mail fraud, and wire fraud). Two of Giuliani’s associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted on charges of campaign finance violations that October. The pair allegedly had been helping Giuliani make connections with Ukrainian officials who claimed to know of scandalous information about the Biden family, that could be helpful to Trump. (The revelation of Trump and Giuliani’s efforts to get dirt on Biden from Ukrainian officials eventually resulted in Trump’s impeachment.) This year, there have been few new developments in the matter. CNN reported that the investigation into Giuliani “was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, limiting prosecutors’ ability to interview witnesses, collect further evidence, and meet with the grand jury.” Giuliani has not been charged, but if this investigation is serious and still underway, he’d obviously be hoping for a pardon while his client is still in charge of the executive branch. There has also been some discussion — at least from Sean Hannity — about preemptive pardons for members of the Trump family. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. faced scrutiny in the Mueller investigation but ultimately wasn’t charged. Trump himself also was probed for obstructing justice, but Mueller opted not to charge him, in part because Trump was the sitting president. President Trump could attempt to pardon himself, but it’s unclear if that would be legal (a popular theory among the #Resistance is that Trump will resign early and let newly installed President Mike Pence pardon him). One issue here, though, is that the president has no power to pardon state crimes — and he is currently under investigation for potential bank and insurance fraud in New York state. Now, if Trump truly does plan to run for president again in 2024, he might have political reasons to hold back on the broadest assertions of his pardon powers. Then again, he might feel he’s appropriately laid the groundwork to defend those moves, having disparaged any investigations of himself or anyone close to him as “witch hunts.” All that’s clear now is that his pardons are only getting started. Some who want pardons are backing Trump’s “stolen election” lies Finally, there’s been a notable pattern among some who are likely seeking pardons: They’ve tended to champion Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Giuliani, of course, has been in charge of Trump’s post-election legal fight, spreading false claims of widespread voter fraud while reportedly seeking a preemptive pardon. Attorney Sidney Powell — Flynn’s lawyer — stood up with Giuliani at a press conference two weeks ago making particularly bizarre claims of fraud. (She asserted that the voting systems company Dominion rigged the vote against Trump, in part because there was “communist money” involved and that the company had ties to the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.) Powell has filed lawsuits as well filled with similarly false claims. (Flynn himself has said “there is no doubt in my mind” that Trump won in a “landslide.”) Bannon, too, has been spreading false information advancing Trump’s stolen election narrative, and has been advising Giuliani behind the scenes, according to the Washington Post. Whether or not there was any explicit quid pro quo involved here, it’s clear that all these people were interested in pardons (in Powell’s case, for her client), and that all these people knew the importance of pleasing the man who could issue those pardons. Indeed, the main champions of Trump’s post-election fraud lies have been people who wanted Trump to pardon somebody — which is revealing of how much bad faith is at play here.
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“The stakes are life and death”: Addiction treatment’s Covid-19 challenge
A door is painted with a message to stop selling heroin on a street in a neighborhood with a high rate of poverty and illegal drug use on October 14, 2016, in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images The government eased access to drug addiction treatment during the pandemic. Now that could go away. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced much of the US to lock down in the spring of 2020, officials and experts worried the necessary social distancing measures would make another public health crisis — the opioid epidemic — worse. Addiction treatment is traditionally done in person, and restrictions on gatherings and closed businesses would make it much less accessible. So the federal government responded by easing rules for getting into treatment virtually — making it easier for treatment providers to retain patients and attract new ones. Even before the pandemic, experts had been calling for making treatment easier to get in the US, and the new rules were a big step forward. But with vaccines for the coronavirus moving through clinical trials and the end of the pandemic in sight, advocates are worried that the old rules will snap back into place — making it harder, once again, to get people into addiction treatment. Officials relaxed federal rules in several ways. They allowed doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, an evidence-based medication for opioid addiction, over video or audio calls without requiring an in-person evaluation. They also made it easier to prescribe the medication across state lines, which previously required prescribers to be licensed in both states. And they eased rules for take-home doses of methadone, another proven opioid addiction medication, which traditionally is administered daily to patients at an in-person clinic. State and federal officials also made it possible for public health insurance programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, to pay for telemedicine addiction treatment services. And some places received permission to go further — for example, delivering methadone to patients rather than requiring they pick it up in person. Providers say the changes really helped. Many of them had to go virtual almost overnight, as the threat of the coronavirus became clear to much of the country. But they had feared they wouldn’t be able to prescribe necessary medications at all, given the arduous rules on such drugs, possibly putting their patients at risk of relapse, overdose, and death. Things haven’t gone perfectly, but the relaxed rules, providers and experts say, have helped avoid the worst of it. “It was incredibly challenging [for us], as it was for all providers,” Alexis Geier, vice president of government relations at the addiction treatment provider CleanSlate, told me. “Thankfully, we really didn’t lose many patients. … That was only possible because of what the federal government did in response to public health emergencies.” Addiction treatment has long been difficult to access in the US. According to federal data, only 1 in 10 people with a drug use disorder get specialty treatment. Multiple problems play into that treatment gap, including a lack of local providers, high costs, and poor insurance coverage. Much of the treatment provided lacks evidence, or even rejects evidence-based modalities, and can even be downright fraudulent — leaving potential patients resistant to getting care in a broken system. That’s why, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, activists and providers were calling for making it easier to prescribe addiction medications. Pandemic or not, some patients have always struggled with transportation, or lived in underserved areas that would require a lengthy trip to get