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Like it or not, you should probably start paying attention to bitcoin
On Wednesday, Coinbase, the largest US trading platform for cryptocurrencies, is going public. | Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images As Coinbase goes public, cryptocurrency is more mainstream than ever. Coinbase, a platform for buying and selling cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, will be the first major cryptocurrency company to go public in the United States. It’s a clear sign that crypto is firmly in the mainstream of the finance industry — and it’s not going away anytime soon. In other words, if you’ve been pressing snooze on the bitcoin and blockchain conversation for the past decade, now’s probably a good time to wake up. The company’s direct listing on the Nasdaq is a “coming-out party” for cryptocurrencies, according to Erin Griffith of the New York Times. The tech policy site Protocol similarly declared Wednesday as the “biggest day yet for the crypto world.” As Paul Vigna, a Wall Street Journal cryptocurrency reporter, recently said, “Not only does it make crypto and bitcoin a little more acceptable, it now gives investors another way to invest in bitcoin.” Even if the average investor doesn’t want to buy or sell cryptocurrencies on their own, Coinbase’s direct listing means average investors can invest in the cryptocurrency economy by investing in one of its biggest players. If you’re still catching up on the trend, cryptocurrencies are virtual currencies built using blockchain technology, a type of decentralized database that can record interactions, like purchases, across a network of devices. Instead of trusting one system to record all these interactions, a record is kept on every single node of the network. Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency, created in 2009 by an anonymous developer under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, and is still the most prominent example of a payment method that’s facilitated along the blockchain. Here’s how Vox’s Timothy Lee explained Bitcoin back in 2015: Like MasterCard or PayPal, it allows money to be transmitted electronically. But Bitcoin is different from these conventional payment networks in two important ways. First, the Bitcoin network is fully decentralized. The MasterCard network is owned and operated by MasterCard Inc. But there is no Bitcoin Inc. Instead, thousands of computers around the world process Bitcoin transactions in a peer-to-peer fashion. Second, MasterCard and PayPal payments are based on conventional currencies such as the US dollar. In contrast, the Bitcoin network has its own unit of value, which is called the bitcoin. Since then, lots of cryptocurrencies have popped up, and they’ve become their own economic sector, potentially worth trillions of dollars. Cryptocurrencies have historically been very volatile, but in recent years, more traditional financial institutions, including banks, investors, and regulators, have increasingly taken notice. Here’s where Coinbase comes in. While people can buy cryptocurrencies directly — one individual buyer selling it to another — Coinbase aims to make the process easier by becoming a platform for people to buy, trade, and sell several of these various currencies, including bitcoin. Following its founding in 2012, the company has become the largest of these cryptocurrency platforms by volume in the US, and the second-largest in the world, according to Marketwatch. In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company reported that it had about 43 million retail users and that it had raised $3.4 billion in revenue up until the end of 2020, with most of those funds coming from transaction fees. “What Netscape did for the internet in 1995 is what Coinbase will do for crypto and blockchain in 2021,” Roger Lee, a general partner at the investment firm Battery Ventures, which has invested in Coinbase, told Protocol last week. “The internet was very opaque and a very abstract concept to most people in the mid-’90s. Netscape created a lens through which to interact with it.” Starting on Wednesday, regular investors will finally have the opportunity to get their own stake in this marketplace. While the company is going public, it’s doing so as a direct listing, not a public offering (you can read more on what that means here). Regardless, it’s a big step for cryptocurrencies as they become a more recognized part of the economy. Cryptocurrency and the blockchain are increasingly commonplace Coinbase’s public listing is just the latest milestone on cryptocurrency’s journey from nerdy curiosity to mainstream investing opportunity and payment method. Since 2018, Square, the payment processing service, has let most of its payment app Cash App users buy and sell bitcoin. And lately, more and more of them have been doing so. Square CFO Amrita Ahuja said in February that 3 million people did transactions in bitcoin on the app last year, while 1 million did so in January 2021 alone. Similarly, PayPal began to allow users to buy cryptocurrencies through their accounts last year. The platform expanded its cryptocurrency capabilities this March and started allowing users to exchange their crypto holdings into US dollars in order to pay for things, which is just one step short of allowing users to make purchases with actual cryptocurrency. Paypal has also indicated that users of Venmo, which it owns, will soon be able to transact in cryptocurrencies, too. More broadly, applications for blockchain technology are appearing in a growing number of domains. The blockchain is key to the digital art being sold as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, that have become more popular in recent weeks. Blockchain technology has also popped up in vaccine passport apps, voting technology, and even managing supply chains. At the same time, the use of blockchain technology has also raised a wide range of challenges, including the risk of hacking, lack of regulation, and concern that its intense computing requirements can come with a whopping environmental footprint. So even if you think bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and the blockchain are weird or confusing, you should expect to see them continue to creep into everyday life. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
The coronavirus may cause global political unrest for years
