Congress isn’t going to save the housing market
Real estate agents work an open house in West Hempstead, New York, on April 18. | Raychel Brightman/Newsday RM via Getty Images Build Back Better doesn’t build enough. More than 580,000 Americans are homeless. The median sales price for a home has just surpassed $400,000. Homeownership is on the decline. This, by all accounts, is a national emergency — and one House Democrats had proposed $330 billion to tackle as part of their Build Back Better plan. That dollar figure was both a once-in-a-generation number and barely enough to scratch the surface. Now, even those proposed investments are being cut down as part of negotiations over the final package. Perhaps more worrisome is the apparent lack of willingness to tackle the root of the problem. When Covid-19 hit last year, officials took groundbreaking steps to help keep people in their homes — a nationwide eviction moratorium, tens of billions in rent relief, and state and local protections too. Plans from the White House and different senators highlighted that they were willing to take bold action to increase housing supply in a country facing a 3.8 million housing unit deficit. Then the housing portion of the Build Back Better plan was floated. And it became clear that while some in Congress were willing to make substantial investments, very few were willing to tackle the fundamental problem that was making homes so expensive in the first place: Lack of supply. Yes, it’s easier to try to help people afford something expensive than to try and make it less expensive to begin with. But many of the policies that try to subsidize housing actually make it more expensive. “What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill,” says Paul Williams, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute. I spoke with Williams about what the new, cheaperplan Democrats are coalescing around could mean: for people looking around the housing market and finding very few options, and for people struggling with the basic need to obtain shelter. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Jerusalem Demsas So the housing proposal in Build Back Better — what’s in that? Paul Williams The Build Back Better housing plan really addresses decades of under-investments in affordable housing and housing supply at the lower end of the market, which is something the government traditionally has been needed to support in order to correct market failures at the lower end. So the big bucket items in the Build Back Better plan are: Investments in the public housing capital backlog. So this is public housing that we invested in over the decades, then cut funding for in the ’90s, and now those buildings have two decades of deferred maintenance and there’s all these problems in these buildings. [The funding is]so that they don’t literally fall apart. Another big bucket item is housing choice vouchers and project-based vouchers, which are two rental assistance programs that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)runs. One of them is the tenant gets the voucher that they can use to help pay their rent and the other goes to a building and then all the tenants who live in that building get rental assistance. Another big bucket is investments in the Housing Trust Fund and the home investment partnership program, which are basically grants which can be used as grants or loans to contribute to new affordable housing production projects. Jerusalem Demsas Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot of attention paid to the housing crisis. On one end, there are tenants struggling to stay housed as they were hit hard by the economic effects of Covid-19. And on the other, there’s been a really hot housing market where homeownership seems to be a dying dream for millennials and historically disadvantaged groups. How well do you think these big buckets you’ve outlined address these two concerns? Paul Williams I think that the biggest ticket items in the original proposal were really about either creating or preserving existing affordable housing at the lower end of the market. It’s the people at the very lower end of the market who are least able to weather the storm [of Covid-19]. And that’s where most of these investments lie: in preserving those existing lower-end units and creating new ones. On the homeowner side, there’s a piece in this proposal that is downpayment assistance for first-time homebuyers. You know, it’s a difficult thing because housing prices are really hot right now, but the lending that’s actually happening is like almost 80 percent to people with credit scores above 760. So it’s all people with very high incomes and very low debt loads. And this is with extremely low mortgage rates. So, downpayment assistance in a lot of places isn’t really going to help people break into this really hot housing market. What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill. Jerusalem Demsas Yeah, it seemed earlier this year that there was energy around exclusionary zoning reform. [Exclusionary zoning laws, which range from banning multifamily housing to requiring certain numbers of parking spaces in or near homes, artificially constrain the number of homes built in an area]. There were proposals from the Biden administration and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and there were blog posts coming out from the Council of Economic Advisors about how much restrictive zoning was responsible for a lot of our housing affordability woes. What happened there? Paul Williams So, in the original proposal there was around $5 billion for a carrot incentive program for local municipalities. The idea being you can get a small amount of money from the HUD if you hire some planners and have them do a zoning study. And then if you implement some of those changes you could get even more money. So, you know, I don’t personally think that the amounts that are in there are really going to swing the pendulum for a lot of jurisdictions, particularly those with some of the most egregious policies. But I don’t really see what was in the package originally as a game-changer. Jerusalem Demsas The package has been in negotiations for a while, and there are several proposed cuts to the housing portion. Reporting seems to indicate everything gets cut — public housing, rental assistance vouchers, the housing trust fund, etc. — except for downpayment assistance, which actually goes up from $10 billion to $15 billion. This seems to be a tendency of Congress’s. Earlier this year, I covered a memo that the Treasury Department wrote to policymakers and Congress in particular, essentially pleading with them to focus on increasing housing supply. I talked about why Congress is much more willing to engage on demand-side policies [giving people money to afford something expensive] rather than on supply-side policies [making expensive things less expensive]. Do you have any thoughts about this? Paul Williams Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I agree, Congress is often more willing to engage on the demand side than the production side, and that can lead to increased prices if we don’t also build more — especially for the low-income people we’re trying to help with these programs. Downpayment assistance, I think there’s potentially an inflationary impact of that or some impact on actual home prices particularly in places where a lot of people are eligible for this program and there’s a lot of [housing] scarcity and not a lot of construction happening. With the vouchers, this is something that people have talked about this question of how do we make our housing voucher program such that everyone who is eligible can actually get it. Right now, the program is only funded such that one-fifth of the people who are eligible actually get it. Everyone else is in this potentially decades-long line. One issue with making it universal is that you give everybody this assistance [without increasing the supply of rental housing],and then you may see rents starting to go way up. And there’s a couple of things that can push back on that: If you have production that keeps pace with new rental assistance, then you’re pushing back on that. And then in cities where you have rent regulations that can keep annual rent increases from going up exorbitantly, you can also push back on that. Jerusalem Demsas Focusing on housing production elements of this bill, one area where we could see increased production is in public housing. But as you mentioned earlier, public housing funds have been deficient for a very long time so we have this massive capital backlog. That means that even with the original proposal to spend $80 billion on this, almost all of that would have gone toward just repairing those buildings — and now that seems to have been cut. Can you talk a little about what the capital backlog has meant in real terms for people living in public housing? Paul Williams So just to kind of frame it with the history. In 1998, as part of a slew of welfare reforms that President Bill Clinton’s administration moved through Congress, the Quality Housing Act really shifted the way that HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] funded public housing. The result of all these changes together was the capital expenditures have been in precipitous decline since 1999. Some of that has been alleviated by public housing authorities taking units out of public housing ... but the vast majority have not been, and the result is that these buildings are just going to fall apart around these people. This is potentially the last time Democrats are going to have full control of Congress and the presidency for, some people say, a decade. There’s no alternative here. We have to fix these buildings. Jerusalem Demsas And every once in a while, the lack of safety makes pretty big news. We hear about fires in public housing where people have actually died, and the lack of capital investments was the key factor. We also see kids growing up with lead paint in the walls — which is essentially poison to them. This is a situation where the federal government has taken ownership of a housing structure and has let people live in absolutely dire conditions where we would encourage someone to sue if this was the private market and their landlord was allowing the situation to deteriorate to this extent. Paul Williams Yes. And I’d also add that these public housing capital investments and with the Housing Trust Fund this new money for production and rehab means there is a lot of movement from public housing authorities and nonprofit developers who are building affordable housing to do carbon neutral, full electric projects. At NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority], they got a grant to develop their own new heat pump technology that would be fully electric type of heating and cooling systems for the buildings. This is technology that does not yet exist on the market so their hope is to get this working and deploy it portfolio-wide across all of their buildings. I think it’s important not to underestimate the impact that public sector procurement has on these kinds of long-term changes we need for climate change. It’s not just in vehicles, it’s also in buildings and housing. Jerusalem Demsas We’ve talked a little bit about the need to fix the existing public housing stock. And while that’s very important, we’re so far behind on capital expenditures that likely none of that money would actually [meaningfully be spent on] creating new units of affordable housing. It appears that the best chance for that in this bill is in the Housing Trust Fund dollars. How does that work? Paul Williams Yeah, the Housing Trust Fund and the home investment partnerships exist to plug all the [financing] holes because there are so many projects that come very close to getting funded and then can’t get that last piece funded, and the project falls apart. The Housing Trust Fund in particular is targeted toward the very low end of the rental market — so, very low-income and extremely low-income households. Jerusalem Demsas One of the things that’s really shocking to me is that despite all of the pain we’ve seen over the last year when it comes to lack of housing, Congress is still not even really tackling this problem. It just indicates to me how much many of these lawmakers still don’t really believe that they’re responsible for fixing the underlying problems in the housing market. And I wonder, do you think this sort of “housing policy is local” disease is going to persist? Paul Williams It definitely would be a shift for the federal government to say we have a serious stake in this issue and we’re going to wield a stick to do something about it. The federal government has not really done that in relation to what are framed as local planning issues. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of these local planning issues actually have serious national macro-level impacts on who’s able to access housing for a cost they can afford. So I think that the case is becoming more and more clear — as this problem gets worse and worse — that there is a role for the national government to do something about it.vox.com
How well can an AI mimic human ethics?
AI systems are getting a lot better — and that makes the challenges in aligning them more apparent. | Kentoh/iStockphoto/Getty Images Meet Delphi, an AI that tries to predict how humans respond to ethical quandaries. When experts first started raising the alarm a couple decades ago about AI misalignment — the risk of powerful, transformative artificial intelligence systems that might not behave as humans hope — a lot of their concerns sounded hypothetical. In the early 2000s, AI research had still produced quite limited returns, and even the best available AI systems failed at a variety of simple tasks. But since then, AIs have gotten quite good and much cheaper to build. One area where the leaps and bounds have been especially pronounced has been in language and text-generation AIs, which can be trained on enormous collections of text content to produce more text in a similar style. Many startups and research teams are training these AIs for all kinds of tasks, from writing code to producing advertising copy. Their rise doesn’t change the fundamental argument for AI alignment worries, but it does one incredibly useful thing: It makes what were once hypothetical concerns more concrete, which allows more people to experience them and more researchers to (hopefully) address them. An AI oracle? Take Delphi, a new AI text system from the Allen Institute for AI, a research institute founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The way Delphi works is incredibly simple: Researchers trained a machine learning system on a large body of internet text, and then on a large database of responses from participants on Mechanical Turk (a paid crowdsourcing platform popular with researchers) to predict how humans would evaluate a wide range of ethical situations, from “cheating on your wife” to “shooting someone in self-defense.” The result is an AI that issues ethical judgments when prompted: Cheating on your wife, it tells me, “is wrong.” Shooting someone in self-defense? “It’s okay.” (Check out this great write-up on Delphi in The Verge, which has more examples of how the AI answers other questions.) The skeptical stance here is, of course, that there’s nothing “under the hood”: There’s no deep sense in which the AI actually understands ethics and uses its comprehension of ethics to make moral judgments. All it has learned is how to predict the response that a Mechanical Turk user would give. And Delphi users quickly found that leads to some glaring ethical oversights: Ask Delphi “should I commit genocide if it makes everybody happy” and it answers, “you should.” Why Delphi is instructive For all its obvious flaws, I still think there’s something useful aboutDelphi when thinking ofpossible future trajectories of AI. The approach of taking in a lot of data from humans, and using that to predict what answers humans would give, has proven to be a powerful one in training AI systems. For a long time, a background assumption in many parts of the AI field was that to build intelligence, researchers would have to explicitly build in reasoning capacity and conceptual frameworks the AI could use to think about the world. Early AI language generators, for example, were hand-programmed with principles of syntax they could use to generate sentences. Now, it’s less obvious that researchers will have to build in reasoning to get reasoning out. It might be that an extremely straightforward approach like training AIs to predict what a person on Mechanical Turk would say in response to a prompt could get you quite powerful systems. Any true capacity for ethical reasoning those systems exhibit would be sort of incidental — they’re just predictors of how human users respond to questions, and they’ll use any approach they stumble on that has good predictive value. That might include, as they get more and more accurate, building an in-depth understanding of human ethics in order to better predict how we’ll answer these questions. Of course, there’s a lot that can go wrong. If we’re relying on AI systems to evaluate new inventions, make investment decisions that then are taken as signals of product quality, identify promising research, and more, there’s potential that the differences between what the AI is measuring and what humans really care about will be magnified. AI systems will get better — a lot better — and they’ll stop making stupid mistakes like the ones that can still be found in Delphi. Telling us that genocide is good as long as it “makes everybody happy” is so clearly, hilariously wrong. But when we can no longer spot their errors, that doesn’t mean they’ll be error-free; it just means these challenges will be much harder to notice. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!vox.com
Shirin Ghaffary, Meredith Haggerty, Caroline Houck, Rebecca Jennings, Sara Morrison, Terry Nguyen, and Alanna Okun Promoted at Vox
The new roles further Vox’s mission of empowering people with the information and insight they need to understand the world around them. Swati Sharma, Vox editor-in-chief; Julia Rubin, Vox editorial director of culture & features; and Ryan McCarthy, Vox editorial director for politics, policy, & society; and Samantha Oltman, editor of Recode today announced several promotions across Vox. The new roles listed below for Shirin Ghaffary, Meredith Haggerty, Caroline Houck, Rebecca Jennings, Sara Morrison, Terry Nguyen, and Alanna Okun reflect Vox’s mission of providing clarity to its audience, and contextualizing the biggest stories — on topics ranging from tech regulation to internet culture to the retail landscape — in approachable, helpful, and informative ways. Shirin Ghaffary has been promoted to senior correspondent, and her beat is now more focused: She’ll report on social media policy and its intersection with politics. In her four+ years at Recode/Vox, she’s covered social media platforms, Big Tech companies, and tech labor movements by breaking big news, reporting ambitious investigative features, and writing smart and timely analysis. She also co-hosted the Google season of our Land of the Giants narrative podcast series. Meredith Haggerty has been promoted to senior editor of culture. Meredith joined the company six years ago as Racked’s features editor, and also helped launch The Goods as a deputy editor. She has been a crucial leader on The Goods, publishing high-impact pieces like Alex Abad-Santos’s SoulCycle feature and projects that span the newsroom like this summer’s consumerism package. She has such sharp instincts when it comes to culture coverage — both big and small C — and we’re excited to have her lead the culture team. Caroline Houck has been promoted tosenior deputy editor, policy & politics. In every role she’s had at Vox, from her job as part-time weekend editor in 2018 through her work as deputy Washington editor, Caroline has risen to the moment when big news hits while keeping our coverage on track and organized behind the scenes. Over the past few months, she coordinated our coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal, bringing clarity to readers at an exceptionally chaotic moment. Her thoughtful edits, sharp news judgment and empathetic management has shaped our coverage across a range of beats — from housing to the Supreme Court to foreign affairs. Rebecca Jennings has been promoted to senior correspondent. Her reporting on internet culture — and particularly the intersection of internet culture, fame, and money — is essential. We are so excited to build out her weekly newsletter and experiment in audio, as well as have her continue her ambitious longform text work chronicling where we spend our attention now. Sara Morrison has been promoted to senior reporter, and her beat is changing: She’ll cover antitrust scrutiny and regulation of Big Tech. Since she joined Recode/Vox two years ago to cover privacy and personal data for the Open Sourced project, Sara has published excellent stories on privacy issues, but she’s also shown she can write sharp, accessible pieces about a gamut of complicated topics, like Section 230, cybersecurity, and the Jan. 6 capitol riots. Terry Nguyen has been promoted to the next level of staff reporter. Terry has done such valuable work during her first two years at Vox, reporting on everything from fashion behemoth Shein to Instagram activism to misinformation in the Asian American community. We are thrilled to see her dive even deeper into her newly refined beat covering retail and commerce, and to help explain the mechanisms behind the purchases we make. Alanna Okun has been promoted to senior editor of The Goods. Alanna initially came to Vox Media as the essays editor for Racked, and she helped launch The Goods as a deputy editor. She has been a guiding force for the section, from running our marquee series The Best Money I’ve Ever Spent (including an audio version! and a pre-pandemic IRL event!) to editing stellar longform work from Rebecca Jennings, as well as her hit internet culture newsletter. She will continue to advise the Vox fellowship program.vox.com
Biden can’t afford to repeat Obama’s mistakes on climate policy