treatment. For these patients, getting prescriptions by telemedicine or phone, or simply having to go to a clinic less often for medication, would help. On the flip side, the patients who now rely on these services to get treatment, regardless of the pandemic, could stand to lose if the relaxed regulations expire. That’s what those in the field are now worried about: If those patients lose their means to treatment, they might give up on it altogether. That would come at a particularly calamitous time for the opioid epidemic. Even before the pandemic, drug overdose deaths were trending up. But with the pandemic and continuing spread of the potent opioid fentanyl, overdose deaths have skyrocketed this year: On April 2020 (the latest month of data), there were nearly 78,000 drug overdose deaths, based on preliminary federal data — a 13 percent increase from the same time last year, setting up 2020 to be the worst year for overdose deaths ever. That’s not, advocates and experts say, a sign that the measures easing access to addiction treatment failed, but rather that the measures didn’t and couldn’t go far enough to address a rapidly worsening overdose crisis. While the measures likely helped ease some of the pain brought on by Covid-19, they couldn’t resolve all the hurdles to treatment in America. That’s a case for building on the relaxed rules, not taking them away when the pandemic subsides. “The stakes are life and death,” Kelly Clark, president of the advocacy group Addiction Crisis Solutions, told me. “We know, absolutely, that people who are taking their maintenance medications like buprenorphine for opioid addiction have a decreased chance of dying prematurely because of their addiction compared to those who aren’t on medications. This is very clear.” Providers now worry the lax rules could go away soon Two of the three federally approved medications for opioid addiction, methadone and buprenorphine, are among the most regulated drugs in the country. Methadone is only administered at specialized clinics — requiring patients to go to a clinic as often as daily to get it, and only letting them earn the ability to take some doses home over time. Buprenorphine can be prescribed by a doctor and picked up at a pharmacy, like other medications, but it still requires the prescriber to go through a special certification, and starting a patient required an in-person medical evaluation. Then the Covid-19 pandemic came, almost immediately making these requirements unfeasible for patients and providers who now had to get and do treatment virtually. So federal agencies took advantage of the federal public health emergency declared to combat Covid-19 to ease the rules — making telemedicine, including video and audio calls, more feasible for buprenorphine, and easing rules for methadone take-home doses. Local and state agencies followed suit. But the changes are only in effect until the public health emergency expires. That’s left advocates and providers worried, and they’re increasingly sounding the alarm — as early as possible — to get Congress or other officials to act. They’ve called on federal lawmakers to pass the TREATS Act, which would make many of the rule changes permanent, as soon as possible. “Speaking for [the American Society of Addiction Medicine], ASAM would love to see the TREATS Act passed with any kind of legislation that goes through during this lame-duck [period], so that we don’t have to face this other unknown coming into the year,” Clark, former president of ASAM and vice chair of the group’s Covid-19 task force, told me. The typical argument for keeping the old rules comes down to fears of diversion: that the medications will be diverted to a black market for recreational uses. Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids, and, though they’re very effective for treating addiction, they can be misused. So loosening access to either too much, the argument goes, could lead to the drugs ending up in the wrong hands. As the Drug Enforcement Administration put it, “Under normal circumstances, DEA would not consider the initiation of treatment with a controlled substance based on a mere phone call to be consistent with the framework of the [Controlled Substance Act] given that doing so creates a high risk of diversion.” Providers take these concerns very seriously, and have adopted a range of practices, such as regular urine screenings, to make sure people are actually taking their medications and not relapsing. Many providers are concerned that loosening the rules too much, and simply doing treatment virtually, could make it harder to prevent diversion. At the same time, some experts argue that concerns about diversion are overblown. For one, some research suggests that diversion is a result of people not being able to legally obtain buprenorphine or other treatment, forcing them to resort to illegal means of getting the medication. So the stricter regulations could be causing more diversion, not preventing it. That indicates a balancing act is needed. If it turns out, in the pandemic, that expanding telemedicine for buprenorphine increases access without much more, if any, diversion, then maybe the right balance is more toward a laxer regime than the longstanding laws and rules suggest. “These agencies are trying to balance the public safety side of making these changes with the public health side,” Geier, who previously worked on addiction treatment under the Obama administration, said. “From a CleanSlate perspective, the benefit of these things far outweighs those [diversion] concerns.” Some researchers are working to find out if that’s the case, studying how virtual treatment has worked throughout the pandemic. A JAMA Psychiatry article noted there’s a dearth of research on the role of telemedicine in addiction treatment, including whether it improves access and can be done without significantly increasing diversion. “That could be really helpful in getting people on board,” Allison Lin, lead author of the JAMA Psychiatry article and an addiction psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Michigan and the VA Center for Clinical Management Research, told me. “We do need more research to provide that data. We don’t have those kinds of answers just yet.” Short of that, providers are sharing their own experiences, arguing that they’ve been able to maintain a level of care, and even gain some patients, throughout the pandemic despite the obvious disruptions Covid-19 has brought on. But they also worry that losing the new tools they have now could lead to the opposite result once the pandemic is over, fueling a drug overdose crisis that’s already getting worse. Effective addiction treatment is inaccessible to many Americans Although the Covid-19 pandemic has in some ways overshadowed it, America’s opioid epidemic is still in full force. It’s in fact gotten worse this year, based on the data we have. The widespread sense of isolation and despair that many people have felt this year, coupled with greater difficulty finding help for such problems as many places close down, has contributed to more drug overdose deaths. Paired with that, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has continued to supplant heroin in more of the illicit market — and in part because it’s so potent, it’s more likely to cause overdoses and deaths. “While our attention has gone to Covid, and rightly so, our overdose deaths have skyrocketed,” Clark said. “We have to keep overdose deaths on the map.” One of the key contributors to this crisis all along has been lack of access to