A woman is arrested by Met Police during a “Worldwide Rally For Freedom” protest over the coronavirus on March 20, 2021, in London, England. | Hollie Adams/Getty Images The US intelligence community says the coronavirus will impact you for years to come, even if you didn’t get sick. Even though life is beginning to return to some semblance of normal in parts of the world thanks to the success of vaccination efforts, a new report finds that the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to severely impact the world. US intelligence agencies released their unclassified Annual Threat Assessment report on Tuesday, offering views on global challenges ranging from tensions with China to nuclear diplomacy with Iran to the dangers of domestic violent extremism. But the most troubling part of the 27-page document, which top intelligence officials are presenting to Congress on Wednesday in open and closed sessions, is the section about how the coronavirus pandemic will define our world for years to come. In the near term, the economies of hard-hit and lower-income countries will suffer, and access to adequate health care for the most vulnerable will decline. In the long run, great powers like China, Russia, and the US will jockey for global influence, potentially driving them apart instead of closer together at a time when the world most needs cooperation. Simply put, it’s a grim picture. How the coronavirus will shape our world in the short term The most immediate impact will be economic calamity. “The economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to create or worsen instability in at least a few — and perhaps many — countries, as people grow more desperate in the face of interlocking pressures that include sustained economic downturns, job losses, and disrupted supply chains,” the report reads. “Some hard-hit developing countries are experiencing financial and humanitarian crises, increasing the risk of surges in migration, collapsed governments, or internal conflict.” Reflect on that for a moment: That’s the US intelligence community, one of the greatest collections of spies and analysts in the world, saying the financial hardships brought on by the coronavirus could foment or deepen “instability” in “perhaps many” countries. “The economic and political implications of the pandemic will ripple through the world for years,” they write. Former top intelligence officials I spoke with agree with this assessment. “It is a hard truth,” James Clapper, who served as the director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, told me. “This development — coupled with the impacts of climate change — make for a not very rosy future unless mankind gets its act together, and soon.” The economic part certainly rings true: The world economy shrank between 3 and 4 percent last year, as we were bombarded with images of closed-up restaurants, stores, and factories. Per the International Labour Organization, about 114 million people worldwide lost their jobs last year. The damage in the US was so large that it led Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden to propose, and Congress to approve, trillions of dollars of economic relief just to keep the American economy afloat. Millions around the world won’t get such a lifeline from their governments, though, and they may eventually demand more from officials than the governments can provide. When that happens, usually a crisis follows. “Many poorer countries are reaching the limit of what they can do with regard to using debt-fueled stimulus and social policies to cushion that continued fallout from the pandemic,” said Thomas Bollyky, a senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Something has to give.” We’re already seeing the effects of this economic pain. The pandemic “has driven food insecurity worldwide to its highest point in more than a decade,” the report says. “The number of people experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity doubled from 135 million in 2019 to about 270 million last year, and is projected to rise to 330 million by year-end.” Another immediate concern is that those who require medical attention may not get adequate care because so many resources are devoted to the pandemic. “COVID-19-related disruptions to essential health services — such as vaccinations, aid delivery, and maternal and child health programs — will increase the likelihood of additional health emergencies, especially among vulnerable populations in low-income countries,” the intelligence community assesses. One specific example in the report is how millions in Sub-Saharan Africa have experienced disruptions to HIV/AIDS treatments, along with a downturn in polio and measles vaccination campaigns “in dozens of countries.” Such lags in medical support will likely persist well into the future: The coronavirus doesn’t have to infect everyone to threaten their health. How the coronavirus will shape our world in years to come The US intelligence community also assesses there will be longer-term impacts that spell trouble for our world. “States are struggling to cooperate — and in some cases are undermining cooperation — to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout, particularly as some governments turn inward and question the merits of globalization and interdependence,” wrote the US intelligence community. “Some governments, such as China and Russia, are using offers of medical supplies and vaccines to try to boost their geopolitical standing.” This is an important, maddening point. Instead of nations working together to solve a global problem, countries vying for influence went their own way. They’ve engaged in two phenomena: “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine diplomacy.” The “nationalism” part is when a nation’s leaders prioritize their own people for vaccination, even to the point of hoarding vaccines, to the detriment of the rest of the world. The “diplomacy” part is when countries share their vaccine supplies with other countries less out of pure goodwill and more to gain political and diplomatic favor with the recipient state. The US, for example, was guilty of vaccine nationalism under the Trump administration, refusing to contribute to global vaccination efforts by keeping vials for exclusive use by Americans. That has changed somewhat under President Joe Biden, as he’s committed billions of dollars to support a worldwide, cooperative vaccination drive and pledged 4 million vials to Canada and Mexico. (Some argue the US could be doing more, however.) And as cases quickly spike in India, New Delhi decided to curtail its vaccine exports to ensure it has enough at home. Many countries are using vaccine diplomacy for their own interests. As The Verge noted last month, China and Russia have both developed their own vaccines and are using them to bolster alliances around the world. This could be a problem for global protection against the coronavirus, particularly in Beijing’s case. A top Chinese official admitted that its domestically produced vaccines aren’t quite as effective in preventing Covid-19. There are also ramifications for US foreign policy. For example, the US has long had close ties with Latin America, but Beijing and Moscow are flooding the region with vaccine so governments there align closer to them, instead of Washington. The toxic cocktail of “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine diplomacy” will only further erode trust among nations and likely increase tensions, experts and the US intelligence community say. That, to put it mildly, is a big problem. “This dire assessment on the Covid-19 pandemic should be yet another signal to political leaders that going it alone in his pandemic is going a course that is at their nations’ peril,” Bollyky told me.