Demonstrators chant in front of the White House during a climate march on October 12. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images It’s not too late for Democrats to go big on climate change. But it won’t be easy, and there’s no margin for error. After a major setback on a historic package of climate legislation, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are scrambling to find other ways to slash US emissions. As they race to create a Plan B for an escalating climate crisis, they stand to learn a lot from the Obama era — a history that’s littered with similar setbacks and climate policies that never saw the light of day. One of the most impactful climate policies that Congress has ever considered, the clean electricity payment program (CEPP), is on the chopping block. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) says he will not support a bill that penalizes coal and natural gas for the outsized role they play in US pollution. Democrats can’t pass their budget bill, the Build Back Better Act, without his support, and its size and scope has been shrinking. Meanwhile, a key window for progress is closing: Top Democrats have promised to hammer out a domestic climate deal by the time Biden speaks at a pivotal United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, which begins October 31. If Congress fails to enshrine key climate policies as federal laws, Biden’s Plan B includes executive orders and major regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York Times reported. The problem is that executive actions aren’t an ideal substitute for federal laws, and may last only as long as Biden’s presidency. EPA regulation also “tends to lag [behind] the technological realities,” meaning it may only modestly nudge the economy in a new direction, Jesse Jenkins, an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University, told Vox. It’s also vulnerable to intervention by the Supreme Court. In some respects, Democrats have been here before. Under President Barack Obama, a similar political bind in Congress made his climate actions weaker and open to reversal. “I am not sure there are easy ways to avoid the pitfalls the Obama administration faced in taking regulatory action on climate change,” Matto Mildenberger, a University of California Santa Barbara political scientist who has written on the history of US climate policy, told Vox. Democrats have options left. The $500 billion Democrats have promised for climate funding would represent historic Congressional investment, and roughly a third of the funding in the possible Build Back Better plan. But it still would not make up for the policies that have been cut. If the past any guide, their best chance is to throw the kitchen sink at the climate crisis, consistently and relentlessly, on every level of government. To make sweeping and lasting progress, they’ll need to outdo the Democrats of the Obama era by pushing not only for executive and state action, but also funding for smaller climate policies that can fill what experts described as the “CEPP-sized hole” in the budget bill. If Democrats do that, Mildenberger still believes the US could manage to have a “world-leading” climate agenda. Democrats run the risk of repeating mistakes they made in the Obama era Obama’s strategy for tackling climate change counted on Congress passing a bipartisan bill, which would have capped climate pollution and created a market for trading credits. Success depended on the support of wary Democrats as well as some Republicans. By summer 2010, Obama appointees admitted they didn’t have the votes in the Senate. The bill quietly died that summer, and the path to passing a federal law closed when Tea Party-backed Republicans swept the midterm elections. As the New Yorker reported at the time, “Obama said that he knew ‘the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months.’ He never found them, and he didn’t appear to be looking very hard.” Alex Wong/Getty Images President Barack Obama unveiled his climate change plan on June 25, 2013, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Key portions of his plan were undone by the Supreme Court and President Donald Trump. The Obama administration didn’t charge ahead to find other ways to deliver pollution cuts, at least not right away. Climate activists spent the subsequent years accusing Obama of “climate silence,” according to the Washington Post. It wasn’t until his 2013 State of the Union that he made his lengthiest comments on climate change in years and promised: “If Congress won’t act soon … I will … with executive actions.” By summer 2013, well into Obama’s second term, the administration was pushing forward with a new comprehensive strategy for tackling climate change, relying primarily on executive and regulatory action to clean up power and transportation emissions. For the first time, a president began to realign the executive branch, especially the EPA, to issue landmark standards for cleaner cars, power plants, and methane from gas operations. But Obama was not able to replicate what Congress could have accomplished. As ambitious as his first-ever coal regulations seemed at the time, for example, they were halted by the Supreme Court before taking effect. Even without them, utilities ended up keeping pace with most targets on their own, showing how moderate the regulations were. There are other reasons that a new wave of EPA action won’t be as powerful as federal climate legislation. Regulations still take time to draft and finalize and are frequently challenged in court. The Supreme Court swung to the right under President Donald Trump and seems even more skeptical of the EPA’s powers. In hindsight, the Obama administration arguably miscalculated the odds that its climate policy would outlast his presidency. The office of Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), who sponsored the clean electricity plan, told Vox that politicians can’t take for granted that all climate policies will last. Smith’s staff said that Biden’s Plan B must find other ways to cut emissions, even as Manchin insists on cuts and the bill’s price tag keeps shrinking. Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks at the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC, on October 26. He has opposed major climate provisions in Democrats’ budget bill. Obama-era Democrats left other climate policies in a precarious place: For example, key tax breaks for wind and solar repeatedly expired throughout the 2000s and were only renewed after the fact, slowing gains in the two renewable energy sectors. Even when Democrats controlled Congress in Obama’s terms, these credits received short-term extensions. And by waiting until Obama’s second term to roll out key climate regulations for the power sector and transportation, the administration took a risk that some wouldn’t be finalized before the next administration, making it that much easier for any Trump to halt. Trump easily blocked methane rules for existing oil and gas facilities because they were still being drafted. “There are tiers of executive actions, each of which have different relative permanency,” CNN explained in 2016. And finalized rules take longer for an incoming president to reverse than rulemaking that’s still underway. The Biden White House’s climate strategy in 2021 may end up not so different from the course of the Obama administration. Obama, facing the reality of a gridlocked Congress, relied on executive action to push the country forward on climate. And when Trump reversed course on climate policy, some states tried to continue their own shifts toward clean energy. Still, Democrats can learn from this history and take action in three important ways: 1) pushing the executive branch to quickly finalize regulations of the biggest emitters, such as coal-fired power plants and oil and gas producers; 2) writing climate standards into their subsidies for other polluting sectors, like industry, transportation, and buildings; and 3) updating the Build Back Better budget bill so that it funds every possible incremental way to close the gap in emissions. They also have to remember what has changed: The political movement urging climate action is far bigger than it was a decade ago. The problem is, the warnings in climate science of inaction are also more dire. The Biden administration will have to outdo the Obama administration in the pace and the scale of its ambitions. Biden’s goals are bigger than Obama’s, but he has less margin for error A decade of inaction by Congress has now cost the world precious time to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. A global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement, could slip through our fingers in a matter of years, according to the World Meteorological Organization and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Every fraction of a degree of warming can claim lives and livelihoods as it ripples through ecosystems, water supplies, agriculture, and more. The US is making progress, but not quickly enough. Domestic climate pollution has fallen by under 22 percent between 2005 and 2020. After rejoining the Paris climate agreement this year, Biden announced a new target: cutting US climate pollution by at least 50 percent by 2030. The best way of ensuring the US gets the rest of the way to this target,climate experts told Vox, would be ambitious congressional action. Federal laws could transition the electricity sector off fossil fuels and replace gas-guzzling cars with electric vehicles. “Even with what some would view as moderate congressional action, there is still a pathway to meeting the target.” Now that the Senate appears to have sunk its best single weapon against climate change, the clean electricity payment program, the White House is falling back on a “three-pronged approach” to meet its goal. One prong still depends on Congress passing historic clean energy funding as part of the Build Back Better Act (albeit a smaller package than the White House wanted). The second relies on the White House preparing ambitious regulations of electricity, transportation, a natural gas production. And the third prong depends on states — especially the 25 that are already committed to climate action — ramping up energy efficiency, fuel standards, and clean energy to match the most ambitious regions in the nation. This Plan B will be difficult to pull off, and is less ambitious than climate activists had hoped for. A clean electricity policy would have accounted for roughly 25 percent of the package’s pollution cuts, according to a Princeton Zero Lab analysis from Jenkins. Democrats may also scrap their second major climate proposal, a plan to fine oil and gas producers for methane pollution, from the Build Back Better Act. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that, over the short term, warms the planet even more than carbon dioxide. Other powerful levers in the fight against climate change, like a carbon tax or specific penalties on fossil fuels, are just as unlikely to make it into the final plan. So the final infrastructure package and budget bill likely won’t make as big of a dent in climate pollution as many Democrats once hoped. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for US climate action. “Even with what some would view as moderate congressional action, there is still a pathway to meeting the target,” John Larsen, climate director of the energy research firm Rhodium Group, told Vox. “It’s just going to mean that there needs to be sustained effort by other parts of the federal system and state level to really follow through.” How Democrats can still make lasting progress on climate policy In a Monday speech in New Jersey, Biden projected optimism that his Build Back Better agenda is “going to address the root cause of ever-increasing extreme weather and destruction.” Evan Vucci/AP President Joe Biden speaks on his Build Back Better infrastructure, climate, and social spending agenda at the New Jersey Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny on October 25. For him to follow through on this promise, he’ll have to avoid the pitfalls that Obama faced. The past decade highlights how critical it is for a Build Back Better plan that closes the gaping holes likely left without the clean electricity payment program and methane fees — and for Democrats to maintain a sense of urgency and chip away at the climate crisis at every level. The first, most important lesson from the Obama era is that there is no time to waste. Regulations take years to draft and finalize, so the earlier in Biden’s term that his administration creates them, the better shot they’ll have at outlasting his presidency. Biden has seemed to appreciate this lesson. His EPA has been busy preparing and finalizing upgrades for Obama-era climate regulations for the power sector, transportation, and oil and gas production. “If you don’t have the methane fee, then the methane regulations that EPA is cooking up are going to be that much more important,” Larsen pointed out. It’s still possible to meet Biden’s goals even without the CEPP and methane fees, according to a Rhodium Group analysis that Larsen coauthored last week. Rhodium estimated the impact of extremely aggressive action, including almost a dozen core executive actions the Biden administration would need to take. Some of these would have to build on what Obama originally planned, but at a far more ambitious scale, like far-reaching new climate standards for the power sector. Larsen also suggested that Biden would have to test the Clean Air Act in new ways, for example by issuing the first-ever climate regulation for industrial pollution, and requiring that every new natural gas terminal and chemical plant is equipped with carbon capture. Congress still needs to pass as many climate priorities as possible in the infrastructure deal and Build Back Better plan. Democrats still have a shot at funding clean energy tax breaks, improving electricity transmission to connect renewables to new areas of the country, and expanding access to electric vehicles. “My view on climate policy is you just keep accelerating things as much as you can, wherever you can,” Jenkins said. Some Democratic senators hope to redirect the CEPP’s $150 billion price tag to other programs. Notable — @brianschatz and @SenatorCarper told me they're under the impression the $150 billion for the CEPP will be spread around to other programs, rather than getting cut altogether. Again, will have to see what Manchin says bc that $ is in his committee.— Ella Nilsen (@ella_nilsen) October 25, 2021 “Carbon pollution is is all throughout the American economy,” making it possible to pull levers that “together create something that would fill the CEPP-sized hole,” said Mildenberger, the USC political scientist. Those cuts could come from energy efficiency in industrial manufacturing, building electrification, or preventing nuclear plants from retiring. Democrats could tweak requirements for projects that receive funding from new infrastructure spending. For example, Congress can require that federally funded building projects meet higher energy efficiency standards. What are the other climate policies could benefit from an infusion of cash? Sen. Smith’s office suggested funding for renewable energy and transmission — though Manchin, as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, might still have influence over that. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer also pointed to long-distance electricity transmission: The U.S. must triple its transmission infrastructure in order to decarbonize by 2050, according to a landmark Princeton study. As Steve Cicala, an economics professor at Tufts University, recently told me, solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity generation in some parts of the country. But those cost declines only matter if the largest power markets are connected—via new transmission!—to those areas.” The group We ACT for Environmental Justice suggested the funding should be used to clean up highway pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color, for example by increasing funding for clean cars and zero-emissions heavy-duty trucks. Meanwhile, Mildenberger suggested, funding for nuclear power would ensure that the US doesn’t lose the 20 percent of its carbon-free energy that currently comes from nuclear. Otherwise, that electricity could be replaced with gas and coal. Biden will need to multitask to make his Plan B work, Larsen said. “If any one component were not to take place in the timeframe that we’re talking about, then something else is going to have to happen,” he said. “That could be additional regulations, it could be new states that are leading; it could be future congressional action. But you would need to see other actions somewhere else to make up the difference.”vox.com
Why the US is always hitting a “debt ceiling”
Is the huge US national debt a problem? Nearly every year since 2011, America seems to teeter on the edge of a crisis as the national debt comes dangerously close to hitting the “debt ceiling,” and the president and Congress fight over raising it. The “debt ceiling” is really just a limit on how much debt the country can take on. While the US isn’t the only country to have one, it is the only country to have legislation that regularly puts it on the brink of economic disaster. The current US debt is nearing $29 trillion. That’s a trillion with a T. Is that too much? And who does it affect? Want to know what the US national debt is as of right now? The Treasury keeps a daily record. Americans and American companies own 35.6 percent of US debt while foreign investors own 25 percent. Chinese investors used to have the largest share, but Japanese investors actually own more now. The Treasury also updates the foreign investor totals every month for public viewing. You can find this video and the entire library of Vox’s videos on YouTube.vox.com
Jeff Bezos wants a low-orbit office park to replace the ISS
Blue Origin wants to build a commercial space station that NASA astronauts could eventually visit. | Courtesy of NASA Blue Origin thinks all kinds of companies will want some space in space. After more than two decades in orbit, NASA is preparing to retire the International Space Station. The habitable satellite only has permission to operate until 2024, and while it’s likely that the space station’s funding could be extended until 2028, NASA plans to decommission the ISS and find a replacement by the end of the decade. Cue Jeff Bezos. The billionaire’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has released its proposal for a new, commercial space station called Orbital Reef. With the help of several other companies, including Sierra Space and Boeing, Blue Origin plans to build a satellite that’s slightly smaller than the ISS and houses up to 10 people. The design includes desk space, computers, laboratories, a garden, and 3D printers. The goal, the company says, is to bring the “mixed use business park” concept into orbit and lease out office space to interested parties, including government agencies, researchers, tourism companies, and even movie production crews. Blue Origin’s plan is predicated on the idea that the end is coming for the ISS, which NASA is still figuring out how exactly to remove from orbit. While space stations have been helpful for space exploration, Blue Origin senior vice president Brent Sherwood argued in a recent op-ed that private companies now have the capabilities to take over much of the burgeoning economy in low-Earth orbit, or LEO. Blue Origin is even building a space tug, a transport vehicle that moves cargo between different orbits, that could reportedly be used to salvage parts from the ISS and incorporate them into Orbital Reef’s systems. NASA doesn’t mind the corporate takeover of low-Earth orbit. The agency’s first space station, SkyLab, was only in orbit for a few months before NASA let the vehicle descend and decompose into the atmosphere.The space agency has been weighing defunding the ISS, which is full of aging hardware, for several years, and has already set asideup to $400 million to fund new, privately built and operated space stations through its Commercial LEO Destinations program. Eventually, NASA hopes that it can send its astronauts to these stations instead of paying to maintain the ISS. Overall, the plan could save the government more than $1 billion every year. “This is technology that is over 20 years old at this point. When you expose that infrastructure to radiation, solar weather... things are going to break down,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “Having these commercial space stations will be a way of America keeping their foot in low-Earth orbit while focusing more of their resources on Moon and Mars exploration.” In the meantime, NASA is currently focusing on the Artemis program, an ambitious plan to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon. The agency intends to send people to the Moon for the first time in decades as soon as 2024, and hopes the project will eventually serve as a stepping stone to future exploration of Mars. Private companies, including Blue Origin, have desperately fought for a role in this prestigious mission, and especially a lucrative contract to develop pivotal moon landing technology. SpaceX won that contract earlier this year, prompting Bezos’s company to sue NASA and lobby the Senate to reverse the decision. Those efforts have yet to bear fruit, so Bezos now seems to be turning his attention back to the low-Earth orbit economy, where there are more customers and less competition from Elon Musk. But there’s reason to believe that the Orbital Reef project may not succeed in the near future — or at all. Blue Origin still hasn’t launched humans into orbit, a feat SpaceX achieved last month during the Inspiration4 mission. Blue Origin also lists its New Glenn reusable launch system and Boeing’s Starliner crew vehicle as pivotal parts of the Orbital Reef plan, but both vehicles have yet to conduct a problem-free space flight. Courtesy of Blue Origin Blue Origin has released conceptual renderings of what the Orbital Reef station could look like. Blue Origin isn’t the only company vying to replace the ISS. About 12 other firms have already sent space station proposals to NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program. Just last week, a space company called Nanoracks announced that it was also developing a space station, in partnership with its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. At the same time, NASA has already agreed to pay the space company Axiom Space $140 million to help build at least one module, or detachable space station component, that will be conjoined to the ISS.That module will eventually be spun out and attached to several other modules to form a separate, fully functional space station when the ISS winds down operations. That approach is supposed to make it easier to transfer the hardware that’s currently aboard the ISS onto a new vehicle. In a statement, a NASA spokesperson described the current moment as “a renaissance for human spaceflight.” They added, “As more people fly to space and do more things during their spaceflights, it attracts even more people to do more activities in low-Earth orbit and reflects the growing market we envisioned when we began NASA’s Commercial Crew Program 10 years ago.” For NASA, it’s also critical that at least one of these companies succeeds, and the agency told Recode it could fund up to four of the proposals.After all, time is running out on the ISS, where malfunctions and outdated technology and equipment are common. Without private companies stepping in to build an alternative, the US government risks a future where it has a human presence on the Moon and Earth, and nowhere in the middle. This story first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!vox.com
The Supreme Court case that could gut America’s gun laws, explained