evidence-based treatment. Good treatment remains very difficult to get in the US — it can cost tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, and despite those high costs, it’s still frequently of bad to mediocre quality. One family I spoke to last year told me that they spent $200,000 on treatment before they found something that worked. That’s an extreme example, but it’s not rare, based on the thousands of responses to Vox’s survey about the issue, for people to spend an exorbitant amount on treatment and end up with little to nothing to show for it. That’s not because evidence-based treatment doesn’t exist. For opioid addiction, the medications are truly proven to work well. Studies show buprenorphine and methadone reduce all-cause mortality among opioid addiction patients by half or more, and they do a far better job of keeping people in treatment than non-medication approaches. There are all sorts of other good treatment modalities for other kinds of addiction, including medications and paying people to stay in treatment (known as contingency management). But these evidence-based approaches are dramatically underutilized. According to federal data, only 42 percent of the nearly 15,000 facilities tracked by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide any type of medication for opioid addiction. This is largely driven by stigma — the faulty notion that medications replace one drug for another, even though the medications are proven to improve outcomes compared to continuing to use illicit drugs. So there’s a dearth of providers for evidence-based treatment. When those providers are available, they might not be covered by insurance, and cost thousands out of pocket. If someone has gone to a treatment facility before and ended up with a bad experience due to shoddy, evidence-less care, they also might be skeptical that there’s good help out there at all. That all makes treatment less accessible, and people less receptive to it. That’s why much of the work to combat the opioid epidemic, from legislation passed by Congress to state efforts to more localized approaches to lawsuits, has gone to expanding access to treatment: If truly effective treatment exists, then it’s just a matter of making sure it’s available to the public. Along those lines, activists had pushed for more access to telemedicine for years. Of particular concern were underserved areas with few providers — like rural West Virginia, which has a massive overdose crisis and not enough addiction treatment providers to handle demand from patients. Telemedicine can make it easier for existing providers to serve other areas in the state, or even people in other states entirely. It’s also about expanding the spectrum of care. Every person dealing with addiction is different. Some people are fine with being on medications; some people aren’t. Some will like treatment through Zoom or phone; some won’t. Some have a car; some have no reliable transportation. By offering a variety of options for what care is delivered and how, the hope is fewer people won’t get into treatment because there’s not an option for them. “It’s not to say everybody should get telehealth, or everybody should get in-person [treatment],” Lin said. “It was just that, before, everybody was in person because that was the only option available.” Covid-19 has made a lot of things worse, including the opioid crisis. A silver lining to all of this is it’s also given us a big, ongoing experiment to see if a telemedicine model can work for addiction care. Some providers are now hoping that the eventual end of the pandemic isn’t the end of that experiment — given that it may be helping stave off what’s already the worst drug overdose crisis in American history.
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Pop culture’s department stores taught us what to want
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox In movies like Splash, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Women, the department store is where we go to learn middle-class values. There’s a French movie from 1930, black-and-white and silent, that begins with a young country girl named Denise walking into Paris. Upon her arrival, Denise is greeted by ads: sign after sign, billboards, banners, parades, fliers that blow right into her outstretched hands. And all of them are advertising just one thing: the city’s grand new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, The Ladies’ Paradise. At this magical new department store, from which the film takes its title, Denise can find whatever she wants. That’s what the ads promise her: The department store holds all that you desire. The department store is one of the great movie and TV backdrops of the 20th century. Expansive, luxurious, and filled with props that lend themselves to everything from comedy to romance to horror, department stores are by their nature cinematic. The camera sweeps lovingly over their racks upon racks of goods in movies and TV alike: Splash, Mad Men, Miracle on 34th Street, The Queen’s Gambit, Dawn of the Dead. Department stores are where we go to find all that we desire. And they teach us what it is that we’re supposed to desire, too. Under capitalism, you are what you buy. If you’re a respectable member of the bourgeoisie, for most of the 20th century, you buy at a department store. So the department store offers pop culture a place for teasing out issues of class, and specifically the middle class. For nearly a century, the department store has been where pop culture has gone to think about the middle class. And now, as the American middle class compresses, the department store is leaving, too. At the department store, you can learn to become a real girl Arguably the greatest cinematic innovation of the department store film is the makeover montage. The chance to watch characters try on identity after identity, and every last one of those identities is for sale. And at the center of the makeover montage is the character learning how to perform class and gender, how to become respectably middle class, and how to live out a hegemonic gender identity. This idea goes back to Au Bonheur Des Dames, which features Denise, newly hired as an in-store model at that fancy department store, learning how to walk and dress the way a bourgeois woman walks and dresses. She paces back and forth through the models’ dressing room in her slip while the other models laugh and jeer at her, but by the time the store hosts a fashion show, she’s learned how to sway her hips correctly. And it stretches to this year, when 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit sees chess prodigy Beth go straight to a department store with her chess winnings so she can buy proper suburban ’60s teen black-and-white saddle shoes, all the better to lord it over the mean girls at school who mocked her for her orphanage-standard brown ones. In 1984’s Splash, when Madison the mermaid wants to learn how to be a human woman, she heads right to Bloomingdales, where a kindly saleslady informs her that her mens’ suiting just won’t do. The saleslady puts her in a miniskirt and heels, and Madison wanders over to the electronics department to watch a jazzercise class on a TV bank. Within hours, she’s speaking fluent English. Perhaps the most elaborate department store makeover montage of all comes in 1987’s Mannequin, when Emmy — a time-traveling Egyptian ghost who is also a department store mannequin; truly, this movie is exquisite — leads her window-dresser boyfriend through a variety of quick-change costumes and dances. As synth-heavy ’80s hits play in the background, rapidly they become rock stars, gangsters, vampires, and beach bums. The character justification for this montage is that Emmy longed to see the world and try out new things back when she was alive, but she never had the chance. Now that she’s a mannequin within the rich, wide world of a department store, she can do it all — kind of. She can be anyone she wants to be because the multitude of clothes offered by a department store will make her that person. Emmy doesn’t need real life as long as she has the department store. And the department store offers employment to those deserving members of the middle class who have fallen on hard times. When Mad Men secretary Joan leaves her office job upon her marriage, only to find that her husband can’t support them after all, she gets a job at a department store. When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Midge divorces her husband, before her career in standup comedy works out, she too supports herself with a department store job. But the class movement the department store offers isn’t always presented as a good thing. The adultery that powers 1930’s The Women begins when a wealthy husband goes to a department store to buy perfume for his wife, and then he ends up falling for the perfume salesgirl. And when the wife’s rich and catty friends go to the store to confront the salesgirl, such are her savvy street smarts that they end up falling into an elegant store-branded trash bin, shrieking in humiliation. When the salesgirl enters another department store as a customer and dares to meet the wife on equal footing, the wife knows at last that she has lost. Even horror movies know that department stores are where we go to reestablish our identities as safe, respectable members of the bourgeoisie. In George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, it’s the mall and especially J.C. Penney where the survivors of a zombie plague try to shelter. But the zombies are irresistibly drawn there too, by “some kind of instinct. Memory.” After all, “this was an important place in their lives.” The story of the department store in pop culture is the story of the rise and fall of the middle class In pop culture, the department store builds and reaffirms the middle class, and in this way the store itself comes to stand in for the class. Films and TV have tracked the creation and supremacy of department stores, and also their decline. And the message is clear: When the store that sells all your desires with a smile is in danger, the middle class is, too. The department store must be protected. Not that the department store is always in danger. When Au Bonheur des Dames hit screens in 1930 and codified the tropes of the department store movie, the department store is the big new bully on the street, and it’s destroying Denise’s family boutique drapery. It drives her uncle to madness, and after he runs at the department store with a gun, he’s fatally run over by one of their trucks. The shop’s owner, stricken with remorse, offers to give the store up — but Denise, seeing the writing on the wall, tells him no: He must keep the store and marry her. Together, they will make Au Bonheur des Dames into the biggest store in the world, never mind what lives are destroyed in the process. That is their dream; that is capitalism. By 1947, Miracle on 34th Street sees the department store transcending any questions of bullying other stores or being in any danger itself. The Macy’s where Kris Kringle sets up shop simply is, as eternal and unchanging as the vision of Christmas that Hollywood was at the same time busily enshrining into American popular consciousness. And when Kris Kringle institutes a new policy of sending shoppers to competitors if Macy’s doesn’t stock exactly what they’re looking for, it comes across as an act of condescending noblesse oblige. Of course Macy’s can afford to be generous. Everyone knows that its competitors don’t pose it any real threat. When the store that sells all your desires with a smile is in danger, the middle class is, too But by the time Mannequin came around in 1987, the classic grand and gracious department store of the beginning of the century — stores like the Herald Square Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street — was already in danger. The tawdry new-money department store had arrived to threaten it. In Mannequin, Emmy’s store of choice, Prince & Co., is represented onscreen by Philadelphia’s iconic Wanamaker building. Wanamakers was the first American department store, and it’s built like a cathedral, with a giant organ that spans multiple stories of the vast marble mezzanine and an ethos of fine craftsmanship and personalized customer service. Prince & Co. is facing stiff competition from trashy nearby Illustra, which features plastic hangers, windowless underground shopping levels, faceless modern mannequins, and budget-friendly low prices. But Emmy and her boyfriend are able to bring a new level of prestige and excitement to Prince & Co. with their groundbreaking window displays — which means that as they save Prince & Co. from Illustra, they’re saving a specific idea of what it means to be middle class. The trajectory these films outline is one in which stores get progressively more and more impersonal and soulless. And every time they do so, our pop culture warns us, we take a step away from beauty and humanity and a step toward alienation and self-loathing. But the journey doesn’t end with the transition from elegant Prince & Co. to cheap and convenient Illustra. Since the 1980s, department stores have slowly faded out of popular culture’s present day. Sure, Rachel on Friends worked at Bloomingdales, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a shootout in a department store in 2005. But generally, department stores have stopped feeling all that relevant to pop culture that’s meant to be contemporary and urgent. Instead, over the past few decades, when department stores have shown up in the movies or on TV, they’ve tended to be in period pieces, where part of the point is to get lost in the glamour of a bygone world: Cate Blanchett swanning through a department store toy floor in her fur coat in 2015’s Carol; Rachel Brosnahan pitching the perfect red lipstick on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. And in 2015, a new show emerged about a store that continued that promise to sell you all that you desire. “One-stop shopping for everything you could ever need,” is how this new store is described in the opening of the first episode. “Do you want to be thinner, fatter, happier, sadder? Are you looking for friendship? Solitude? Or even love?” This new store was there to sell them all to you. But it’s not a department store. The show is Superstore, and the store it’s describing is Cloud Nine, a big-box store in the mold of Walmart or Target. That’s the new place our pop culture sends us to find everything we desire: a store just as destructive to mom-and-pop businesses as Au Bonheur des Dames was, but without the seductive trappings of luxury and glamour to compensate. The new signifier of the middle class is a lot more precarious and a lot less beautiful than the old one was. And the superstore isn’t the last step, either. After all, if there’s a single place in the world that’s going to sell you all that you desire, that will take us to the final word on convenience, affordability, and alienation, it’s not the department store. And it’s not the superstore, either. It’s the Everything Store. It’s Amazon.