Supporters of gun control and firearm safety measures hold a protest rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. City of New York on December 2, 2019. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images More than a century of gun laws are potentially on the chopping block. For nearly all its history, the Supreme Court kept its distance from gun policy. Now it’s about to decide a case that could radically reduce the government’s power to regulate guns. The Second Amendment states explicitly that it exists to protect “a well regulated Militia,” and until fairly recently, the Court took these four words very seriously. As a unanimous Court explained in United States v. Miller(1939), the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment was to “render possible the effectiveness” of militias, and the amendment must be “interpreted and applied with that end in view.” Because the kinds of militias that concerned the framers in the 1790s are now an anachronism, Miller’s approach gave states broad authority to regulate guns. That all changed with the Court’s 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which held for the first time in American history that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a gun for personal “self-defense.” And yet Heller was only a partial victory for the gun lobby. The Court’s opinion is thick with language explaining that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” and it even enumerates several very important limits on gun rights. As conservative Justice Samuel Alito complained in a 2020 opinion, this has meant that lower courts “have decided numerous cases involving Second Amendment challenges to a variety of federal, state, and local laws,” and that “most have failed.” In other words, the constitutional right to own a gun is both stronger now than it was at any point in the first 217 years of the Second Amendment’s history, and weak enough that state and local governments can prevent most Americans from carrying a gun on city streets and in other heavily populated areas. But that’s likely to change soon. Next Wednesday, November 3, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. (NYSRPA) v. Bruen, a challenge to a 108-year-old New York state law requiring anyone who wishes to carry a handgun in public to demonstrate “proper cause” before they can obtain a license allowing them to do so. It’s relatively easy in New York to get a license to carry a gun for limited purposes — the plaintiffs in NYSRPA include two men who already have a license permitting them to carry a gun for hunting, for target practice, and while in areas not “frequented by the general public.” One is also licensed to carry a gun while commuting to and from work. But neither plaintiff obtained an unlimited carry license, and New York courts require that someone who seeks such a license must “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession.” The petitioners sued, along with a New York gun-rights group, claiming that they are entitled to an unrestricted license. The implications of this case go far beyond these two plaintiffs and New York state. The current Court, with its 6-3 conservative supermajority, may very well dismantle the limits on the Second Amendment articulated in Heller. It could completely rewrite the federal judiciary’s approach to gun-rights litigation. And the Court could potentially force crowded cities to adopt the same permissive gun rules that apply in the most conservative, rural parts of the nation. NYSRPA could be the Court’s most significant Second Amendment decision since Heller, and it could prove just as revolutionary as that 2008 decision. Under existing law, the government still has fairly broad authority to restrict gun use Heller broke with more than two centuries of judicial history when it held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to self-defense, not just a right to state-run militias. But while this holding was a paradigm-shifting victory for gun-rights advocates, it came with many caveats. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller includes a long list of limits on the Second Amendment. “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill,” Scalia wrote, nor “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.’” The government may also ban “dangerous and unusual weapons,” so the regulation of machine guns and similarly destructive weapons is still valid. This language, retired Justice John Paul Stevens revealed shortly before his death in 2019, was inserted at the insistence of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Because Heller was a 5-4 decision, Scalia needed support from all four of his conservative colleagues, or else he’d lose his majority. And that meant Kennedy could wield a great deal of influence over the final opinion. But Kennedy retired in 2018 and was replaced by the much more conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Then liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, was replaced by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As lower court judges, both Kavanaugh and Barrett wrote opinions calling for an expansive approach to the Second Amendment. It’s far from clear, in other words, whether there are still five justices who will respect the mitigating language in Heller. Many of the “longstanding prohibitions” on gun use that are now perfectly legal could soon be declared illegal. Kavanaugh, moreover, is one of the judiciary’s most outspoken dissenters from the consensus approach to the Second Amendment that federal appeals courts have come up with since Heller. At least 10 federal appeals courts — every court to hear a Second Amendment case since Heller, in fact — have applied what federal appellate Judge Stephen Higginson describes as a “two-step analytic framework.” Under this framework, “severe burdens on core Second Amendment rights” are subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most skeptical level of review in most constitutional cases. Meanwhile, “Less onerous laws, or laws that govern conduct outside of the Second Amendment’s ‘core,’” are subject to a more permissive test known as “intermediate scrutiny.” Applying this framework, federal appeals courts determined that restricting “the right of a law-abiding, responsible adult to possess and use a handgun to defend his or her home” burdens the “core” of the Second Amendment. Similarly, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit struck down an Illinois law prohibiting nearly anyone from carrying a loaded gun outside their home, reasoning that because no other state had a similar law on the books — and “few states did during the nineteenth century” — the law infringes upon core Second Amendment rights. Many lesser restrictions on gun rights, however, were upheld by lower courts. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied the two-step consensus approach when it upheld the New York state gun licensure requirements now before the Supreme Court in NYSRPA. Other courts upheld a federal law preventing people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from possessing a gun, and some federal appeals courts have affirmed laws banning semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Perhaps that explains why a right flank within the lower courts harshly criticized this consensus framework. One of those critics was Kavanaugh, still a lower court judge at the time, argued in a 2011 dissenting opinion that this framework should be abandoned. “Courts are to assess gun bans and regulations based on text, history, and tradition,” Kavanaugh claimed, “not by a balancing test such as strict or intermediate scrutiny.” Notably, both the plaintiffs challenging New York’s licensure law and the state attorneys tasked with defending it spend the lion’s share of their briefs applying this “text, history, and tradition” standard to New York’s law. So it seems that, at the very least, the lawyers litigating this case seem to think that it is very likely the Supreme Court will adopt Kavanaugh’s approach. So how, exactly, does the “text, history, and tradition” test work? If the merits briefs filed in NYSRPA are any sign of how lawyers should approach this “text, history, and tradition” inquiry, it largely involves citing a lot of laws and court decisions from hundreds of years ago, then arguing about whether those old laws resemble the specific law now before the Court. The plaintiffs, represented by Republican lawyer Paul Clement, argue that “founding-era cases, commentaries, and laws on both sides of the Atlantic … confirm that the founding generation understood the Second Amendment and its English predecessor to guarantee a right to carry common arms for self-defense.” Drew Angerer/Getty Images Paul Clement speaks to the press outside the Supreme Court after oral arguments in a gun-rights case against the City of New York on December 2, 2019. New York’s lawyers, meanwhile, cite many of the same historical sources but make a more nuanced argument that “any right to bear arms outside the home permits a State to condition handgun carrying in areas ‘frequented by the general public’ on a showing of a non-speculative need for armed self-defense in those areas.” Thus, they argue, states may apply stricter gun-control rules in cities and other population centers than they can in more sparsely populated areas. Both briefs spend a simply ridiculous amount of time discussing a 1328 English law known as the “Statute of Northampton,” which provided that individuals may not “go nor ride armed by night nor by day, in fairs, markets, nor in the presence of the justices or other ministers, nor in no part elsewhere, upon pain to forfeit their armour to the King, and their bodies to prison at the King’s pleasure.” The state argues that this nearly 700-year-old law did exactly what it says it did, while the plaintiffs point to a pair of 1686 cases which, they argue, narrowed the 1328 law to apply only to people who carry arms in order “to terrify the King’s subjects.” Similarly, the plaintiffs quote a bevy of old decisions by state supreme courts, mostly in the South, suggesting that early Americans had broad gun rights. We learn about an 1833 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the opinion in which cited the state constitution when it said that “the freemen of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence”; an 1846 case out of Georgia, which found that “a prohibition against bearing arms openly, is in conflict with the Constitution, and void”; and an 1840 Alabama Supreme Court decision holding that “the Legislature cannot inhibit the citizen from bearing arms openly, because [the constitution] authorizes him to bear them for the purposes of defending himself and the State.” Meanwhile, New York musters up its own array of centuries-old laws and court opinions to justify its understanding of the Second Amendment. In its brief, we learn that the Old West settlements of Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, required anyone entering them to leave their guns at the city limits — visitors to Tombstone even encountered a sign reading “THE CARRYING OF FIREARMS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.” New York also cites early 19th-century manuals instructing law enforcement to “arrest all such persons as in your sight shall ride or go armed.” They quote a colonial New Jersey provision making it unlawful to “ride or go armed with sword, pistol, or dagger,” though the law made an exception for “strangers, travelling upon their lawful occasion thro’ this Province, behaving themselves peaceably.” A Virginia law enacted three years before the Second Amendment was drafted imprisoned people who go “armed by night or by day, in fairs or markets.” A Massachusetts law enacted a few years after the amendment was ratified incarcerated individuals who enter populated areas “armed offensively, to the fear or terror of the good citizens of this Commonwealth.” The state’s brief, in other words, paints a more nuanced picture than that of the plaintiffs — arguing that different parts of the US had different gun laws and that city dwellers often had to put away their guns, except when traveling through sparsely populated areas where they had to rely on their own armaments for protection. As it turns out, much as the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, so too can lawyers on both sides of the Second Amendment quote “text, history, and tradition” to justify the outcome they prefer. This confusion over history will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Heller decision and Stevens’s dissent in that case. Like the merits briefs in NYSRPA, Scalia’s opinion is replete with citations to early American laws and old English legal treatises. But so is Stevens’s dissent, which quotes at length from both founding-era state constitutions and early drafts and proposals for what became the Second Amendment. The five conservative justices looked at text, history, and tradition in Heller, concluding that the Second Amendment should be interpreted in the way conservatives prefer. Meanwhile, the four liberal justices — who looked at the exact same text and historical sources —determined that the Second Amendment should be interpreted in the way liberals prefer. The pre-Heller approach to the Second Amendment, which largely left gun policy up to elected lawmakers, avoided this problem of motivated reasoning. Sure, liberal lawmakers (especially those in cities) were especially likely to pass stricter gun laws, while more conservative lawmakers (especially those in rural areas) were especially likely to support expansive gun rights. But these lawmakers stood for election. If the people didn’t like their state’s gun laws, they could elect a different legislature. That ship sailed in 2008 with the Court’s decision to make gun policy the domain of an unelected judiciary. And, if the briefs on both sides of NYSRPA are any indication, all parties appear convinced that the current slate of justices will care a whole lot more about what a 14th-century English law had to say about gun rights than they will what the people of New York have to say in 2021.vox.com
Democrats may let the best weapon against child poverty fade away
New Hampshire parents and other supporters gather outside Sen. Maggie Hassan’s office on September 14 to thank her for child tax credit payments and demand they be made permanent. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images for ParentsTogether The child taxcredit accomplished in one month what other policies took a decade to achieve. It could expire soon. The expanded child tax credit, a policy passed in March 2021 that beefed up monthly payments to most families with kids, has already had a massive, positive effect on the lives of America’s children. After just one monthly payment, it cut child poverty by 25 percent — and should the larger payments continue, it could slash child poverty by more than 40 percent in a typical year, according to the Urban Institute. This is a huge decline in a very short time frame. According to the Brookings Institution, child poverty rates dropped by 26 percent between 2009 and 2019, meaning the tax credit accomplished in one month what other policies took a decade to achieve. Despite that success, the expanded child tax credit (CTC) is in serious danger. As part of their budget negotiations, Democrats are debating how long to extend the program — most likely for a year, with some calling for a four-year (or even indefinite) extension. In the best-case scenario with a short extension, the program will probably run out of money by the end of 2022. In the worst-case scenario, it could end as soon as April 2022, when families are currently due to receive their final enhanced payment. To prevent the policy’s gains from being undone, the benefit needs to be extended. An Urban Institute study found that child poverty would go down by 50 percent or more in 11 states if changes to the CTC were made permanent. It also noted that poverty rates would be reduced across the board, with larger impacts for Black and Hispanic children. Established in 1997, the CTC has been around for more than two decades, but a proposal included in the American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, bumped up the amount significantly. Previously, families received a credit worth up to $167 per month per child ages 16 and under. Families are now eligible for up to $300 per month for every child under 6, and $250 per month for every child ages 6 to 17, with half the credit being paid in monthly advances. The benefit is phased out as families’ incomes rise, but it currently covers 39 million households and more than 88 percent of children. Plus, lower-income households that previously didn’t qualify for the full credit are now able to receive it, including 1 million children in military families. This increase has made a major difference, particularly for lower-income households: For instance, food insecurity has decreased as many families used the credit to cover basic necessities such as groceries, rent, and utilities. Per CNBC, food insecurity for families making less than $50,000 dropped by 7.5 percentage points (from 26 percent to 18.5 percent) one month after the first expanded payment went out. To sustain the credit’s early success, the program needs to continue. Whether it will — and for how long — remains to be seen. Letting the policy expire puts millions of children at risk of poverty Given the policy’s effectiveness, some Democrats have pushed to extend the measure through 2025. Others want to make it permanent as part of the budget reconciliation bill currently being negotiated. Either extension seems unlikely due to demands from moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), both of whom want more than a trillion dollars cut from the reconciliation legislation. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) catch an elevator en route to the Senate Chamber on September 30, 2021. To make those cuts, Democrats are considering an extension of the expanded child tax credit that might only last for one more year. That approach could leave the 30 million households that have come to depend on the benefit in danger of losing it after 2022. “That’s going to be like taking the rug from under families,” says Elena Delavega, a professor of social work at the University of Memphis. “Especially if you have it for a year or a year and a half, it’s going to get budgeted into families’ expenses.” An abrupt end to the program in 2022 could lead to major shocks. “In the absence of the CTC, more families — and low-income families in particular — will go hungry more often and be at risk for things like eviction, utility shut-offs, and other hardships,” said Stephen Roll, a research professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied the effects of the expanded child tax credit. Families have recalled suddenly beginning to struggle to make rent, utility, and grocery payments after states wound down their pandemic unemployment insurance offerings this summer. A similar situation is possible with the expanded child tax credit since it’s helping families cope with the imminent financial stresses they’re facing. “Getting these payments now, I know that at least I have help covering food,” David Watson, a technician and single parent of two, previously told Tiffanie Drayton in a story for Vox. “Now I can pull back on overtime. I need sleep, man.” By letting the policy sunset, Democrats would also deprive families of some of the projected long-term benefits of the credit. In addition to helping families meet their immediate costs, the credit could also enable people to bolster their emergency savings, build a college fund, and invest in extracurricular activities for their children they might not otherwise be able to afford. “We know that providing these supports is associated with better outcomes for children once they reach adulthood, including higher earnings, improved health, and increased economic mobility,” says Roll. Columbia University researchers found that each dollar distributed via the child tax credit translates to a long-term societal return of $8 in lower health care costs and increased earnings for children who benefited. Democrats are hoping that the child tax credit’s popularity will ensure that future Congresses renew it, no matter which party is in control. They argue data like a September Reuters/Ipsos poll that found 59 percent of US adults including 75 percent of Democrats and 41 percent Republicans back the policy, shows wide political buy-in. And they believe that if they only authorize a one-year extension of the credit, public pressure would be enough to guarantee the program’s renewal even if Democrats lose control of either chamber in the 2022 midterm elections. There are no guarantees they are right, however. While popular policies like the Bush administration’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were renewed on a bipartisan basis after their expiration date, other proposals like 2020’s eviction moratorium and expanded pandemic unemployment insurance simply ended after Congress failed to extend them. Democrats have very different visions for the child tax credit’s future Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), both longtime backers of the proposal, have pushed for this year’s expansion to be indefinite. Democrats who are more skeptical of its effects have wondered whether it should be limited further. “It is food. It is diapers. It is going to the dentist, getting a kid to the doctor. Buy school uniforms or supplies. Or paying rent. It has made a profound difference already, which is why I’m trying to move it to be permanent,” DeLauro has said. In September, 400 economists signed a letter calling for the policy to be permanent because of its effects on poverty and children’s long-term health care outcomes. Opponents of the policy, however, argue that these payments could deter recipients from working since parents without an income can receive the help as well. Manchin has expressed this concern, arguing that work and/or education requirements ought to be added to the policy should it be extended. “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?” Manchin has said. Some researchers have pushed back against this view, noting that a continual credit might help parents join the workforce by enabling them to afford basic services like child care. Given that the expanded child tax credit has only been distributed since July, it’s too early to ascertain which argument is correct, though data from a Columbia University study found that the credit hadn’t had a “significant effect on employment or labor force participation” so far. There is also debate as to whether access to the credit should be capped even more. Right now, families that make up to $150,000 a year receive the full boost, a figure that Manchin would like to see go down. Manchin has argued that the policy should be capped at households that make $60,000 or less. Proponents of a more universal policy, meanwhile, argue that broadening the constituency that benefits from the credit will increase its political support. More universal programs including Social Security and Medicare are some of the most popular government offerings and have polled better than Medicaid, which is means-tested. With pressure from Manchin and Sinema, the reality is Democrats likely won’t be able to implement the most comprehensive tax credit. The estimated annual cost of the program is around $110 billion, or roughly $450 billion if it were to be extended through the end of 2025. It’s possible lawmakers could also try to reduce the size of the expanded payment in order to lower the cost of the bill. It will become clear in about a year whether Democrats were right and the credit becomes something lawmakers of both parties vote to keep intact. But if they are wrong, more than 4 million children could be thrown back into poverty, and millions of families could once again find themselves struggling to cover payments for food and shelter.vox.com
Can a haunted house even scare us in 2021?
Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor When a pandemic rages just outside our doors, maybe escapism is all we can hope for. Part of the Horror Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. A small infographic details the extent of the Covid-19 measures at New York City’s Blood Manor. “YOUR SAFETY IS OUR PRIORITY,” it reads, next to a sinister Michael Myers facsimile getting his temperature checked, a green-skinned zombie wearing a mask around its mandibles, and a bloodstained hand-sanitizing station ready and waiting at the mouth of the torture chambers. The image pierces through the fantasy of the attraction, one of the thousands of haunted houses that open seasonally each year, and return even now, in the midst of a pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine the Cenobites paying much mind to a deadly virus. But due diligence must be done, even in the depths of perdition. This is, of course, all presented alongside the rest of the Blood Manor offerings, which include such exhibitions as Maggot Invasion (“They’ll get under your skin!”), Mayhem (“Beasts and demons vie for your body and soul!”), and Hannibal’s Hell (“1,000 ways to die!”). Blood Manor wants to abate any fears that its sanctum may be compromised by the ongoing global pandemic, all while stoking your more primal anxieties — like a man in a mask waiting to scream at you at the next left turn. Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor So, it makes perfect sense that I ended up at a bar off the Canal Street stop in lower Manhattan, lubricating with a few gin and tonics and a small group of friends, girding ourselves for our eventual descent into darkness. I was here to discover how I’d process a haunted attraction after the single strangest period of time in my life. Since March 2020, my girlfriend and I have become accustomed to a hellish variety of stale, slow-paced terror. We spent last spring cocooned in our living room, listening to the foreboding ambulance sirens that blared through the windows all night long. The streets were bereft of life, save for the few scavengers bundled up with masks and plastic gloves on their weekly subsistence trips to the grocery stores. (I was one of them. Honestly, we all looked a bit like scare actors.) New York City was rendered a wasteland, and even though the delta surge has declined since its peak — as restaurants reopen and the Moderna high courses through my body — I still double-take with every errant cough. After more than 18 months, a lot of us have given up on feeling normal. “Normal” was the gift bestowed on me by Blood Manor. As I waited in a line surrounded by costumed beasties, menacing from the perimeter and posing for pictures, I was taken by a familiar, almost refreshingfeeling of comic dread. I’m not a horror movie guy; I don’t like being scared. In fact, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d visited a haunted house since high school. So it was nice to know that after being besieged and beleaguered by the very real threat of death and suffering — watching the infection numbers tick up every day, reading constant scattershot reports about transmission rates, worrying about the fate of my loved ones — I’ve somehow retained the capacity to be freaked out by an undead bride. Perhaps that is the primary appeal of horror fiction. I’m not saying I want to be stalked by Freddy or Jason, but you can find some strange peace of mind when, ever so briefly, a madman on the loose represents the only pressing peril bearing down on the world. At least you can runfrom a killer. Covid-19 never offered us that opportunity. We scanned our tickets at a tent out front, and our group was guided into the bowels of a nondescript brownstone across the street from a wine store. That’s the thing with haunted houses; they’re rarely permanent attractions. Usually they drift into town and take up residence in some leased basement, like those Spirit Halloween outlets. If you’ve been to one of these “houses” before, you know what to expect. Wander through a handful of macabre scenes, marvel at the twisted prosthetics, and endure every jump scare you discover. I flashed a picture of my vaccination card to the doorman and was escorted downstairs where a troupe of ghoulish theater kids, splotched in black-and-white corpse paint, kept us pinned against the wall as we awaited our turn to enter the gauntlet. This is where the delusions begin. The ticket stub guarantees a brief sojourn to an alternative dimension where you’re at the mercy of these haunted house denizens. Ideally, for a split second, the actors can force their customers to spring the tripwire of fantasy — to enjoy the seismic jabs of anticipation, shock, and relief that reassures everyone that they are truly alive. Blood Manor was operating last Halloween. October 2020 represented a nadir of the American Covid-19 saga. Case numbers had reached a new high, the vaccine was nowhere to be found, and people in New York City returned to survival mode after a sunny, summerlong respite on makeshift patios around the boroughs. Blood Manor enforced a strict mask mandate on its staff and customers in those days — performers hid behind rubber and silicone, which was obedient to citywide pandemic ordinances, and also, frankly, more frightful than the alternative. They stood 6 feet away from the adventurers and devised new ways to shock our human sensibilities from a distance. Remote scaring, just another sign of the times. Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor All of the Covid-19 concessions listed on the Blood Manor website did not seem to migrate into our unsteady 2021. My group was packed together like sardines in the staging area as the bare, fleshy mouths of our captors barked out orders against our ears. We were funneled into a pitch-black maze, daisy-chained together, feeling out the path forward with our hands and feet. A woman, taken prisoner by some maniacal surgeon, begged for our help in an operating room filled with bodies and meathooks. Later, we were condemned to a cursed subway car, which frankly did not differ too much from our usual commutes. This was pure slasher pastiche, hosted in a compound heavy with spittle and sweat. That was the scariest part of my Blood Manor experience. I was not shaken by the wild-eyed clown who clicked an empty staple gun against my forehead; I didn’t react to the woman who came tumbling out of the chimney; the horned, purple demon who ushered us into the underworld seemed like a good guy, and the psychedelic 3D circus tent was more impressive than it was chilling. Maybe I would’ve reacted differently before a prolonged period of isolation. In 2021, it’s just kinda nice to be around people again, even if they’re serving the forces of Hell. In the back of my mind, I was a little worried about potentially participating in a superspreader event. Yes, I am fully vaccinated; yes, my chances of enduring a serious bout of Covid-19 are exceptionally low, but no, I do not yet feel completely at peace in close quarters as unknown microbial agents float through the imperceptible ether. I don’t think there’s a better articulation for how drastically the pandemic has altered our sense of being; even here, among so many ghosts, goblins, and incredible Halloween camp, we know what the truedanger is. That’s a bitter irony. The one thing Blood Manor wants to reassure us about is the only thing anyone is afraid of. After dodging one final group of unhinged clowns, we exited, stopping to take some celebration photos in a throne room. My friends and I had survived the Manor, and already I was coasting on the sweet euphoria that follows any period of heightened senses. The six of us gathered outside on the street and started planning the rest of our Saturday evening. Should we go back to the bar? Should we book a karaoke room? Is there a good dance floor around here? It reminded me of a hope I’ve nurtured from the very beginning of the pandemic: my god, how we will party at the light at the end of the tunnel, when Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror. Until then, the night continues. Luke Winkie is a reporter from San Diego. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.vox.com
Playdates are ruining all the fun
Children play together with bubbles in Manhattan’s Bryant Park in Manhattan in May. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images It’s time to rethink how American children play. It’s become a time-honored tradition in certain segments of American society: two families cross-reference their respective calendars to find a spot free of school or soccer or other obligations. On the appointed day, one child travels to the other’s house, typically accompanied by a parent. The children build a Lego village or glue googly eyes on felt or participate in some other ostensibly wholesome activity. Snacks are consumed. The parents, meanwhile, hang out and complain lightly about their children or spouses, stopping periodically to intervene in tantrums or boredom or failures of sharing. This is — or was — the playdate. Prior to 2020, it had become the primary mode of non-school social life for a lot of American kids, replacing the more unstructured play that many millennials and Gen X-ers remember from their childhoods. As Charis Granger-Mbugua, a Georgia mother of two, put it, “that’s how children play now.” The pandemic, of course, put a stop to playdates for a lot of families. Granger-Mbugua’s two children, now 7 and almost 5, barely saw anyone outside the family from March 2020 until this spring. “They were super isolated for that entire school year,” Granger-Mbugua said. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images With orders to stay at home and nearby parks closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, a lone child attempts to fly a kite in her Arlington, Virginia, backyard in April 2020. Now that adults and teenagers can be vaccinated, and shots for younger kids are on the horizon, families are starting to have playdates again. “We’re already seeing birthday parties, we’re already seeing weddings and funerals,” Tamara Mose, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The Playdate: Parents, Children, and the New Expectations of Play, told Vox. As more kids get vaccinated, “people will feel more comfortable, and so the playdates will continue.” The return of the playdate, though, may not be an unalloyed good. Some fear that parent-organized socializing deprives kids of the chance to explore and build self-sufficiency. “It’s a lost childhood,” Stacey Gill, a mom of two who has written about playdates, told Vox. The rise of the scheduled, structured “date” for children in the decades preceding the pandemic also increased the burden on parents, especially moms, who were expected to spend their weekends curating social experiences for their kids. Then there were the social implications. For middle- and upper-middle-class families, playdates could be exclusionary — a way for parents to shore up connections with others they saw as “like them” in terms of class, race, politics, and a host of other factors. “You’re basically selecting the friends of your children based on the networks you’re creating as adults,” Mose said. Now that children’s play, like so many other sectors of society, has been disrupted by Covid-19, some say there’s a chance to rethink what it should look like. We might not go back to the days when kids “went outside and didn’t come in till the streetlights came on,” as Granger-Mbugua remembers from her childhood. But there’s an opportunity to make play more equitable, less labor-intensive for parents, and maybe even more fun. As Gill put it, “kids need a little more freedom to just be kids.” The playdate as we know it was invented in the ’90s The playdate is a fairly new phenomenon. Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Gill remembers spending Saturday mornings playing in the basement and watching cartoons with her sister. At a certain point, their mom would send them outside to play — and lock the door. If they got together with other kids, it wasn’t anything organized: “You just hung out,” Gill said. National Archives via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images Children play on the shore at New York City’s Jacob A. Riis Park in 1974. Beginning in the ’90s, however, middle- and upper-middle-class parents, especially in cities, began pulling their kids back from unstructured play in public spaces out of concerns about crime. Highly publicized kidnapping and child murder cases such as that of Polly Klaas in 1993, along with the rise of crime shows like America’s Most Wanted, helped contribute to a climate of fear among more affluent American parents. Over time, more play took place inside families’ homes and other private spaces. “It felt safer for parents to have something that was organized and looked after,” Mose said. By the 2000s, the word “playdate” — meaning organized play for children, typically directed by parents — was in common parlance. For parents, such a date wasn’t just a time for kids to get together: “It was a presentation of self,” Mose said. “You wanted to present yourself in a particular manner so that parents would know that you were a ‘good parent.’” That meant providing the right kind of food — “people really snubbed their nose at fast food or junk food,” Mose said. It also meant offering not just supervision but, ideally, a fun yet wholesome activity to keep kids entertained. Far from locking them out to play in the street, Gill joked, “You have to have, like, a craft fair at your house.” All this was also, of course, a performance of a certain class status. It’s no accident that the concept of playdates started with upper-middle-class families and trickled down to the middle class, remaining less common among working-class people. The requirements of a playdate, from healthy food (ideally organic) to art supplies to a private indoor space big enough for multiple kids, could get expensive quickly. That performance of affluent, “good” parenting wasn’t for kids — it was for other parents, who often joined their kids on playdates, especially at younger ages. “Kids might be in one room playing together but the parents are socializing in another room,” Mose said. When planning play for their kids, parents would select people they wanted to get to know better, often because they shared common traits from neighborhoods to values. “People tend to find people like themselves,” Mose said. “That’s who they feel comfortable with.” That tendency, coupled with the expense of playdates, led to a stratification along race and class lines. While kids organically coming together at a playground might form friendships across such divisions (at least within the limits of America’s segregated neighborhoods), playdate culture instead reinforced socioeconomic rifts as wealthier parents encouraged their kids to socialize within a carefully curated social bubble. For those able to afford them, though, playdates essentially became a form of networking — the kid-friendly version of having the boss over to dinner. “In an office, you tend to network with certain types of people and exclude other types of people, and it’s a similar type of interaction when we have a playdate,” Mose said. “We tend to create an environment that’s sanitized in order to facilitate certain social networks.” The creation of such an environment may not have been conscious — few parents would say they set out to segregate their children’s social worlds. But it led to the concentration of a number of advantages — from the small, like organic snacks, to the large, like a group of well-connected and affluent parent-friends — among those who could afford the entry fee to the playdate in-crowd. It may not be the most glaring example, but playdate culture belongs in any conversation about “nice white parents” and privilege-hoarding. It was also just a huge amount of work for parents. Most of that work fell to moms, who historically have shouldered not just the majority of child care responsibilities but also the mental load of juggling kids’ schedules. The demands of playdates are probably part of the reason that parents today spend significantly more time on child care every week than they did in the 1960s, even though many more moms are also working outside the home. The demands of kids’ social calendars meant parents could “no longer have a life,” Gill said. “I understand when the kids are young, they need constant attention and supervision. But it just extended indefinitely, to forever.” Josie Norris/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images Moms and their children meet for a playdate at San Francisco’s Salesforce Park in July 2019. Yet throughout the 2000s and 2010s, parents kept shuttling their kids to playdates. Even if you weren’t consciously trying to “network,” the custom could be hard to break out of. After all, letting children play unsupervised is now deeply stigmatized — and for low-income people and people of color, who already face discrimination as parents in America, it can even lead to arrest. For middle- and upper-middle-class kids, meanwhile, opportunities to just “hang out” have fallen victim to the rise of extracurricular activities like organized sports. In her neighborhood outside New York City, “there’s a million kids you could play with,” Gill said. “Only now you can’t play with them because they’re all scheduled.” The pandemic put a stop to playdates — for a while That is, they were scheduled. Then, in March 2020, millions of Americans began sheltering in place to help limit the spread of Covid-19. “For many people, playdates simply ceased,” Mose said. “We were all afraid of people spreading germs, and as we know, children are very germy.” Not everyone took Covid-19 protocols seriously, and there has been widespread disagreement over how to weigh the risks of the virus among children, who are less likely than adults to become severely ill. Still, for many American children, the first year or so of the pandemic was a very isolated time. Granger-Mbugua’s son and daughter, for example, didn’t have playdates, and other social outlets like in-person school, church, and storytime at the local library were on hold as well. “We didn’t have a lot of interaction with friends,” Granger-Mbugua said. Her kids “have some family, but that’s about it.” As the pandemic wore on, however, families started experimenting with socializing again. Some formed “pods” with one or two other families so that kids could play while still limiting exposure. Others allowed their kids to see friends, but only outdoors. “Playdates changed in terms of location,” Mose said. “You’re basically selecting the friends of your children based on the networks you’re creating as adults” Now, as American society inches toward reopening, playdates are fraught terrain for a lot of parents. It’s not just the risk of Covid-19, it’s also the etiquette — do kids wear masks in the house? Do adults? What about snack time? What if your approach to Covid-19 safety doesn’t align with that of your hosts (or guests)? Arguments among adults over Covid-19 protocols — and the politicization of those protocols — have caused a lot of anxiety among kids, Eugene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Vox. “It’s put a great deal of tension into certain situations.” Tension or not, playdates are returning. “I think most people have already gone back” at least in some capacity, Mose said. And vaccines for children aged 5-11, which could arrive as soon as November, are likely to accelerate the process. “There will be a lot more freedom once everybody’s vaccinated,” Mose said. “Or a sense of freedom, anyway.” The time may be ripe to rethink play Many parents are looking forward to that day with bated breath. But rather than going back to playdates-as-usual, this time, when many families are rebuilding their social lives from scratch, could be an opportunity to reimagine what play should look like. Part of that is rethinking who’s in charge of a child’s social life. “I think if we allowed it to be somewhat children-led, we would see a difference in how children play together,” Mose said. Adults may gravitate to people they perceive as being like them, but “children don’t have that lens yet when they’re little,” she explained. “They truly just want to play with whoever is nice to them.” Giving kids more of a say in who they play with can make playdates less exclusionary, and open up the social world of the whole family to new people and experiences. “Our kids naturally have a diversity about them that they’re interested in exploring in terms of their outlook on social life,” Mose said. Letting kids choose what they do at a playdate, within reason, is also important, Beresin said. Rather than setting up a craft fair in the living room, parents can let kids pick out their activities and work out any disagreements about what to play on their own (again, within reason). Offering choices helps kids feel empowered and like they have control over the situation, Beresin said. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images Two children wearing masks play on a tree in Central Park as New York City moved into Phase 3 of reopening following imposed coronavirus restrictions in July 2020. After all, kids’ play is “a very, very important part of development,” Beresin said. “Play is the way they work out their anxieties, it’s the way they work out their conflicts, it’s the way they share with each other, it’s the way they learn how to be respectful of other kids.” Learning to be independent and make your own choices is part of that process, too. It’s hard to imagine a return to the world that Gill or Granger-Mbugua remember from their childhoods, when kids ran around with little interference from adults. But even before the pandemic, some efforts were afoot to give kids a bit more autonomy in their play. “Adventure playgrounds,” for example, which deemphasize traditional play structures in favor of more interactive (and chaotic) elements like old electronic equipment and hammers, have spread across Europe and popped up in the US. One such playground on New York’s Governors Island explicitly bans parents. The Free-Range Kids movement, meanwhile, advocates for more independence for children, including unsupervised play. Started in 2008 by a mom who was criticized for letting her 9-year-old take the subway alone, the movement has helped inspire laws in Utah and elsewhere that protect parents from prosecution if they let kids play or walk home by themselves. Individual parents are also finding less regimented ways to help their kids socialize. “There’s a lot of anxiety that I feel around structured, organized play,” Granger-Mbugua said. “I really prefer more organic play in spaces where children are naturally together,” whether that’s a church function or a birthday party with extended family. As pandemic restrictions lift, “I would like my children to get to know the people in the neighborhood, I would like to get them to know the people in their classes that they feel most comfortable with and pursue friendships and relationships that way,” Granger-Mbugua said. “I want my children to seek out friendships that feel good to them, and let me know, and then I will do my part to support that.” Such a kid-centric approach may find adherents at a time when a lot of the strictures of pre-pandemic society, from wardrobes to office jobs, are being questioned. And for anyone wanting to reevaluate their own kids’ social lives in our new reality, Gill, for her part, advocates a back-to-basics approach: “Let them be. Let them figure it out. Let them use their brains.” In other words: “Just let them play.”vox.com
Biden’s plan to make your internet cheaper and better is one step closer
Jessica Rosenworcel, seen here at a protest against the net neutrality repeal, is the new permanent chair of the FCC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Net neutrality is back on the table. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates everything from TV to internet service providers in the United States, is finally poised to pursue the pro-competition, pro-consumer agenda that President Joe Biden laid out in a July executive order that declared that an array of US companies have become too big and need to have their power checked. It took over nine months, but Biden has picked the FCC’s chair and nominated someone to fill the long-vacant fifth spot for a fifth commissioner. Jessica Rosenworcel, who has served as acting chair since January, will continue to lead as the agency’s permanent chair; she was also nominated for a new term, which would be her third. And Biden nominated Gigi Sohn, a former FCC staffer and prominent advocate for an open and affordable internet, to fill the agency’s last spot. Assuming the confirmations go through, which is expected because Democrats control the Senate, the biggest change to watch for is that the FCC will finally have the Democratic majority it needs to bring back Obama-era net neutrality rules, which have become a hugely divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans. “It’s the honor of a lifetime to be designated to serve as FCC chair,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. Obama’s FCC passed net neutrality in 2015. It’s best known as the rule that forces internet service providers, or ISPs (Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, for instance), to treat all of the data that travels across their networks equally. Under those rules, these companies couldn’t charge more if customers go to certain sites or make their internet speeds faster or slower depending on where they go and the services they use. The term net neutrality was coined by Tim Wu, who, incidentally, is currently serving as Biden’s adviser on technology and competition policy. Net neutrality opponents believe the rule stifles innovation and discourages internet service providers from investing in their networks. In order to pass net neutrality, the FCC reclassified broadband from an information service to a common carrier, like telephone service. That then gave the FCC more regulatory power over it. The reclassification also allowed the FCC to make new privacy rules that ISPs had to get customers’ permission before collecting and sharing their data, such as their web browsing histories. When Trump took office, his FCC, chaired by Ajit Pai, quickly set about repealing net neutrality and re-reclassifying broadband as an information service. Those ISP privacy protections never went into effect, and internet service providers were able to continue to collect, sell, or share customer data — which they very much do, per a recent FTC report. The feared onslaught of extra charges to access certain websites or blocking others didn’t come when net neutrality was repealed, but the FCC effectively ceded much of its control over broadband providers and services as they became an increasingly essential part of Americans’ lives. Biden said in his executive order that he wants the FCC to bring net neutrality back. But he took a surprisingly long time to nominate the commissioners he’d need to make that happen. Since Biden took office, the FCC has been deadlocked at two Republican commissioners (Nathan Simington, who was confirmed in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, and Brendan Carr) and two Democrats (Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks). “The real issue is this: We’ve already lost a year,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Recode. Feld worked for Sohn when she was the CEO of Public Knowledge, which she co-founded. The 2-2 FCC has done a lot of work over the last nine months to expand broadband internet and put programs in place to help lower-income people afford it (Sohn is also big on this, telling Recode last year that affordability is the biggest hurdle to closing the digital divide). The pandemic made it obvious that broadband internet access was no longer a luxury, it is an essential service. But there was no way a deadlocked FCC was going to pass net neutrality. As months went by with no apparent action on naming a permanent chair or appointing a fifth commissioner, Democrats began to lose patience. On September 22, 25 Democratic senators wrote a letter to Biden urging him to name Rosenworcel as the permanent chair “as quickly as possible.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was one of the signees, said in a statement to Recode that she strongly supports the two nominations, adding: “Strong leadership at the FCC is essential to deliver on the connectivity goals our 21st-century economy demands. … I am confident that both Rosenworcel and Sohn have the expertise needed to close the digital divide and strengthen our nation for generations to come.” Rep. Anna Eshoo, who told Recode back in January that Rosenworcel was her pick for FCC chair, lauded Biden’s picks as “historic,” noting that Rosenworcel is the first woman to serve as the FCC’s permanent chair and Sohn will be its first openly LGBTQ+ commissioner. “Rosenworcel and Sohn are brilliant champions for innovation, public safety, national security, universal broadband, net neutrality, and social justice,” Eshoo said. Assuming Biden’s nominations go through, the FCC will have three commissioners who are on record as staunch advocates of net neutrality, which makes an attempt to bring it back almost a certainty. Starks has called it a “critical issue” that the FCC “dropped the ball” on when it was repealed. Rosenworcel was an FCC commissioner back in 2015 when net neutrality initially passed, and she voted for it; she was an opponent of its repeal, saying it “put the agency on the wrong side of the public, the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the law.” And Sohn was the counselor to Obama-era FCC chair Tom Wheeler when net neutrality was passed. She’s consistently pushed for its reinstatement, saying in 2019 that it’s “critically important to the future of the Internet that net neutrality and important FCC oversight get reinstated.” “The FCC can now return to being a champion for consumers,” Wheeler told Recode. “Gigi Sohn is a proven and tested consumer champion; together with Geoffrey Starks, Chair-designate Rosenworcel has the opportunity to reverse the practices of the Trump years and return the agency to its consumer and competition responsibilities.” But net neutrality won’t happen immediately, even under the best circumstances. “It takes a long time to get an FCC order written,” Feld said. “It’s a very complicated process. Particularly for something like this, where there’s going to be a lawsuit, and it’s going to be contentious.” Net neutrality isn’t the only thing the FCC will likely take back up from the Obama era. The Biden order also called on the FCC to bring back the “broadband nutrition label” that would clearly spell out for consumers how much they pay for their broadband internet service (including all those hidden fees) and the speeds they get for that money. The FCC will also likely take more action on consumer protection and competition matters, Feld said. Biden’s order asked the FCC to require broadband providers to tell the agency their rates and subscriber counts, ban early termination fees that keep customers locked in, and stop landlords from making deals with cable and broadband companies that restrict tenants’ choice in providers. Feld expects those measures will bring broadband prices down. While broadband rates vary across the country, the United States, on average, pays more for internet than most of the rest of the world. The FCC is also in the process of opening up more radio frequencies, or spectrum, for 5G services, improving its flawed broadband maps, and ridding us of the scourge of robocalls and texts. It remains to be seen whether the FCC has enough time to see all of Biden’s initiatives — and those of the now permanent chair — through the House and the Senate. His slow path to getting his FCC in place might have squandered the possibly limited time it will have if Democrats lose control of Congress next year and the presidency in 2024. Still, Feld thinks the FCC will go back to its traditionally lower-profile role — “the technical and boring stuff.” “I say this as the ultimate compliment: Jessica Rosenworcel is the wonkiest, nerdiest possible choice for FCC chair,” Feld said. “Which is exactly what you want.”vox.com