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This week in TikTok: The only election that mattered
The TikTok Room awards might be the future of celebrity fandom. Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email rebecca.jennings@vox.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here. The only awards show that mattered this year went down over the weekend, but you couldn’t watch it on TV. It happened on Instagram, on the most important account for Gen Z social media stars and their followers: TikTok Room. It’s hard to overstate the influence of TikTok Room to the growing world of the micro-famous (and now, some actually famous) TikTokers who comprise the most followed users on the app. Like the Shade Room, which it is directly modeled after, the account posts gossip and other hard-to-find morsels of drama, like deleted tweets, recordings of livestreams, or screenshots of comments, replies, and likes between popular creators. During the pandemic, when kids and teens are living their lives online and spending less time with classmates and friends, digital dirt is more essential than ever. When I wrote about TikTok Room in February, the account had nearly 300,000 followers; now it has almost 2 million. Most importantly, TikTok Room is run by two regular fans who are anonymous outside of their first names: Elasia, a 19-year-old college student in New Jersey, and Nat, a 17-year-old high schooler in Texas. Its graphic design and branding may seem slightly amateurish, but that’s also what makes it feel so authentic: Nat and Elasia are just genuinely so obsessed with creator culture that the account posts dozens of times a day, often within minutes of major drama occurring. (I asked Elasia if she considers herself a journalist; she said, “We don’t post fake tea.”) All this is to say that when TikTok Room announced that it would be holding its first awards show in November, it was a pretty big deal. Nominees such as Charli D’Amelio, Bryce Hall, and Loren Gray encouraged their fans to vote for them in categories like “Best Dance Creator,” “Best Clapback,” “Least Problematic Female,” and “Best Ship” (for creators who haven’t confirmed their relationship status but whom fans love to see together). Voting took place last week via Google Form, and the results, which were rolled out in a series of timed Instagram posts on Saturday night, included pie chart breakdowns of the voting results for transparency. View this post on Instagram A post shared by First Ever Tiktok Shaderoom (@tiktokroom) The winners were not particularly surprising. Beauty YouTuber James Charles won “Best Makeup.” “Best Role Model” went to body-positive creator Sienna Gomez (as did “Least Problematic”). Charli won “Most Achieved Female,” and “Best Dance Creator” went to “Say So” choreographer (and Vox profile subject) Haley Sharpe. These are the users TikTok is synonymous with, and that says volumes about the future of social media stardom: These users are, for the most part, white, cis, thin, and primed to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from their followings. Maybe more pressingly, the TikTok Room awards prove how little “real” awards shows matter anymore, and how much mainstream celebrity culture has to catch up on. According to the awards’ results, nearly 500,000 votes were cast, which would illustrate an enormous rate of user engagement for the account’s 1.9 million followers. There are rapidly expanding and increasingly niche fandoms for more and more TikTok creators, and the power rankings are constantly in flux. We already know how overnight fame can affect young people’s lives and mental health — especially when it goes away. These mechanisms are already in hyperdrive, and they’re getting faster. Whatever this sort of attention does to the influencers themselves, TikTok Room and its marquee awards are a wildly impressive feat for two regular teenagers who might be the future of entertainment media. Though kids under 18 may not have been able to vote in that other election last month, to some of them, the TikTok Room awards might have been the one that mattered more. TikTok in the news ByteDance has been given yet another deadline extension to sell TikTok to US ownership. (It’s now December 4.) An amazing holiday present would be to give up the whole charade and let us TikTok in peace. “How did I end up on Cartel TikTok?” is a question you’ll see asked a lot on social media, as videos of dozens of bags containing what are assumed to be illegal drugs or exotic pets and luxury cars have popped up on hundreds of thousands of TikTok users’ feeds. Yet according to experts on organized crime, it’s all just “narco-marketing” — that is, “the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the bloodbath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.” Relatedly, many TikTok users, including me, have been served videos that appear to be filmed in North Korea. Some appear to be staged; for instance, one video shows people waiting at the top of a staircase seeming to wait for a cue. The account describes itself as “North Korean residents sharing their current daily life” and says it is produced in the Chinese city of Dandong, next to the North Korean border. But like all media that purports to come from North Korea, where citizens are subject to some of the world’s most extreme censorship measures, its origins and intentions are suspect. Former Target employees are claiming on TikTok that Target will “let” you steal from stores, all the while tracking everything you take over time until the total is more than enough to prosecute people for grand larceny. Current Target employees, DM me! Here’s a cool mini-doc on how LGBTQ Muslims are building a community on TikTok. Megan Thee Stallion remains Thee queen of TikTok trends. One Last Thing Sick of seeing everyone’s perfectly color-coordinated Christmas trees on Instagram Stories? Here is a TikTok for those who appreciate a tree with, uh, “character.” @patriciapollicino #greenscreen #fyp my tree> ♬ all I want for christmas distorted - sadie monday
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The pandemic is changing college. Let’s reconsider GPAs while we’re at it.
Getty Images/iStockphoto American higher education, with its focus on grades and metrics, often trains students for a lifetime of capitalist service — whether they want it or not. In the beginning of November (otherwise known as college application season), I came across Darya Nouri’s PSA to high schoolers on TikTok, which went viral with 1.3 million views. “In HS I studied 24/7, never did anything fun, was in a million clubs, and took all APs,” she captions the beginning of her video. The camera transitions to a friend flipping off the camera. “This mf had beef w every teacher and dropped his only club and had fun. We both ended up at the same college. Don’t be me. Go have fun.” Her TikTok is an ode to the movie Booksmart, which follows a high school gunner obsessed with getting into the Ivy League. In one of my favorite scenes, the main character finds out that a seemingly underachieving classmate will be attending the same school as her. She feels shocked, even cheated. As the scene ends, a voice in her head echoes, “You’ve worked harder than anyone who’s ever doubted you. Worked harder, worked harder, worked harder …” This theme speaks to a growing culture among many students, in part because of the ways so many schools in the United States foster gatekeeping and competitive environments. “Working hard” is expected to result in acceptance to a “good” college, followed by the promise of a job. And when peers who have “worked less” end up at the same institutions, there is a feeling of unfairness, followed by questions like “Could I have gotten away with less?” The education system has come to reinforce capitalist ideas, teaching students that anything is possible with hard work and that their achievements are deserved, even though academic institutions are structurally designed to be inequitable. GPAs and test scores, for example, are shallow and easily skewed representations of intelligence, but are still widely used to determine admissions and funding. In light of the pandemic, schools are finally being forced to attempt alternative forms of evaluation and learning, and to more deeply consider students’ needs. I attended a competitive public high school in a Southern California suburb, where attending SAT prep classes in the summer was a norm. The school had the kind of reputation that drew families to the area, hoping to get their kids zoned. Classes started at 7:30 am, and students who participated in extracurriculars usually didn’t leave campus until 5 pm. Exhaustion and burnout culture were so glorified that the school eradicated class rankings in an attempt to ease competitiveness. Nerds were more respected than jocks, and at the end of every academic year, a Facebook group circulated for students to announce what college they had committed to. I enjoyed learning but didn’t participate in the cutthroat environment, especially after watching my friends stress. When I moved on to higher education, I took what I needed from institutions (degree credentials, facilities and resources, certain classes and professors) and went through the motions for anything that didn’t serve me (testing, core classes, awkward networking). My brother, on the other hand, had dreams of becoming a lawyer since age 15 and often worked until he had permanent bags under his eyes. In high school, he slept an average of five hours a night and was part of a friend group that vigorously pulled all-nighters, completed assignments others might call busywork, enrolled in a mix of AP and “easy A” courses to boost their GPAs, and strategically divvied up club leadership positions. “Every November,” he told me, they “underwent a hell week that we saw as a rite of passage,” consisting of mock trial, Model United Nations, and debate tournaments that ran over multiple days. When he fell sick during one of these hell weeks, a friend guilt-tripped him for ditching the group. After college, my brother worked as a paralegal; many of his high school peers also went on to work at law firms, banks, or management consulting firms, places where employees work with intangible assets and joke about “selling their souls.” Years of throwing themselves into the school system had primed them for the late nights and tedious tasks that corporate jobs all but require. Their positions could be lauded as measures of their intelligence and hard work, but they are equally due to their access to resources. Years of throwing themselves into the school system had primed them for the late nights and tedious tasks that corporate jobs all but require There are numerous barriers to entry in academic institutions, including letters of recommendation, GPA minimums and degree requirements, insufficient access to disability accommodations, legacy admissions/nepotism, narrow teaching methods, segregation and lack of school resources, and the questions of time and money: who has to work and support their families while attending school; who can afford private tutors, extracurricular fees, test prep courses, and tests themselves; whose parents have the time and ability to help with schoolwork. Students who are able to overcome systemic barriers are often championed as tokens of diversity and proof that anything is possible with hard work, when these success stories are, for the most part, singular exceptions to the rule. Thousands of nonprofit organizations act as external lifelines, hoping to fill in the education system’s failings. Questbridge’s National College Match pairs “the nation’s most exceptional low-income students with leading colleges and opportunities,” supporting students with full scholarships or generous financial aid. Programs like these, along with specialized public schools that require testing to gain admission, might seem like generous offerings, and in many ways they’re invaluable to students who might otherwise be excluded altogether. But they do distract from the larger question of why students must prove themselves “exceptional” to have access to a fair education, one free of student debt and the strings that often come attached with nonprofit grants and scholarships. In Oakland, California, there is a long history of non-privatized alternatives to the school system, starting with the Black Panther Party’s youth institutes and programs in the 1960s and ’70s. Designed to serve the community without government restrictions, these programs had as their mission to “educate to liberate,” directly challenging capitalist views of education and providing a blueprint for future organizers. My friend Vohid Ergashkulov immigrated to the US from Uzbekistan when he was 15, and quickly became dissatisfied with the public high school he attended in Brooklyn. “I’m an active learner and like studying through asking questions, gaining experience, and making mistakes,” he said. “When you go to school here you sit and listen and don’t have an objective. The subjects we had to take weren’t interesting, and the teachers didn’t take the time to explain things. I wasn’t good at American math, but I was good at math back home.” Vohid later spent two years at a community college, earning an associate’s degree before deciding that the payoff of a four-year degree wasn’t worth pursuing. Instead, he opted to explore advancement directly in the workforce. “When you go to school, you learn how to work for someone else. I didn’t want to learn how to work for a salary. I wanted to be a self-learner.” In many non-corporate industries, grades are no longer as heavily weighted as work experience, with references and résumés more closely scrutinized than transcripts. Camila Bustos, who completed her undergrad at Brown University in 2016 and is a current JD candidate at Yale Law School, is going into public interest rather than corporate law. “For public interest organizations, although grades matter, what matters most is your experience, so how you lived your summers and what kind of clinic experiences you’ve had,” she said. “I’ve never really been asked for my transcripts — maybe once, which is kind of hilarious for law school. At the same time, corporate firms want Yale Law students no matter what.” Both universities Camila attended have moved beyond the traditional 4.0 grading scale: In 1969, Brown implemented