Immigrants could fix the US labor shortage
Construction workers in Glenwood Landing, New York, in May 2020. The construction industry has seen the largest relative increase in job postings since 2019 and relies on immigrant workers. | J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images The US has more jobs than it can fill. Fixing the immigration system could boost the economy. Companies across the United States can’t find enough employees. One immediate solution is simple: Bring in more foreign workers. The US needs roughly 10 million people, including low-wage and high-skilled workers, to fill job openings nationwide — and only 8.4 million Americans are actively seeking work. And despite job openings hitting historic highs in July and extended unemployment benefits ending in September, Americans aren’t returning to work, especially in low-wage industries. At the same time, workers are resigning in record numbers. And though consumer spending has surged this year, businesses don’t have the people to meet demand — to cope, some companies are raising their prices. Supply chain bottlenecks are even threatening to ruin Christmas. When the economy is fragile, there’s an instinct to shut borders to protect American workers. And indeed, that’s what the US has done during the pandemic, practically bringing legal immigration to a halt and closing the southern border to migrants and asylum seekers. In a normal year, the US welcomes roughly 1 million immigrants, and roughly three-quarters of them end up participating in the labor force. In 2020, that number dropped to about 263,000. Generally, economic research has shown that the arrival of low-wage foreign workers has little to no negative impact on native-born workers’ wages or employment. And under the current circumstances, welcoming more low-wage foreign workers could address acute labor shortages in certain industries, helping hard-hit areas of the country recover while staving off higher inflation. The industries currently facing the worst labor shortages include construction; transportation and warehousing; accommodation and hospitality; and personal services businesses like salons, dry cleaners, repair services, and undertakers. All four industries had increases in job postings of more than 65 percent when comparing the months of May to July 2019 to the same time period in 2021, according to an analysis conducted for Vox by the pro-immigration New American Economy think tank. Immigrants make up at least 20 percent of the workforce in those industries. Officially, immigrants account for nearly a quarter of construction workers, though that’s likely an undercount because many construction workers are hired informally and don’t appear in standard economic statistics. Informal economy workers have suffered during the pandemic: On average, 1.6 billion of them worldwide saw an estimated 62 percent decline in income during the first months of the crisis. Tony Rader, senior vice president of National Roofing Partners, said his construction company — which provides commercial roof maintenance and repair services across 200 locations nationwide — is one of those struggling to hire enough workers to meet sky-high demand. “It is beyond belief, the amount of work that is out there to do right now,” Rader said. “We are nowhere near 100 percent staffing. You can’t find an estimator right now. You can’t find a project manager right now. It’s very, very difficult to hire good people.” In the absence of willing and available American workers, the company has hired temporary immigrant workers on H-2 visas. So, too, have many other employers in the roofing industry, where immigrants make up 29 percent of the workforce and there are job openings than job seekers. Rader said his company would “support the expansion of the [H-2] program” and hopes that businesses like his will have the opportunity to “work with the Biden in administration to get this fixed in a positive manner.” “The upside of the shortage is that you’re seeing wages go up, which is fabulous for American workers,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy. “The downside is if you can’t get workers to come fill these roles, you can’t run businesses.” For many people who worked undesirable or low-paying jobs before the pandemic, the economy’s seeming abundance of employment options and bargaining power is an improvement in circumstances. But economists worry the worker shortage is so drastic that it will threaten economic growth overall and perhaps lead to higher inflation. The federal government can’t force people to work. But it can make it easier for immigrants to fill needed roles — and avoiding economic problems as the US works its way out of the pandemic recession is a good reason to do so. The case for bringing in more foreign workers The economic recovery from the pandemic has been uneven, across income levels certainly, but also geographically. Pockets of the country reliant on tourism, for example, were hit especially hard. Other parts of the country have been slower to recover in part because of “stickiness” in the labor market — people who have laid roots in areas where there are no jobs aren’t always able to move to places where “help wanted” signs are everywhere. Bringing more foreign workers would help both problems. Low-wage workers, many of whom have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic, are particularly important to ensuring that those places can bounce back. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, low-wage workers make up between 30 and 62 percent of the jobs in nearly 400 metropolitan areas nationwide and are the backbone of “Main Street” businesses that support jobs for others and make neighborhoods attractive places to live and work. Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images A “Help Wanted” sign hangs in the window of Gino’s Pizza on Main Street in Patchogue, New York on August 24. Increasingly, Americans don’t want to do these jobs. Immigrants have already seized the opportunity in to fill that void, especially in the industries seeing the largest increases in job postings amid the pandemic. Given that these industries already lean disproportionately on immigrants, they are well positioned to capitalize on policies increasing the supply of immigrant labor. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Nobel prize-winning economists at MIT, write in their book Good Economics for Hard Times, immigrants are highly mobile and willing to go where there is opportunity. The US could encourage those tendencies by introducing economic incentives, such as giving immigrants a small, one-time “transition grant” if they settle in areas with labor shortages, Banerjee said. “I do think that getting a bunch of people who would work hard and could be deployed to the right places would be actually great, in particular if they could be sent to the areas where there are supply bottlenecks,” Banerjee said. But Banerjee said that’s only a short-term solution to the immediate labor shortage problem and should be paired with efforts to help workers already in the US who continue to suffer from unemployment and an unequal economic recovery from the pandemic. Democrats’ stalled $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which is essentially a big jobs program, would be a start. (A companion bill under debate would offer family supports that could help people get back to work, although some benefits won’t kick in right away.) There have also long been worker shortages across skilled industries, ranging from health care to technology, that hold back economic growth and innovation. In general, foreign-born workers in those sectors have more potential to displace Americans than low-wage workers because they’re highly specialized. That potential tradeoff makes the argument for bringing in more high-skilled immigrants less clear cut, Banerjee said. But during the pandemic, demand for high-skilled workers continued unabated, and a June report by New American Economy found that employers requested foreign workers in computer and mathematics-related fields at a slightly higher rate than usual. “The pandemic has had a limited negative effect on the growth of industries that often rely on high-skilled foreign workers due to chronic labor shortages,” the report says. “Failure to enable employers to fill critical workforce gaps hampers their ability to fulfill their economic potential, stymieing economic growth nationwide.” Ultimately, the US needs roughly 10 million people, including low-wage and high-skilled workers, to fill job openings nationwide. Immigrants are willing to fill these jobs, are willing to go where the jobs are, are willing to do so now. Bringing them to the US would solve a labor shortage Americans have been unable to fix on their own, and would speed up the course of the country’s economic recovery. The only thing stopping all this from happening is US policy. How to bring in more foreign workers One of the only existing visa programs designed to bring in low-wage workers is the H-2 program, which allows employers to hire seasonal workers in industries ranging from tourism to fishing. The program is capped at 66,000 temporary foreign workers a year, though agricultural workers are exempt from that cap. The Department of Homeland Security can increase that allotment by up to 64,000 additional visas annually without any act of Congress. The Biden administration opted to do so earlier this year, adding an additional 22,000 visas, and could add even more going forward. Brent Stirton/Getty Images H-2A visa farm laborers from Fresh Harvest maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved in Greenfield, California on April 27, 2020. Fresh Harvest is the one of the largest employers of people using the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa in the United States. But there are some limitations of the H-2 program. While it helps businesses meet demand in peak periods, many of the industries currently facing shortages require more workers year-round. And while it gives immigrants a means of working in the US legally on a temporary basis, they have little assurance of their ability to remain in the country long-term. That’s why it’s also important for the US to use the maximum number of green cards that it can issue annually, and why Congress might consider increasing those numbers. In 2021, the US failed to issue some 80,000 green cards due to processing delays. All of those will now go to waste, and cannot be recovered for next year. Those green cards should have gone to family members of US citizens and permanent residents, many of whom have faced years-long backlogs. Many of them might not otherwise be eligible for employment-based visas requiring certain skills or educational levels, but could fill low-wage labor shortages. The same is true of immigrants coming to the US through humanitarian channels such as asylum or the refugee program and through diversity visas, which are issued to individuals from countries with low levels of immigration to the US. “I tend to be very skeptical of the argument that migration policy should be based principally on skills and think the benefits will accrue at all levels,” said Deepak Bhargava, a CUNY labor studies professor and author of Immigration Matters: Visions, Strategies and Movements for a Progressive Future. “We ought to open all four channels of migration — humanitarian, economic, family and diversity — and will see benefits of it.” To make all of those channels more accessible, the Biden administration has to reverse restrictive policies that former President Donald Trump put in place and remove bureaucratic roadblocks. That includes rescinding the federal government’s pandemic-era border policy and ramping up the US’s refugee resettlement capacity. The Biden administration should also fully reopen the many consulates that remain closed or open with limited services due to the pandemic to ensure that immigrants can be interviewed and processed abroad in a timely manner. That would go a long way in addressing lengthy backlogs for visas and green cards. Doing so would likely require additional funding for the State Department, which oversees the consulates, as well as a greater level of visa and green card prioritization from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes applications stateside. There is a limit to how much the Biden administration can do unilaterally to increase America’s capacity to accept immigrants. Raising immigration levels beyond what they were before the pandemic and Trump would likely require action from Congress. “What’s really required is a rewrite of the country’s immigration laws that sets a much larger target for admissions under all the categories and probably adds a fifth category for climate migrants, which is going to be an increasingly large part of the flow that we see from the Southern Hemisphere in the coming decade,” Bhargava said. “So ultimately, this is going to require a new political consensus.”vox.com
The “ghost stores” of Instagram
It’s easier than ever to set up an online store. Customers are often paying extra money for goods sourced from marketplace sites like Amazon or AliExpress. | Getty Images That cute dress you bought off Instagram could be found on Shein, AliExpress, or Amazon for much cheaper. A few months ago, I came across a fashion brand on Instagram that purported to be a Los Angeles-based, woman-owned boutique. The tagline on its Instagram bio, “Alteration is innovation,” suggested that the brand championed clothing alteration and sold clothes that were upcycled or crafted out of old and discarded fabrics. The only red flag was the price of its clothes, which ranged from $60 to $150. These weren’t fast fashion prices, but they seemed suspiciously low for handcrafted garments. A quick reverse image search of the brand’s products confirmed my doubts. The Google results took me to another Instagram boutique as well as to AliExpress, a Chinese marketplace site, where the exact pieces (with the same promotional images) were sold for less than half of the stated price. I was stunned. The quirky styles and marketing had led me to think that the brand produced and designed its own clothes, rather than sourcing pre-made styles from overseas manufacturers. Instead, like the many, many other “ghost stores” floating around the Instagram abyss, it appeared to be just another cog — albeit a barely identifiable one — in the fast fashion machine. (The brand did not reply to requests for comment.) Instagram has spent years tweaking its interface, priming users to shop on the app. Its transformation into a shopping destination was swift, sudden, and hardly surprising. This paved the way for a specific type of online business, or “Insta boutique,” to thrive. These shops don’t always sell goods exclusively on Instagram; they rely on the app to draw customers to their websites, through influencer marketing or targeted ads. And while more people are turning to social media to find new products and brands, shoppers have also grown wary. People are realizing that certain brands aren’t exactly what they market themselves to be: independent, ethically-minded stores run by small business owners and designers. In some cases, shoppers are finding out that they paid at least double the price of a garment found on marketplace sites like YesStyle, Amazon, and AliExpress, or from the Chinese fast fashion retailer Shein. For example, a Business Insider reporter purchased two dresses for about $34 each from It’s Juliet, an Instagram boutique that claims to sell “ethically made” clothing, only to discover the exact same styles on AliExpress for $10 each. What’s concerning for customers is the origins of the merchandise in question. While some brands are clearly snapping up items from places like Amazon or Shein and reselling them for profit, others appear to be engaging in a practice where they don’t have merchandise on hand at all, called “drop shipping.” (Granted, not all stores on Instagram fall into this category. There are plenty of reputable, small artisans and business owners earning a living through the app.) These virtual storefronts are what I refer to as “ghost stores:” faceless, indistinguishable enterprises with few original products. These merchants rarely disclose the nuances of their business models. Even those that do vaguely impart some information to shoppers aren’t immune from consumer blowback either. That’s because the entrepreneurs behind these brands are savvy at constructing a digital facade. They’ve learned to gain customers’ trust through relentless social media marketing or by manufacturing a convincingly vague “brand story” that reveals minimal information about founders and workers. The draw of these “ghost stores” is predicated on somewhat ineffable factors. We buy from the brands we do because we connect with some element of the business, whether it be over superficial factors like unique clothing designs or something more identity-driven and moralistic, like sustainability. When we learn that a company isn’t much more than the story it’s telling — that it exists for purely profitable reasons — it can feel misleading. It is, of course, in every brand’s best interest to spin a narrative that attracts customers. One could argue that the entire retail industry is built on some level of deception. Customers, too, haven’t traditionally cared about where or how their stuff is made. After all, plenty of reputable retailers have a history of sourcing from the same factories and suppliers, while resorting to white labeling, or rebranding, their items to disguise this fact. Still, the illusion of difference and exclusiveness is comforting. It cements a sense of loyalty between the customer and the brand. Back when we did most of our shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, this pretension felt believable. Now, all it takes is a simple Google search for the facade to fall apart. Capitalism defined: All stores in U.S. do this; order wholesale clothing from over seas or have made in bulk for pennies & price it up 200-500% for resale. From IG Boutiques, to Macy’s. Small businesses aren’t scamming you, you’re just learning the inside of the retail industry.— Corrinn The Creative (@beautyboxstyle) August 26, 2021 To be clear, reselling and drop shipping are not illegal or inherently nefarious practices, although factors like product quality and authentication come into question. Drop shipping is actually a decades-old fulfillment model initially used by furniture and appliance sellers. Merchants list products for sale without having any of the inventory on hand. The merchant is in agreement with manufacturers to purchase the products at lower wholesale prices, which allows them to mark up the cost for profit. When an item is sold, the drop shipper coordinates with the supplier to send the goods directly to the customer. It’s often a process the merchant has no control over, and items can take weeks or months to arrive. Other ghost stores carry limited merchandise on hand and store it in a studio or warehouse. These virtual brands aren’t exactly drop shippers, since they have access to inventory. Still, they tend to buy wholesale from suppliers, like Shein or AliExpress, that work with drop shippers. The Instagram clothing store I encountered, for example, displays photos and videos of its Los Angeles studio and showroom, and occasionally features workers handling and shipping out garments. This is at odds with how its clothes are largely indistinguishable from that of EAM, an AliExpress store and supplier, and other Instagram boutiques. Reproducibility is a telltale sign that these brands source from the same suppliers, even while they feign authenticity and originality. The muddied similarities between various online stores, made possible by the rise of shoppable social media and mass production of goods, reveal the reality of these ventures. It lays bare what the writer Jenny O’Dell described as “the categorical deception at the heart of all branding and retail.” Consumers are starting to notice and question, for example, why they’re seeing the same pair of pants everywhere, just with a different brand label slapped on. The purchase starts to feel like a scam, even if it isn’t quite. Lisa Fevral, an artist from Canada who produces video essays on fashion and culture, has grown suspicious of a particular genre of small Instagram boutiques, selling trendy clothing styles and aggressively promoting targeted ads. In a recent video, Fevral referred to them as “doppelganger brands.” They have names like Cider, Kollyy, Omighty, Emmiol, and Juicici, and in her opinion appeared to sell clothes from the same Chinese suppliers. (Fevral was initially approached by a representative from Cider to promote the brand, but said she turned down the offer.) What worries Fevral, though, is the effort put into greenwashing their brands to deceive credulous customers. “These companies are clearly targeting young women, but it seems like they’re trying to adjust their language to appear more sustainable or ethical while not changing much about their practices,” Fevral told me. “There’s no way any company can keep up with TikTok styles and trends unless they are producing a lot of very cheap clothing.” Cider, which Business of Fashion has described as “the next Shein,” received $22 million of venture capital investment in June to expand its operations. On Cider’s “about us” page, it claims to be a “globally-minded, social-first” brand that reduces waste by operating under a preorder model and “only [produces] specific styles we know people want in a controlled amount.” Its CEO also told Business of Fashion that Cider places orders for small batches of styles. Yet customers have claimed to find copies of its clothes on AliExpress for slightly lower prices, which suggests that Cider — or its suppliers — might be producing and selling extra garments elsewhere. (Cider did not respond to requests for comment over email or Instagram.) @madeline_pendleton Answer to @gorygorygirlfriend ♬ original sound - Madeline Pendleton “It’s so easy for a brand to add another section in its about page to make you feel better about supporting them,” Fevral said. “Cider reached out to me even after I made the video [about its greenwashing practices]. These brands don’t care.” It doesn’t really matter whether sites like Cider are drop shippers or merchants with access to wholesale merchandise. They’re not breaking any laws. In fact, the conspicuousness of the entire enterprise — how exact replicas of certain products can be found on other retail sites for comparable prices — is a defining quality of capitalism. What happens if a brand’s reputation is sullied? Its architects can simply rename it, start over, and continue to source from the same places. One frustrated shopper, who purchased a pleather jacket from a seemingly real German label, remarked that these “scams are getting so sophisticated” that people should be wary of buying things from digital brands they’ve never heard of. Good morning! Instagram/Facebook clothing company scams are getting so sophisticated that if you don’t want to fall for one, you basically just can’t buy from digital brands you’ve never heard of. Signed, bozo who fell for the “Mark & Morten” “going out of business sale”— Anna Sproul-Latimer (@annasproul) August 13, 2020 That’s because there is basically no friction to constructing a virtual storefront, even if it is essentially a digital facade. An aspiring retailer only needs a few things: a website, a catchy domain name, an active social media presence, and product suppliers. (Shein is a preeminent example of this kind of direct-to-consumer retailer, and has morphed into a drop shipping supplier itself.) Several lesser-known brands with murky roots have emerged in Shein’s shadow, offering comparably affordable prices and replicable clothing styles. Like Shein and other ultra-fast fashion retailers, these brands release new styles every week, leaning into fashion “micro-trends” inspired by trendy internet aesthetics, like dark academia, cottagecore, or coconut girl. Since the internet has a notoriously short attention span, these trend-based clothes aren’t made to last. The fast fashion business model relies on overconsumption. In the mission to produce and sell as many clothes as possible, these “ghost stores” are constructing a fashion monoculture — one in which consumers are basically buying and wearing the same clothes, just sold to them from different boutiques. So, is it even possible to tell these brands apart from more reputable retailers? Some shoppers suggest reverse image-searching products and clothes before an impulse purchase, while others sleuth on fashion forums, like Reddit, for customer reviews. It requires the consumer to be diligent and vigilant, to do their homework when encountering new brands, especially if they’re touting questionable origin stories or vague “About Us” pages. The moral of the story? Brands, especially when they operate online, are not always what they seem.vox.com
What happens when your favorite thing goes viral?