a “New Curriculum” that eliminated GPA calculations, allowing undergrads to opt for as many pass/fail classes as desired. Instead of using grades to assess students, they promoted evaluations based on student work portfolios, course performance reports, and letters of recommendation. Yale Law School also experienced a period of student-driven reform around the same time, replacing traditional letter grades with pass, low pass, and honors (H) categories for the top third of each class. The change was an attempt to ease student competition, but some say it unintentionally put a high premium on H’s and extracurriculars. Camila is a big proponent of the pass/fail system. During the pandemic, a fall survey was sent to Yale Law students, essentially asking, “How should we grade you?” Camila reported, “All of the affinity groups — the first-generation students, Latinx students, Black students, the Asian American Association — and a huge majority of the student body voted to continue credit/fail because we’re still in a global pandemic.” Despite the overwhelming student response, the faculty voted to continue the honors/pass/low pass system, citing studies that claim minorities and first-generation professionals are scrutinized in ways that those with privilege are not, therefore making it more difficult to compare them without grades. “There’s this idea that if you open the floodgates and allow more flexibility for students then they’re not going to care, but I think the pandemic shows us that isn’t true” Camila did not find this argument compelling, considering Yale’s prestigious reputation. “The reason why firms are going after Yale Law grads is not because of our grades, whether that’s a P or an H; it’s because they assume we’re the smartest of the smartest, which I disagree with — I think people end up at this school for structural reasons — but they assume that and end up offering jobs and trying to recruit students from these institutions.” The only way for small reforms to have any widespread impact is for powerful institutions to hold themselves accountable and push for inclusivity. Camila continued. “I think that if schools like Yale and Harvard don’t take the lead and say, ‘Let’s think differently about how we measure success, and let’s think in a more innovative way,’ then it’s so much harder for schools that don’t have the resources, the legitimacy, the reputation. There’s this idea that if you open the floodgates and allow more flexibility for students, then they’re not going to care, but I think the pandemic shows us that isn’t true.” It’s also worth considering why people privilege the actions of historically “elite” institutions and look to them as role models in the first place. During the pandemic, many universities adjusted their admissions processes by making SAT and ACT scores optional, but in many cases this furthered the gap between students rather than diminishing it. If testing locations near them closed, high schoolers who were financially able would go as far as road-tripping or flying to different states to take the SAT, while others were left without options. Similarly, some law schools now accept GRE scores instead of only requiring the LSAT, yet many students still feel limited because this standard isn’t consistent over a wide range of schools. When the onus of reform is left to individual, privatized schools, particularly powerful ones, there is no incentive to change the system or culture of elitism. Underrepresented and marginalized students are left to “work hard” in an attempt to infiltrate the university, but when they do make it, they often aren’t supported. Intentionally or not, our current mode of academic institutions has sold a false American dream under the guise of education, warping people’s ideas of what learning can and should be.
vox.com
4 looming foreign policy crises that could derail Biden’s agenda early on
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks to a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, South Korea. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Afghanistan could cause short-term problems for Biden’s long-term global agenda. President-elect Joe Biden may want his administration to focus on long-term issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rebuilding alliances, and America’s relationship with China, but some key near-term foreign policy problems will likely require his attention first. After the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by an unknown attacker, Iran might be less willing to engage in diplomacy with America and instead seek revenge by targeting US officials. North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile early in Biden’s term to try to gauge the new administration’s response. The last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia is set to expire just over two weeks after Biden takes office. And the reduced number of American troops in Afghanistan could derail sputtering peace talks and worsen the country’s security situation. Such a dilemma wouldn’t be unique to Biden. Every new president comes in with ideas on how to handle larger global problems, only to have the colloquial “tyranny of the inbox” monopolize their time. “If you assume that foreign policy is less than half, and maybe a quarter, of the president’s time, then that really shines a light on how serious this inbox problem is,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank. Once he’s in the Oval Office, then, Biden will likely find his hopes of tackling grander foreign policy challenges dashed by the effort he’ll have to expend cleaning up more immediate messes. What follows is what four of those messes could look like. Iran could try to assassinate Israeli or American officials The 2015 nuclear agreement among Iran, the US, European powers, Russia, and China put tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Obama administration’s goal was to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon diplomatically instead of by military force. But President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal in 2018, reimposed financial penalties on Iran, and asked European countries to cease their business with the country. That kicked off a years-long cycle of escalations that, among other things, has seen Iran stockpile 12 times the amount of low-enriched uranium the deal allowed and the assassinations of two prominent Iranian officials. The first took place in January, when the US killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary forces and one of the most powerful men in the country. Iran promised to exact a “harsher revenge” in response; so far, that revenge has consisted mostly of attacks on US forces and assets by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. The second killing happened last Friday, when the mastermind behind Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was fatally shot inside his vehicle near Tehran, reportedly with a remote-controlled weapon. No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israel has been suspected of orchestrating similar assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in the past. Iranian Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images The funeral of Iranian top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, is held at Imamzadeh Saleh Shrine in Tehran, Iran, on November 30, 2020. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already blamed Israel for it — and added his own threat. “Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time,” he said in a Saturday speech. If Iran were to respond to these assassinations by escalating attacks on US personnel in Iraq or by attempting to assassinate US or Israeli officials, it would pose a major challenge for a Biden administration. “Certainly a retaliation that led to the killing of an American in a theater like Iraq would create serious complications for the Biden team,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East expert at the RAND Corporation. The president-elect has often stated that America’s commitment to Israel will remain “ironclad” under his presidency. If Iran were to directly or even indirectly attack Israel, Biden would be under a lot of pressure to support Jerusalem in some way. All of this, of course, would lead the US and Iran further down the path toward war and away from a possible diplomatic resolution. “Such responses are likely to undermine the chances for diplomacy with Biden and easing of US sanctions,” Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. However, Iran could use the threat of an attack as a pressure tool, she continued. “Iran could instead hold back its retaliatory moves — maintaining it will respond at a time and place of its choosing. This way Iran has some more bargaining chips when it comes to potential future talks with the Biden administration and Europeans.” What Iran does or doesn’t do in the coming months, then, could greatly impact Biden’s grander foreign policy plans. As the oft-quoted saying goes: “The enemy gets a vote.” North Korea could test its most powerful missile yet Within the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, North Korea tested a long-range missile and a nuclear device. And in Trump’s first year in charge, Pyongyang test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date. Some experts warn that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may make similar provocative moves in the early stages of a Biden administration. “North Korea is one of those challenges that no one really wants to deal with right now, since there are no easy solutions or pathways to slowing down the growth of the program. But Kim has a way of putting himself back on the high-priority list,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at MIT. There are many ways Kim could do that, but one in particular stands out: He could conduct the first test of the new ICBMs he displayed during an October parade. Those missiles were not only the biggest ever seen in North Korea’s arsenal, experts also said they were the largest road-mobile missiles with their own truck-based launchers in the world. In case of a war, then, North Korea’s military could roll these missiles out of underground bunkers, place them somewhere on land, and shoot them at the United States. A test simulating that kind of launch would rank among the most threatening actions ever taken by Pyongyang — surely ratcheting up tensions with the US in the process. High resolution of the new North Korean ICBM. pic.twitter.com/gpd6CileNd— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) October 10, 2020 The new missiles haven’t been tested yet, though, and they may have issues North Korea still needs to fix. That’s why many experts predict Pyongyang will probably test one in early 2021, in part to see how it goes and in part to send a message to Biden: North Korea is a nuclear power, and you can’t do anything about it. Such a provocative move would require some sort of response from the Biden administration. That doesn’t necessarily mean war, said Elizabeth Saunders, a US foreign policy expert at Georgetown University. But it could mean more sanctions on North Korea, reinstating US military drills with South Korea, sending more US warships to the area, or all of the above. Figuring out the best response could take up a lot of time and energy early in Biden’s term, leaving less time and energy to address some of his longer-term policy objectives. Russia could play hardball on arms control New START, short for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, is a nuclear arms control agreement signed between the US and Russia in 2011. The pact limits the size of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, which together account for 93 percent of all nuclear warheads on earth. The problem is that the deal — the last major arms control accord between Washington and Moscow still in effect — is set to expire on February 5, 2021. That gives Biden just 16 days after becoming president to extend the pact. Biden has committed to extending New START, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to extend it for at least one year. Most experts believe Biden and Putin will swiftly extend the agreement before the deadline. “My impression is that Russia still regards an extension of New START as being in their interest,” said Sarah Bidgood, an expert on Russia’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. Alexei Druzhnin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images Russia President Vladimir Putin chairs a video meeting of the Pobeda (Victory) organizing committee at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on July 2, 2020. But the short timeline could give Moscow an advantage to extract some early concessions from the Biden administration before greenlighting an extension. The Kremlin, experts say, could demand Biden lift Trump-imposed sanctions on the country, or ask that the US make a statement praising Russia’s military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s unclear if such requests would truly be of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. Moscow might want to see what it could get, if anything, before agreeing to an extension. Still, such a move could take the US and Russia to the brink of losing New START and decades of arms control efforts along with it. What’s more, Bidgood said, a tough negotiation could follow after the extension, especially if Washington and Moscow don’t prolong New START for the full five years allowed under the deal. The potential for nuclear-related trouble with Russia right at the start of a new administration, then, could be a time suck for the Biden administration. Fewer US troops in Afghanistan could derail peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban With just two months left in office, the Trump administration is rushing to wind down the 19-year US war in Afghanistan by cutting the number of US troops in the country from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15 — five days before Biden is to be sworn in. But while many on both the left and the right in the US support bringing that war to an end, experts worry such a quick withdrawal will harm America’s interests in the country. “It’s hard to imagine a less responsible way to withdraw,” Jason Dempsey, a former Army infantry officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, told me earlier this month. The main concern is what leaving so abruptly means for America’s diplomatic pact with the Taliban. The deal both parties signed earlier this year said all US troops had to leave by May 2021, assuming conditions in the country are relatively peaceful and the Taliban has upheld its end of the deal, which includes engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government and not attacking international forces. Those peace talks began in September but are not going very well — not least because Taliban fighters have increased their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians across the country in recent months. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images US Army soldiers during NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to the Italian-run military base “Camp Arena” on November 7, 2018, in Herat, Afghanistan. Dempsey, who’s now at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said pulling more US troops out of the country as those negotiations proceed could hurt Kabul’s negotiating position and encourage even more Taliban attacks. “Giving away any leverage you have as you leave is a pretty stupid way to go about it,” he told me. The question is what Biden would do with the forces Trump plans to leave him with. The president-elect has said he wants to keep at least some troops in Afghanistan to serve as a counterterrorism force, so it’s possible he may not change anything when he takes office in January. But if the smaller US presence emboldens the Taliban to ask for more in diplomatic talks with the Afghan government, or even attempt a forcible takeover of the Afghan government — as it did in 1996 — then the Biden administration might have to scramble to back its ally in Kabul. That could potentially lead the new president to escalate the war in the country, thereby turning much of his time and attention away from other projects to focus on an old one.
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