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle performing in 2015. | C Brandon/Redferns A 2002 song by the Mountain Goats about a doomed divorce is suddenly big on TikTok. Why? Nobody is quite sure when or why it happened. But as of the past few weeks, the Mountain Goats became TikTok’s new favorite indie band. This is weird not because young people are discovering music that predates their existence. That happens all the time, especially on TikTok, where at any point there is guaranteed to be at least five trending ABBA songs. And it’s not weird because the song that made the Mountain Goats go viral is “No Children,” an incredibly dark divorce anthem between two fictional lovers. Weird and dark stuff gets big all the time on the platform; last year a six-hour experimental album about dementia became a viral TikTok challenge. No, it’s weird that the Mountain Goats are TikTok famous because the Mountain Goats are perhaps the least likely candidates for “viral TikTok sensation” on the planet. The band, which formed 30 years ago (and, for long swaths, consisted of just one member) and originally recorded their music on DIY-style boomboxes, has released an astounding 20 albums. These albums seem relatively unconcerned with breakout singles or hits and more interested in shaping larger complex narratives about topics from Dungeons & Dragons to professional wrestling to child abuse. Which is to say, it can be a bit daunting for would-be fans to tackle the band’s discography; there is simply so much of it, and so much subtext to sift through. The Mountain Goats getting TikTok famous sort of feels like if Ulysses suddenly became the bestselling book on Amazon. @bisexualwentworth maybe I should create some choreography for this song… #nochildren #themountaingoats ♬ no children by the mountain goats - K ! ☕️ Videos set to “No Children” first started getting tens of thousands of views in January and February and again over the summer. In early October, it went nuclear, possibly (from what I can tell) catalyzed by an 18-year-old who posted his reaction to the lyrics: “this song is way too depressing. It sounds like a middle aged man crying over a girl he met in high school. Like get over it dude.” (This is an objectively hilarious response to a widely beloved indie folk song.) “No Children” has since inspired its own dance trend, in which people use comically literal recreations to the lyrics, “I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand / And I hope you die.” There are self-deprecating jokes about being a depressed child listening to “No Children” before fully comprehending the words; there are people coming to terms with their relationships with their fathers. Even Jack Antonoff made a TikTok about it. Largely, though, the videos I’m seeing are a sort of meta-reaction to the trend, made by longtime Mountain Goats fans who are talking about what it’s like to see a song and a band that was so deeply important to them get sucked into the infinite churn of trending content. “As a 2010-era hipster in recovery from an insufferable superiority complex, I am constantly forced to reckon with unlearning the impulse to gatekeep everything I love from everyone,” begins one TikTok. “And in an effort to combat that, because it’s the worst thing about me, here’s a crash course on the Mountain Goats.” There are others like this too, offering helpful guides on how to get started climbing the proverbial, erm, mountain. When I asked fans on Twitter what they thought, people tended to reply that they were extremely happy that the band has found a new, young audience. “At first, I felt silly that my first thought was, ‘Wait they’re mine!’ But it’s kind of exciting to have everyone discover something you hold dear, even if it’s for a weird reason,” one woman wrote. Some were concerned that the nuance of the song, and the band’s lyrics in general, could get flattened by the context collapse of a 15-second clip in a TikTok video. “All of their lyrics are excellent and they cover so many themes and images with a completely groundbreaking form, and frankly, trying to compress their work in a 15-second video is quite reductionist,” said another. @itskeyes #duet with @13leu watch me hit the Tallahassee ♬ original sound - bleu “I am a little worried that the specific portion of that song could create some misreadings and weird romanticization of ‘bad’ relationships,” one woman added. “The song really only makes sense in the context of the rest of [the album] Tallahassee, so if you hear just a snippet you might walk away with the sense that this is cool hip angst rather than a story of a really, really bad time in a couple’s relationship.” Some were nonplussed: “Maybe a couple of zoomers will really get into it and their music taste will improve. Sick. But my guess is that it’s just as ephemeral as any other social media meme. How’s that Fleetwood Mac revival going, again?” No one is more surprised than the man behind it all, chief Mountain Goat John Darnielle, who found out about “No Children”’s skyrocketing popularity only after people started tweeting at him, and who graciously agreed to sit for a phone interview about an app he doesn’t use. “Obviously, when something like this happens you think a little bit and you laugh,” he says of how it felt when he saw how Spotify streams of “No Children” were closing in on the band’s biggest single, “This Year” (they’ve now surpassed it). I wondered whether he’d been prepared for the likelihood that one of his songs would get big on TikTok, as so much of the music industry is now determined by its algorithm. “I kind of have some fairly old-fashioned dad-like values about what an artist ought to be thinking about,” he said. “If I’m sitting here thinking about my own virality too much, then I’m going to wind up stewing in an ocean of self-contempt.” He also acknowledged the implicit pressure that artists must then capitalize on their virality. “I think many artists in our shoes would have said, ‘Maybe it’s time for us to start making our own TikToks.’ And I would say, ‘No, I’m not going to be the 54-year-old sidling up to the cool party with you kids. I’m not going to do the Steve Buscemi-with-the-skateboard thing.” The idea that an artist can completely sit out a meme cycle is increasingly novel (consider Taylor Swift immediately releasing her re-recorded version of “Wildest Dreams” as soon as it became a TikTok trend, or Fleetwood Mac joining TikTok in response to the viral video set to “Dreams”). “Both the culture industry and the music industry have a lot invested in the idea that the music of today is for the youth, and youth will buy it and give us money for it,” Darnielle said. “But if the youth land on a Steve Miller Band song, they go, ‘This is a good song. I like this one.’ If they find songs in the public domain, I think the industry has a great fear of that.” As the internet has allowed folks of all ages, but especially tech-literate young people, to rediscover cultural artifacts from the past, fans of the band told me they’ve noticed an increase in the number of teens and 20-somethings at their shows. “It’s really cool to have it affirmed that music is a gigantic conversation between all generations,” Darnielle says. “I am a father of two. There is a certain joy in sort of feeling like, well, the kids have got a thing going on that I’m not going to fully get. But I can just enjoy watching. I think people fear getting older and fear that they’ll feel left out, but there’s a kind of buoyancy in that left-out quality sometimes, if you ride it the right way.” In recent performances, Darnielle has addressed the elephant in the room before playing “No Children.” “He said something to the effect of, ‘And now for the uncomfortable tension of whether the old man knows about the TikTok thing’ while winding up with the intro, then made a few jokes about how no one needs a 54-year-old on TikTok claiming they have something to say,” a concertgoer in Boston told me. The irony is, of course, that it’s precisely that kind of self-awareness and humility that TikTok could use more of. The way Darnielle sees it, going viral doesn’t diminish the value of the song, it only spreads its influence. “Everybody who’s been enjoying the song should know how grateful it makes us feel that our stuff is entertaining somebody,” he says. “For any entertainer, that’s the highest prize. You cannot ask for anything more, right?” This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.vox.com
A contrarian take on the disinformation panic
Jake Angeli, 33, a.k.a. Yellowstone Wolf, from Phoenix, wrapped in a QAnon flag, addresses supporters of US President Donald Trump as they protest outside the Maricopa County Election Department as counting continues after the US presidential election in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 5, 2020. | Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images Joe Bernstein on what we know — and don’t know — about disinformation. If you’ve followed the news over the last few years, you’re probably convinced that we’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Whether it’s QAnon or the January 6 insurrection or anti-vaccine hysteria, many have come to believe that the culprit, more often than not, is bad information — and the fantasy-industrial complex that generates and propagates it — breaking people’s brains. However, I read an essay recently in Harper’s magazine that made me wonder whether the story was as simple as that. I can’t say that it changed my mind in any profound way about the real-world consequences of lies, but it did make me question some of my core assumptions about the information ecosystem online. It’s called “Bad News: Selling the Story of Disinformation,” and the author is Joseph Bernstein, a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News. Bernstein doesn’t deny that disinformation is a thing.The problem is that we don’t have a consistent definition of the term. What you find in the literature, Bernstein says, is a lot of vague references to information “that could possibly lead to misperceptions about the state of the world.” A definition that broad, he argues, isn’t all that useful as a foundation for objective study. And it’s also not that clear how disinformation is distinct from misinformation, except that the former is considered more “intentionally” misleading. All of this leads Bernstein to the conclusion that even the people researching this stuff can’t agree on what they’re talking about. But the bigger — and much less understood — issue is that certain interests are invested in over-hyping disinformation as an existential crisis because it’s good for business and because it’s a way of denying the real roots of our problems. I reached out to him for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about where he thinks the disinformation discourse went wrong and why it’s not all that clear whether the internet broke American society or merelyunmasked it. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Sean Illing I’ve spent a lot of time the last few years making noises about disinformation and misinformation and what a great problem it is, and I have to say, you’ve really made me pause and think hard about how easily I’ve bought into the conventional wisdom on this stuff. But let’s just start there: Do you think people like me, that have been worrying publicly about disinformation, have been part of a panic? Joe Bernstein I think that the idea of bad information on the internet is a poorly understood and at times poorly discussed topic. That is a huge topic. That is a new topic. That is a very important topic, but that like many problems, it helps to define them. And if you have trouble defining them, it helps to think about why. And when you start thinking about why, it helps to think about who is trying to define the problem and why. And so, I’m not comfortable even necessarily calling it a panic because I think, especially as we’ve seen with this series of revelations in the Wall Street Journal over the past couple of weeks, and then the testimony of the Facebook whistleblower, these are real problems. It’s just not clear to me that we understand completely what’s at stake or that we understand completely how these categories that are being kind of tossed around — and I’ve at times tossed them around too, mis- and disinformation — how they’re being used. And that’s really what I wanted to do: not to say that several private companies having monopoly power over the flow of information is a thing we should just be happy with and live with, but that when we talk about the problem, we should understand who wants to address it and why. Sean Illing It might surprise people to learn that even the researchers studying disinformation can’t come up with a coherent or consistent definition of the term. Joe Bernstein This is one of the things that I played for laughs in the piece. What scholars would say is that they have a lexical problem. Everyone knows there’s an issue, but everyone is attacking this issue using the same word, with a different idea in their head. So the most comprehensive survey of the scholarly field is from 2018. It’s a scientific literature review called “Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation.” And the definition they give of disinformation — and this is a good, broad survey of the field — this is the definition they give: “Disinformation is intended to be a broad category describing the types of information that one could encounter online that could possibly lead to misperceptions about the actual state of the world.” Now, as far as I can tell, that definition basically applies to anything you could come in contact with online. And Sean, I should make the point, this trickles down to the definitions that tech companies use when they define mis- and disinformation. So — I’m not going to get this exactly right — but TikTok’s definition of misinformation is something like, “information that is not true or information that could mislead or is not true.” There’s just not a lot of there there. There’s a lot of good research, but for something that aspires to be kind of an objective science, there’s not a good objective foundation. Sean Illing A big problem here is that we’re desperate for some kind of neutral definition of disinformation so that it’s possible to call something “disinformation” without it appearing political, but that doesn’t seem possible. Joe Bernstein Yeah. And then, one of the interesting things to me was when I looked up the etymology of the term — it’s actually a borrowing from a Russian word that was popularized in the early years of the Cold War: dezinformatsiya. It was initially defined in the 1952 Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which was kind of a propaganda encyclopedia meant for English consumption. Its definition was as follows: “dissemination in the press or on the radio of false reports intended to mislead public opinion. The capitalist press and radio make wide use of dezinformatsiya.” I don’t mean to be a complete relativist and say there aren’t things that are true or false. Of course there are. But on the internet especially, context is very, very important, and it’s very hard to isolate particular nuggets of information as good or bad information. Sean Illing What’s a better definition of “disinformation”? How’s it distinct from “misinformation” or “propaganda”? Joe Bernstein I like the word propaganda better than I like the words mis- and disinformation because I think it has a stronger political connotation. I think there is a broad understanding among the people who study and the people who talk about mis- and disinformation in the media, that disinformation is more intentional than misinformation, and misinformation tends to be poorly contextualized but nevertheless true or “truthy” information. What I wanted to do with this piece is make it clear that these definitions have politics behind them, in the way people who use them have politics behind them. I don’t even think there’s necessarily anything wrong with using these terms, as long as it’s clear that there are interests. And I’m not implying some kind of broad conspiracy. I take pains to say — maybe I didn’t say it enough in the piece — that there are people who are operating in utter good faith, who care deeply about public discourse, who are studying this problem. I just want some recognition that the use of these terms has a politics behind it, even if that’s a centrist or kind of a conventional liberal politics. I would like that to be a feature of the discussion. Sean Illing A big claim in your piece is that the disinformation craze has become a vehicle for propping up the online advertising economy, and it might sound counterintuitive to say that Big Tech companies like Facebook would enthusiastically embrace the idea that “disinformation” is a major problem. What does a company like Facebook stand to gain here? Why are they selling this so hard? Joe Bernstein Well, one of the things that got me thinking about this was, I started with kind of a buzzword that I have used; the “information ecosystem.” It just kind of makes intuitive sense. We have a world, the natural world of information, and then something’s polluted it. And so then I started thinking about other industries that pollute, and that have gotten in trouble for polluting. So like the tobacco industry — which has been a major point of comparison to big tech recently — well, cigarettes give people cancer. Or the fossil fuel industry, it pollutes and it’s contributing to climate change. And there’s good science behind that. And yet these industries have spent years fighting the science, trying to undermine the science. And I was very surprised when I thought about the timeline of how long it took Facebook to be blamed, for throwing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor and for Brexit, to when Mark Zuckerberg essentially publicly admitted misinformation was a problem. And we intuit that’s true, but I don’t think the science is necessarily there. I don’t think the study of media effects on politics is necessarily there yet. I mean, we’re still getting the political science on the effect of Father Coughlin on, I believe, the 1936 election. These are questions that are going to be resolved over time. But you had Mark Zuckerberg out there in public basically saying, “We’re going to fight misinformation.” Partially, that’s because I think Facebook has never had a particularly coherent press strategy. But part of it, I think, is that Facebook realized very quickly, as did the other big tech companies, that rather than in a kind of blanket way say, “This isn’t true. These claims, there’s no empirical basis behind them,” I think they realized that co-opting, or at least sort of putting their arms around the people who are doing this research, was a better strategy. And I started to wonder why. From a public relations perspective, it makes good sense. But also, I started to think about the nature of the claim itself, that people being exposed to bad information are necessarily convinced by that information. And then, that’s when I kind of had a “eureka” moment, which was that’s exactly the same way that Facebook makes money. What Hannah Arendt calls the “psychological premise of human manipulability,” which is kind of a mouthful. And so, if we accept that people are endlessly convincible by whatever bullshit they see on Facebook, on the internet, in some ways we’re contributing to the idea that the ad duopoly, Facebook and Google and just online ads in general, works. I’m kind of going on, but there’s a terrific book that I read around that time by a guy who’s now the general counsel of Substack. He’s a guy named Tim Wong, who worked at Google for a long time. The book is called Subprime Attention Crisis. And it’s basically about how much of the online ad industry is a house of cards. One very interesting fact about the Facebook whistleblower disclosures to the SEC, and one that got almost no press attention, is that she claims, based on internal Facebook research, that they were badly misleading investors in the reach and efficacy of their ads. And to me, the most damaging thing you could say about Facebook is that this kind of industrial information machine doesn’t actually work. And so that kind of flipped everything I thought about this on its head. And that’s when I started to write the piece. To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.vox.com
Is ignoring the pandemic a crime against humanity?
Protesters wearing masks depicting President Jair Bolsonaro protest the government’s Covid-19 response in Brasilia, Brazil, on October 20. | Andressa Anholete/Getty Images Brazilian lawmakers may try to make the case, though experts are skeptical of how far it could go. Brazil has the world’s second-highest official Covid-19 death toll, just after the United States, with more than 600,000 fatalities. Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas, had a deadly first wave that saw mass graves, and a dangerous second where it ran out of oxygen. Through it all, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed what he once called the “little flu,” dismissed public health measures, and promoted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine while undermining proven approaches, like vaccines. Now some Brazilian lawmakers are trying tohold Bolsonaro and his associates accountable. A Senate committee will vote Tuesday ona more than 1,000-page report outlining the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 outbreak and vaccination campaign. The result of a months-long inquiry by a congressional panel, the report recommends charges for Bolsonaro, among them falsification of documents, misuse of public funds, and charlatanism. And one particular allegation stands out: “crimes against humanity.” The report says crimes against humanity come into play as “the entire population was deliberately subject to the effects of the pandemic, with the intention of trying to reach herd immunity through contagion and save the economy.” The report specifically ties these “crimes against humanity” to Indigenous peoples, saying the virus was an “ally” of the Bolsonaro government in its anti-Indigenous policies. The committee had initially recommended Bolsonaro also face charges of genocide and mass homicide for the Covid-19 toll on the Indigenous population, but those recommendations were removed from the final version after several senators said those allegations went too far, according to the New York Times. The “crimes against humanity” charge raises a question beyond Bolsonaro, and Brazil, about how to hold leaders accountable for real malfeasance and negligence during public health emergencies, like the still-unfolding Covid-19 pandemic. And does malfeasance rise to the level of egregiousness the world typically associates with war and repression — or at least could it? The question is largely untested, specifically at the International Criminal Court, the venue to which the Senate committee may refer the “crimes against humanity” charge, if senators agree to it in the final vote. (Lawmakers are likely to refer the other allegations to the prosecutor-general, but he is a Bolsonaro ally and is unlikely to pursue criminal charges against the president or any of his associates.) The ICC, based in the Hague, is sometimes called the “court of last resort,” stepping in when nations themselves cannot or will not prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. It seems unlikely thatBolsonaro’s Covid-19 gross mismanagement will be taken up by the court, many experts said — but deliberate mishandling of a disease could still fit within the definition of “crimes against humanity.” If this case is referred to the ICC, it may be the first test of whether leaders can face criminal consequences for public health disasters of their own making. Should leaders be held accountable for Covid-19 malfeasance? The ICC could take up a case against Bolsonaro in theory.Brazil is party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that brought the court into force in 2002. That means if crimes against humanity happen in Brazil, the ICC has jurisdiction, said David Bosco, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University who’s researched the ICC. (Not all countries are signatories, including the United States, which feared American troops might be subject to prosecution for actions overseas; the Trump administration even sanctioned some top ICC officials.) But even if the Senate does follow through, a referral to the ICC prosecutor is just that. It’s ultimately up to the ICC to take up a case, examine it, and pursue it. Typically, cases are referred by states themselves (or the United Nations Security Council), but it seems unlikely that the Bolsonaro government is going to refer itself. The ICC doesn’t have an obligation to pursue any referral from an outside group or even lawmakers, though the ICC can initiate its own investigations. The ICC has 15 investigations underway, and 12 preliminary investigations, according to the ICC’s website, none of them in Brazil right now. As troubling as the allegations against Bolsonaro are in this big report, they are not a neat fit for a crimes against humanity case. It’s worth starting with what the law says. The Rome Statute says a crime against humanity exists “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” That could be widespread or systematic murder, or forced disappearance, or, as the very last provision says: “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” David Scheffer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who helped lead the US delegation on ICC talks two decades ago, said the catchall nature of the last one is deliberate. “It is obvious that other types of assaults on your civilian population are going to emerge in the future, and you have to provide for that in the statute,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a better example than intentional mismanagement of a Covid-19 pandemic or some other pathogen. And so I would argue that, yes, that’s fair game.” The investigations and prosecutions that the ICC takes up involve some of the most brutal crimes, and so the bar is incredibly high: To prove crimes against humanity, of any sort, prosecutors have to prove knowledge and intent. “Disease can be a weapon, and so you could certainly imagine that constituting a crime against humanity,” Bosco said. “But negligence or disinformation, that would be a harder fit.” It’s especially tricky with a still-evolving event like the Covid-19 pandemic. The science changed, and is changing. The origins of the disease, different possible treatments, the mask-wearing of it all — expert opinion shifted throughout the pandemic. A robust pandemic response also takes resources that leaders might not have, and not all countries have access to lifesaving medical interventions like vaccines. As experts pointed out, it is a very high bar to prove knowledge and intent, and that’s ultimately what the ICC prosecutors would have to investigate and prove in any case involving crimes against humanity. Trying to parse that out in an evolving pandemic and with a new pathogen is an extraordinary task. But, as Scheffer said, as the scientific consensus coalesces, public officials “need to be responsible enough to follow the procedures and policies that can defeat and overcome the public health threat to their populations.” Experts I spoke to say there really isn’t an obvious precedent for a crime against humanity case in a public health setting; the closest examples, like destruction of water systems in Darfur, Sudan, came in the context of a larger conflict. Covid-19 has killed nearly 5 million people globally, and failures in leadership around the world likely exacerbated the toll. Other leaders have made missteps, or denied the seriousness of the pandemic at points, that may have contributed to Covid-19’s spread, from India’s Narendra Modi to the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson to Donald Trump in the US. But sorting out what was done in error, or ineptly, and what was done with deliberate intent to spread the disease is an extraordinary task. The ICC is dealing with some very tough and longstanding investigations, which makes it seem unlikely it would take up a case like this. “Bolsonaro’s response to Covid has been egregious, but for both legal and pragmatic reasons, I don’t see it being something that the ICC will take up,” said Rebecca Hamilton, an associate professor at Washington College of Law. Bolsonaro is already facing referrals to the ICC, mostly from Indigenous and environmental groups. A few weeks ago, a group accused Bolsonaro of “crimes against humanity” for the “widespread attack on the Amazon, its dependents and its defenders that not only result in the persecution, murder and inhumane suffering in the region, but also upon the global population.” Another ICC referral could certainly raise the profile of those other cases, and, especially since the Senate’s report focuses a lot on the Covid-19 fallout on Indigenous communities, Scheffer said the cases all might look a lot stronger together. “The ICC has a thick file on Brazil right now, a very thick file,” he said. And it is still remarkable that lawmakers in Brazil are making the case not only that Bolsonaro failed at the pandemic, but also that some of his actions constitute a crime against humanity. It’s an attempt to hold Bolsonaro himself accountable and to secure guardrails for the next pandemic or public health crisis. If leaders faced the threat of criminal prosecutionfor putting their populations at grave risk, they might not pursue those policies at all.vox.com
House isn’t selling? Blame the ghosts.
Zac Freeland/Vox Realtor? Check. Appraiser? Check. Ghostbuster? Check. Part of the Horror Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. The Nyack, New York, home is a looker. A baby-blue Victorian clocking in at more than a century old, and endowed with a prime view of the Hudson River and proximity to New York City, it might even have inspired an Edward Hopper painting. Perhaps less desirable, however, were the three ghosts allegedly loitering around the property. Helen Ackley, who lived in the house from the 1960s to the early 1990s, believed the ghosts resided in her home, telling the New York Times that she once saw one while she was painting the living room ceiling and that another one waltzed in her daughter’s bedroom. The third ghost, she said, was seen by her son and was a Navy lieutenant during the Revolutionary War. It may have all been fun and games until, after decades of calling the place home, Ackley made moves to sell the property at the tail end of the 1980s. In 1989, an out-of-town buyer emerged, someone who was unaware of the house’s well-known local reputation for being haunted. The unlucky man, Jeffrey Stambovsky, a bond trader from New York City, eagerly put down $32,000 on what he thought would be his new $650,000home. Until, that is, he learned of the home’s mysterious past. Spooked, Stambovsky sued, demanding his down payment back. New York’s State Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision that has become a staple in many law school classes, decided in his favor. “As a matter of law, the house is haunted,” wrote Justice Israel Rubin for the court in what would later come to be called the Ghostbusters ruling. The case of Stambovsky v. Ackley is a quirky artifact of legal history, but it also prompts questions about the flimsy underpinnings that hold up the institution of homeownership. A home is the largest and arguably most important asset any American will ever own. Its value rests on a variety of factors, like architectural style or the size of the kitchen, but most uncomfortably, it rests on subjective beliefs around what is and isn’t desirable. Part of that subjective evaluation includes the paranormal. Good schools can bump up a home price. Ghosts lurking by the basement door, not so much. In fact, paranormal activity affecting property prices is common enough that a cottage industry has sprung up trying to clear homes of anything supernatural before a sale. It’s a reflection of just how tenuous the value of a property is that the whispers of ghosts can inflict a real cost. That’s why the Ghostbusters case isn’t the only time that the legal system has had to wrestle withthe question of what to do with purportedly haunted houses or places where there has recently been a death. Four states have laws on the books regarding paranormal activity and real estate, according to Zillow. In New York, as the Stambovsky case settled, if a seller invents and maintains that their property is haunted and then allows a potential buyer to remain ignorant of the “home’s ghostly reputation,” the court will rescind the sale. In New Jersey, if homeowners are asked, they’re required to disclose whether there are “psychological impairments.” In Massachusetts and Minnesota, the laws go in the other direction: Instead of ensuring that the buyer has information about paranormal activity, the law protects a seller who may choose to withhold that info. Caring about ghosts in your home isn’t just for the superstitious, it’s for a market-conscious buyer as well. Even if just 10 percent of people would be uncomfortable buying a home where there are rumored to be ghosts, that reduces the value of the property, because it can reduce demand.And 10 percent could be an underestimate: A 2009 Pew survey found that nearly a fifth of Americans said they had “seen or been in the presence of a ghost.” A more recent 2019 YouGov poll found that roughly 45 percent of Americans believed in ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings. It’s unclear how many people would allow that belief to affect their home-buying decisions— particularly in a market as hot as this one — but a dissentingjudge in the Ghostbusters case wrote that Stambovsky sued because, “as a result of the alleged poltergeist activity, the market value and resaleability of the property was greatly diminished.” David Chapman, a real estate professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, wrote about the Stambovsky case and how to teach it in a paper subtitled You don’t have a ghost of a chance. Chapman, a real estate agent, says he’s had clients refuse to buy properties if they think there might be something strange going on in the home. “I had a client that carried a box, some sort of Geiger-counter-looking-thing, and she would put it in front of each house and it would determine whether we would even go into the house at all,” he tells Vox. Chapman also notes that America’s aging housing stock could change how frequently this comes up. “My wife and I own a lot of houses that were built between 1895 and 1920, so if you look at the amount of owners that had been through those homes, I would guess that there were not very many of those that somebody did not die in the house,” he says. According to Freddie Mac, more than 50 percent of single family homes were built before 1980 — and the older the home, the higher the chance that someone died there. In his written opinion, Judge Rubin from the Stambovsky case sarcastically quipped that while buyers are legally responsible for screening their purchases, strictly applying that standard “to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale.” While the image of a psychic accompanying would-be buyers to each property might be comical, it’s not as far-fetched as the judge made it sound. A cottage industry of spirit-related businessesexists to assist buyers and sellers grappling with the ghosts that may or may not be lurking beneath the floorboards. The website DiedInHouse.com was started in 2012 after its founder got a call from a tenant who noticed paranormal activity in her home. Now, people can pay $11.99 to get a report about whether anyone has ever died in the house they are considering purchasing. For some, the knowledge of whether there was a death — or even a murder —in the house recently isn’t enough. That’s where Jane Phillips comes in. Jane Phillips is a self-proclaimed ghostbuster whotravelsthe country offering “paranormal energy clearing services” to real estate agents and homeowners alike. Her business is often driven by agents who are having difficulty getting a listing sold; they call Phillips, she clears the house, and, she tells Vox, that makes it possible for the house to sell. A mortgage banker before becoming a professional psychic, Phillips is in tune with the real estate world.She runs her business out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, but says she does business “all over the world.” One of her clients, a Santa Fe real estate agent named Suzanne Taylor, uses Phillips’ services frequently when selling homes. “I buy and sell a lot of properties that are distressed and very old...so I use Jane all the time,” she says, explaining that she’ll spend hundreds of dollars each time Phillips comes to a house and “clears” it of any negative or supernatural energy. Phillips has a checklist, she explains, that helps her rule out things like a loose screen door that could be blown open by the wind. “An oncologist is always going to see cancer,” Phillips adds. “I’m a paranormal, so I’m always looking for it to be paranormal... but I have to put some reason and logic in.” Along with using essential oils, a pendulum, and some L-shaped rods, Phillips explains, she taps into her “intuition and psychic abilities to remove interfering and dark energies.” For some buyers, a little spiritual cleansing is enough to make a sale — particularly in a housing market this hot. Over the last year, demand for homes has spiked, exacerbating an already dire housing shortage in the United States. Research by Freddie Mac shows that the US is short 3.8 million homes to satisfy the existing demand. This has made people more willing to overlook a lot of their preferences around homes in order to get their hands on any property — even violent deaths in the home. One Maryland house in an attractive DC suburb was the site of several murders, but after a short period of time (and an address change) it hit the market at a much higher selling price. Even the childhood home of Jeffrey Dahmer found a buyer. “Given a choice, people would rather not buy [a home] that has a psychological problem, but when they don’t have a choice, they will,” Chapman says. Owning a home in the United States is not simply a way to find shelter in a place where you’d like to live; for many, owning a home is a bet on the future value of that property. Yet, as one of the primary wealth-building tools Americans have access to and are encouraged by government policy to pursue, the bet of homeownership can be remarkably risky. Unlike many other physical assets, a home’s value is predicated on more than just the cost of the physical materials. Things outside of an owner’s control like the quality of nearby schools, the crime rate, changing fads about what type of house style is “in” and, of course, whether or not it is haunted, play an important role. And, importantly, neither the buyer nor the seller need themselves to be believers in the paranormal for it to affect the value of the home. While it can be a bit funny to think of something like a poltergeist affecting your retirement nest egg, it becomes sobering to consider the more insidious ways that subjective evaluations can affect homeowners. Most notably, Black Americans have faced a racism penalty when selling their homes: Many find their homes undervalued relative to their white counterparts, finding a decreased demand to live in Black neighborhoods can negatively impact the value of their homes. As for the Nyack house, it turned out to be a case study in never knowing how public opinion will end up affecting the market: While Ackley lost the case, the publicity ended up actually working in her favor. After the Ghostbusters ruling became a curiosity, it increased the value of the home for people who were interested in living in a haunted house. Roughly 30 years after the case was settled,film director Adam Brooks, musician Ingrid Michaelson, and singer/rapper Matisyahu have all lived in the home. According to Realtor.com, it is now roughly 200 percent more expensive than nearby properties. It sold for over $1.7 million this year. Jerusalem Demsas is a policy reporter specializing in housing for Vox.vox.com
Scream broke all the rules of horror — then rewrote them forever
Dimension Films Scream turns 25 this year. Here’s how it permanently changed horror movies. When Wes Craven’s Scream appeared on the scene in 1996, horror was stuck in a rut. The fun, philosophical innovations that characterized the genre in the ’80s had been reduced to derivative, repetitive slasher flicks: stab, wipe, repeat. The cultural ascendence of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs kicked off an era in which stylish cat-and-mouse thrillers with horror elements had dominated mainstream cinema, while more traditional teen slasher fare languished. That all changed when Scream debuted five days before Christmas in 1996. In one single, terrifying opening scene, and with one now-immortal line — “Do you like scary movies?” — Scream completely transformed ’90s horror and paved the way for generations of smart, genre-savvy filmmaking to come. As this self-referential icon turns 25, horror is currently enjoying a renewed “golden age,” with modern horror films like Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018) being hailed as genre-elevating masterpieces. With so many of these cerebral horror films shaping cultural discourse, it’s important to recognize the role Scream played in the genre’s evolution. For while it embodies the quirks of ’90s horror — including overaged teenagers, trope-filled plots, and enjoyably over-the-top deaths — Scream also completely up-ended trope-filled scary movies, arguably forever. The horror genre has since become so saturated with films following Scream’s self-aware horror-comedy model that it’s worth recognizing that all this metatextuality basically has a single point of origin. We wouldn’t have films like Get Out, The Cabin in the Woods (2011), or even 2020’s Promising Young Woman without Wes Craven’s hit meta franchise — and we can’t talk about modern horror without talking about Scream. Scream’s knowing use of horror movie tropes was iconic, terrifying, and game-changing This might sound like a bland observation from the vantage point of 2021, but in 1996, Scream’s use of other horror movies to navigate its own plot was unique. There’s a well-known idea that horror movies don’t exist in horror movies — that the characters often act as though they’ve never seen one. While the genre is usually extremely self-aware, that self-awareness typically exists offscreen, as a relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. The characters themselves don’t have a clue, and therefore make choices that viewers find to be extremely unwise or naive, because the characters don’t understand the concept of a horror movie. Wes Craven had tried to explore this idea once before, in his clever, very meta 1994 film Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — but it didn’t quite work. Heather Langenkamp — who grew up starring in Craven’s Friday the 13th series as the feisty teenager Nancy, opposite Robert Englund’s razor-handed Freddy Krueger — stars in a cheeky narrative that’s as much about Hollywood as it is about horror. Langenkamp plays a version of herself, the grown-up actress, realizing that Freddy Krueger (played once again by Englund, who also plays himself) actually exists and is hunting her in dreams. To stop him, Craven, also playing himself, decides they must make more Friday the 13th films, conveniently giving the movie an excuse to nostalgically revisit the earlier films as a nod to diehard fans. Craven’s idea was possibly a bit too new in 1994 — we were still five years away from Being John Malkovich’s celebrity navel-gazing, after all — and the attempt at reviving the Friday the 13th franchise flopped at the box office. Nonetheless, critics found it fascinating. “This is the first horror movie that is actually about the question, ‘Don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them?’” Roger Ebert wrote. Perhaps Craven realized that he had had the right idea with New Nightmare, but stumbled in its execution. With Scream, he took a step back into the realm of the purely fictional, while still exploring the effect of horror movies as a phenomenon in a way that invited viewers to apply their understanding of the genre to what they were seeing. “Scream mainstreamed metatextual storytelling and made that analytical understanding of the genre mainstream in a lot of ways,” says Sam Zimmerman, a curator at the horror streaming service Shudder and former managing editor of Fangoria magazine. Scream accomplished all of thisin its first scene. In case you need a refresher or haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the film, here’s what happens in Scream’s first 12 minutes: A teenager, home alone, is settling in for a relaxing evening in front of the TV. The phone rings. At first, she thinks it’s a wrong number — until the caller calls back. He engages her in a friendly chat, getting her to talk about her favorite scary movie. It’s Halloween, she tells him, absently fondling a giant carving knife similar to the one Michael Myers wielded in the famous 1978 slasher. The caller plays along — but then abruptly turns sinister, asking her to tell him her name “because I want to know who I’m looking at.” From there, the caller proceeds to terrify her, making it clear he’s watching the house and then gutting her boyfriend right before her eyes — but not before making her play a macabre game of “guess the horror movie.” Ultimately, the killer drives her out of the house and brutally murders her on her front lawn. The whole sequence is riveting, shocking filmmaking — and crucially, it referenced other horror movies as it kicked off a horror movie full of references to other horror movies. Not only was Scream telling on itself — this is a horror movie whose characters know about horror movies! — it was also subverting a major horror trope right from the start. The key to Scream’s unforgettable opening scene is that it’s not supposed to happen. Audiences familiar with countless slasher flicks would have instantly read the perky, innocent blonde as Scream’s main character and been primed to relate to her. Craven’s decision to cast Drew Barrymore in the role furthermore signaled that here was our lead. Barrymore was a child star from her role in Spielberg’s blockbuster 1982 film E.T., and a celebrity member of a royal Hollywood family, the Barrymores. Scream’s opening scene presented her as prime fodder for a Final Girl — the typically virginal, sweater-wearing blonde who survives the movie. But Scream, overturning all assumptions, slaughters Barrymore, audaciously, right in front of our eyes. Once those first 12 minutes are over, it’s clear that all bets are off. If Scream had stopped there and gone on to tell a more conventional horror tale, it would still be influential because it acknowledged the existence of horror movies and their tropes, while subverting audience expectations. But the filmkeeps going: The entire movie is jammed with self-referential storytelling. The plot picks up with a set of high school friends learning about the death of Barrymore’s character, Casey. One of them, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, is especially disturbed because her own mother was recentlymurdered; although the man convicted of the crime is in prison, Casey’s killer seems to be targeting her. While she tries to evade him, her friends discuss both murders as though they were late-night horror fare, all while cutthroat reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) pursues Sidney in search of a story. At every turn, the film’s script, written by Kevin Williamson, dissects well-known horror clichés. Even as one character outlines the “rules” of surviving a horror movie, Scream is breaking each one as it goes — often with the characters cheekily drawing attention to them while they’re being broken. As Roger Ebert put it in 1996, “Scream is self-deconstructing. Instead of leaving it to the audience to anticipate the horror clichés, the characters talk about them openly.” Dimension Films Scream characters doing what few horror movie characters before them had: watching a horror movie. Prior to Scream, horror movie characters usually didn’t know what story they were in until it was too late — and when they did manage to wake up and seek agency against the narrative, à la Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, their efforts usually ended badly for them. The notable exceptions to this pattern were the scream queens. These were female characters who fronted long-running franchises: Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie in Halloween, Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty in Hellraiser, and Langenkamp’s Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street, for example. Nearly all of these characters started out vulnerable and helpless but over the course of their franchises, they steadily gained the power to manipulate their stories. Sidney, however, starts her narrative arc at the end of another horror story entirely — she’s been a witness to the murder of her mother. She’s not only self-aware because she’s aware of horror movies; she’s primed to survive this killer because she’s already survived her mother’s killer. Over the course of the Scream franchise’s four films (a fifth film is now slated to arrive in 2022), Sidney’s survival skills ramp up, as does her ability to fight back against the genre she’s in, and by the fourth film, she’s effortlessly turning horror tropes against her would-be killers. And the killings are all inspired by a litany of famous horror villains. By making the characters be part of a knowing horror audience, Scream single-handedly opened up a new procedural dimension for horror films — and it wasn’t just about meta references and tongue-in-cheek satire. Plenty of genre-savvy films (including Final Destination, Shaun of the Dead, The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and Get Out) would follow in Scream’s wake. Each one explored the idea that it’s possible to know what story you’re in, and to not only be aware of the tropes, but also use your understanding of them to manipulate the situation and survive (or whatever your objective might be). For that narrative tension to be effective, the viewers must bring their own sophisticated knowledge of genre to a given film — and that’s another thing Scream furthered: the audience’s genre awareness. “These days, anyone knows what a Final Girl is,” Zimmerman tells me. “In Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, even though the movie’s really funny, the way they talk about genre is straight-up academic. They’re talking straight-up Carol Clover stuff” — referring to famed academics like Clover who’ve dissected horror films for their larger sociocultural implications, from their themes of gendered violence to their use of allegory. Zimmerman points out that even cerebral, thematically ambiguous indie horror films like 2015’s It Follows or 2016’s The Witch can break through into the mainstream these days, mainly because audiences seem to have embraced layered storytelling. “People are willing to give things a chance more,” Zimmerman says, crediting the rise of on-demand and streaming services for allowing audiences to pay attention to riskier, smaller-budget films. “I think there’s a generally more cinematically savvy audience happening right now.” This knowing genre-referencing is only one element of what Scream gave us. Perhaps the more permanent way Scream altered the horror landscape was by providing a template for stories in which the characters’ pre-awareness of the existence of horror deepened the layers of tension and meaning in a story. After Scream, movies were free to examine the role horror plays in the real, post-9/11 world New Line Cinema The Orphanage’s subtle story within a story was a way of examining its own multiplicity. As cinema entered the late ’90s, we began to see more explorations of postmodernism and metatextuality in horror. 1997’s Funny Games shockingly broke the fourth wall to make points about narrative control. 1999’s Blair Witch Project toyed with the line between reality and fiction and kicked off a decade-long craze for the “found footage” subgenre, with its multiple points of view and layered storytelling. 1999’s The Sixth Sense used unreliable narration and careful cinematic technique to deliver one of the most famous twists in movie history. Even horror franchise reboots delved into meta storytelling: At one point in 1998’s Halloween H20, the film’s ensemble of teen characters watches Scream 2. This use of narrative rule-breaking wasn’t just superficial or stylistic. Films like Blair Witch and Funny Games were successful not just because they subverted the “rules” of horror, but because they did so in ways that shocked and disoriented audiences. The question of whether the characters were able to navigate, control, or manipulate their narratives became a major source of tension and conflict that added to the films’ feeling of horror. As a storytelling approach, metatextuality evolved and became especially prominent throughout the aughts, when post-9/11 horror cinema injected an often bleak, chaotic nihilism into its themes and subjects. The unpredictability of post-Scream horror storytelling aligned with the overwhelming post-9/11 sense that whatever was happening onscreen was completely out of anyone’s control — sometimes even the film’s production team. If, for example, a character could break the fourth wall completely — like Sadako breaking through the TV screen to pursue her victims in 2000’s Ring and its 2002 American remake The Ring — then how can the audience ever be safe?What if you think you’re in one story but wind up in a different one, like the hapless victims of 1999’s Audition, 2009’s The House of the Devil, or 2011’s Kill List? What if the cinematic tricks of a movie itself ultimately manipulate you, as with 2003’s High Tension, 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters, or 2005’s The Descent? Alongside narrative subversion, the genre also delved into trope deconstructions, often reminding us that the horror on display was a mask for a different, larger kind of horror. Films by Spanish directors like The Others (2000), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Orphanage (2007) deployed horror tropes to explore the long-term impact of grief and violence. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) used the classic monster movie formula to explore classism and climate crisis, while Swedish hit Let the Right One In (2008) made its monster the heroine instead of the villain, and turned typical horror fare into a coming-of-age love story that examined bullying and social ostracism. Much of this exploration involved giving agency to women in horror who had long been denied it, often relegated to the role of helpless victim. In American horror, a glorious glut of women-centered films took the self-awareness of Scream’s Sidney Prescott and made it a narrative starting point, so that the Final Girl trope (The Descent, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Rise of Leslie Vernon) as well as the monstrous feminine (Ginger Snaps, May, Teeth, Jennifer’s Body) has continually been interrogated, reexamined, and reconfigured. Women in horror emerged from the first decade of the 21st century with more autonomy, and proceeded to put it to good use: Films like American Mary, Lovely Molly, and Jug Face explored the way women navigate systems of oppression while still maintaining their agency. 2014’s Housebound allowed its heroine to be surly and unlikeable in the face of major gaslighting; 2011’s You’re Next gave a girl a crossbow and let her tear shit up. More recent films of feminine destruction and vengeance like 2016’s Raw and Revenge arguably paved the way for genre-bending, subversive hits like 2020’s Promising Young Woman, and all share a lineage to Scream. Then there’s the influence Scream had on Jordan Peele, who included it in his list of films that directly influenced Get Out. Another game-changing horror hit, Get Out followed Scream’s example in that it, too, explicitly used its audiences’ understanding of the genre to further its narrative goals. Where Scream’s aim was to use the horror genre against itself, Get Out used horror to illustrate and explain aspects of modern racism. Peele also cited Scream’s fourth-wall-breaking, genre-savvy characters as influencing his own, noting that the film’s “postmodern reference,” and its characters who’ve watched horror movies, were more realistic than in the typical horror film. Films like Get Out and Promising Young Woman may spearhead a generation of socially conscious films that use genre tropes to comment on the times we’re living in. This probably wasn’t what Craven and Williamson anticipated when they set out to terrorize Sidney Prescott and her friends — but it seems like a fitting evolution of the journey that Scream began.vox.com
Wall Street doesn’t care about the Facebook leaks. Mark Zuckerberg does.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a security conference in 2020. | Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images Facebook’s numbers are doing fine for now — but not its reputation. Facebook’s market value is doing just fine. But a recent deluge of damning reports about Facebook that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal — from how the company’s products impact users’ mental health to how it contributed to political polarization in the buildup to the January 6 Capitol riots — is clearly frustrating CEO Mark Zuckerberg. On the company’s quarterly earnings call on Monday, Zuckerberg addressed the scrutiny and criticism directed at Facebook by striking a notably defiant tone that differed from his usually even-keeled public demeanor. “Good-faith criticism helps us get better. But my view is that what we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” said Zuckerberg. “The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.” It’s important to note that Facebook is performing well financially. The company reported mostly strong quarterly earnings on Monday, even though this is the first report after Apple introduced privacy changes in April that could have severely limited Facebook’s ad business. And despite all the reports about the potential social harms of its products, Facebook’s share prices are on the rise. So the fact that Zuckerberg spent the first several minutes of his 10-minute introductory remarks on the call defending the moral integrity of his company speaks to how much these reports seem to have aggravated him. Zuckerberg’s comments also raise questions about how he views the role of the press in reporting on his company to the public. The “coordinated effort” to “selectively use” leaked internal Facebook documents that Zuckerberg mentioned seemingly refers to the existence of a reporting consortium of more than 17 newsrooms, including the Associated Press, the Atlantic, and the New York Times, that began publishing articles late last week. The consortium was established to share thousands of files leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen (Recode joined the consortium on Monday). The initial consortium set a mutually agreed-upon time for publication of their stories, in what’s called an “embargo” — a common media practice that Facebook PR itself regularly uses for product rollouts and other press announcements. Facebook previously released a public statement attacking the reporting consortium before the articles came out. On Monday’s earnings call, Zuckerberg said he “can’t change the underlying media dynamic,” and that instead he would double down on continuing to build new products for Facebook’s users. Repeatedly, he called Facebook an “industry leader” in reducing harmful content on its platforms. He also pointed to existing methods the company has to share snapshots of its inner workings with the public, such as its self-curated transparency reports, ad archive, Oversight Board, and programs to share selected internal data with outside researchers who study things like political polarization and health misinformation on the platform. “We believe that our systems are the most effective in reducing harmful content across the [social media] industry. And I think that any honest account of how we’ve handled these issues should include that,” Zuckerberg said. What he didn’t mention is how many of those mechanisms of transparency have been criticized for being inadequate by respected outside authorities. Even Facebook’s own Oversight Board has accused the company of withholding key information; in April, the board said that Facebook “was not fully forthcoming,” by “failing to provide relevant and complete information on some occasions,” and demanded more transparency from the company. And academics have long complained that Facebook is too slow and limited in the data it shares for outside studies, which can render Facebook’s academic partnerships ineffective for time-sensitive research on pressing topics like social media posts about Covid-19. Zuckerberg has a point when he says that Facebook has fostered an open culture for its in-house, world-class researchers to analyze the company’s most complicated problems. What he seems to be upset about now is that Haugen has shared those findings with the public. While that hasn’t seemed to worry investors, analysts, and shareholders all that much — as Facebook is still a massively profitable business — Zuckerberg’s comments on Monday’s earnings call hint at how hard these leaks have rocked the company. Facebook’s financials may still be squarely under Zuckerberg’s control, but its moral standing isn’t anymore.vox.com
Why your credit card company wants to give you crypto
Mastercard is making it easier for credit card holders to earn rewards in bitcoin. | Velishchuk/iStock Mastercard credit card holders can soon be rewarded with bitcoin. Huh? Cryptocurrency was first created as an alternative to traditional financial institutions. Now, it’s gone mainstream enough that the more than 50-year-old credit card company Mastercard is offering its customers access to cryptocurrency digital wallets, cryptocurrency-branded debit and credit cards, and even cryptocurrency-based loyalty rewards programs. These tools are part of the partnership Mastercard announced on Monday with Bakkt, a platform for buying and selling digital assets like crypto. Banks and financial institutions that offer Mastercard credit and debit cards can now enable customers to pay down their balance and earn loyalty points with bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that the Bakkt platform supports. As part of Mastercard’s agreement with Bakkt, merchants including restaurants and retailers will be able to offer bitcoin as an alternative to the traditional loyalty points that credit cards often offer users. At the same time, these Mastercard customers will have the option to convert rewards points they already have into bitcoin and store it in a Bakkt digital wallet. This will give the holders of more than 2.8 billion Mastercards in circulation a potential on-ramp into the crypto investment world. While people who opt to convert or accumulate rewards points in crypto will still be taking a risk because cryptocurrency’s value is mostly determined by the volatile crypto market, Mastercard’s offerings will make taking that risk a little easier and less daunting than having to sign up separately for a crypto platform. This isn’t Mastercard’s first cryptocurrency pursuit. There are already several Mastercard credit and debit cards for people who want to use cryptocurrency. Mastercard debit and prepaid cards offered by the platforms Uphold and BitPay allow people to quickly convert their cryptocurrency holdings into traditional currency, while a Mastercard credit card offered by the crypto company Gemini allows customers to earn rewards in cryptocurrency based on their spending activity. In September, Mastercard also created its first-ever non-fungible token, or NFT, (an animated ball signed by soccer coach José Mourinho) as part of a credit card loyalty sweepstakes. Now, Mastercard’s decision to integrate support for bitcoin throughout its payments network means even more people will not just be exposed to cryptocurrency, but rewarded with it. Mastercard said this latest expansion will impact more than 20,000 financial institutions, including banks and credit unions, that work with the company. More information about when these new capabilities will be available to customers will be shared at a later date, according to Mastercard. “As brands and merchants look to appeal to younger consumers and their transaction preferences, these new offerings represent a unique opportunity to satisfy increasing demand for crypto, payment, and rewards flexibility,” Nancy Gordon, Bakkt’s vice president of rewards and payments, said in a statement. The announcement comes as credit card companies have slowly let go of some of their apprehension about cryptocurrency and looked for ways to cash in on its growing popularity. In the first half of 2021, Visa customers spent more than $1 billion in cryptocurrency with credit cards that the company offers through partnerships with three different crypto platforms: Circle, BlockFi, and Coinbase. Other credit companies have signaled they could start offering cryptocurrencies soon, too. Late last year, American Express invested in a cryptocurrency trading platform called FalconX; around the same time, Discover Financial, which operates Discover Card, has begun to hire staff to build cryptocurrency capabilities too. Credit card companies are just one example of traditional financial institutions making more room for regular people to acquire and use crypto. In April, Coinbase— a platform for buying and selling cryptocurrencies — became the first crypto company to go public — which effectively allows people to invest in cryptocurrency without having to actually buy any particular coin. Bakkt, the platform working with Mastercard, also went public earlier this month. And just last week, the first cryptocurrency-linked exchange-traded fund, or ETF, which is a basket of securities tied to the future price of bitcoin, began trading. Payment platforms like Paypal, Venmo (which is owned by Paypal), and Square all support cryptocurrency-based transactions, and Square is even considering building out a bitcoin mining business, which is a way of using lots of computing power to create new bitcoins. Another sign that cryptocurrency is here to stay: growing investment in new fraud and security tech to keep track of cryptocurrency-based credit card scams and crimes. Unlike traditional currency, digital assets like bitcoin aren’t controlled or regulated by any one government, and their cryptography makes it much harder to track and reverse cryptocurrency-based transactions. Because of that, crypto is vulnerable to theft and embraced by money-launderers. Just days before announcing its cryptocurrency expansion, Mastercard bought CipherTrace, a cryptocurrency firm backed by the Department of Homeland Security that advertises itself as the “world’s first blockchain forensics team.” Paypal has also sought to hire cryptocurrency experts to focus on security issues like money laundering and counterterrorism. Cryptocurrency has become so popular, including among criminals, that the US Marshals Service, the government branch that manages seized assets, hired a cryptocurrency bank to store all the seized cryptocurrency that it holds after criminal investigations. Those developments are a reminder that as credit card companies try to make these digital assets more popular among traditional credit card holders, cryptocurrency comes with risks. Still, most cryptocurrency holders don’t seem to be complaining that some of the biggest financial services are slowly becoming more friendly to crypto. After all, it’s hard to ignore that the growing effort to mainstream cryptocurrency has had the convenient effect of boosting the value of the cryptocurrency investments they already have.vox.com