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Yes, you can be vaccinated and still get Covid-19. But don’t panic.
“When you get vaccinated, you do something good to yourself, but you also do good for people around you. That should be the message.” | Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images We’re only talking about Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough infections because the pandemic is still raging There have been a few scary-sounding headlines lately when it comes to getting sick with Covid-19 after being vaccinated: “246 fully vaccinated Michiganders got COVID-19 between January and March, state reports” “Man in hospital with COVID despite being fully vaccinated, wife says” “State Announces Nearly 170 ‘Breakthrough Cases,” Including 3 Deaths” The thing is, none of these headlines should be surprising, or all that scary. According to clinical trial data, the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 disease. The Moderna vaccine is 94 percent. The one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is between 66 and 72 percent effective (and higher at preventing severe disease). What you’ll notice in all those figures: None is 100 percent effective at preventing the illness. This should be obvious from the clinical trial data, but it’s catching some by surprise: It is possible to get sick with Covid-19 — or possibly carry the virus asymptomatically — after being fully vaccinated with any of these vaccines. These are called breakthrough infections. “This is what we expect to see: some level of cases among vaccinated people,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, says. “When you get vaccinated, you do something good to yourself, but you also do good for people around you” It’s also not surprising to see a few (extremely rare) cases of hospitalizations and severe disease among people who have been vaccinated. That may seem even more puzzling since the clinical trials of tens of thousands of people reported that these vaccines were 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations. But “nothing is 100 percent,” Dean says. “When you start to talk about vaccinating millions of people, even things that occur relatively infrequently will start to pop up.” The real culprit behind the breakthrough infections is not the vaccines — it’s the fact that this pandemic is still raging in many communities. But why would a vaccinated person ever get sick? So far, I’ve been talking about vaccine efficacy in terms of preventing disease. There’s also the question of the vaccines preventing infection. It’s slightly different: Disease is showing symptoms; infection is simply testing positive for the virus (perhaps asymptomatically). On this, so far, it appears the vaccines are really good at preventing infection as well. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 3,950 health care workers found that the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer/BioNtech) were 90 percent effective at preventing any infection. There’s less real-world data on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but the CDC writes that early evidence suggests it “might provide protection against asymptomatic infection” as well. Which is all to say: Most of the time, these vaccines will prevent Covid-19 infection from taking hold in the body. That’s great! And it’s why these vaccines are our best shot at ending the pandemic. But some of the time, it won’t prevent infection, and won’t prevent symptoms. Why? Think of the immunity that is conferred by the vaccine as a dam, says Erin Bromage, an immunologist at UMass Dartmouth. “No dam, for example, is 100 percent effective,” he says. “They’re designed to handle 20-years storms, 50-years storms. But they get overwhelmed when a 100-year storm comes along.” But there are circumstances in which it can overwhelm this immunological dam. The exact reasons aren’t precisely known. Some of the circumstances leading to a breakthrough “can be predicted, but others, they just can’t be,” Bromage says. “You don’t know who it will be.” Just like people have varying immune reactions, and varying disease severity when they catch the virus, people have varying (but less so) immune reactions to vaccines. (It’s also like how some people get a lot of side effects from the vaccine, and others do not. Everyone’s body just responds a little differently.) So, based on what we know so far, a big part of who will experience breakthrough infections is just hard to predict. But there are also some things that scientists suspect might make it more likely. One might be the quantity of the virus a person is exposed to. Like how a dam will be breached when a huge flood comes rushing in, the immune protection from vaccines could be overwhelmed when a person is just exposed to a lot of viral particles (perhaps by living with someone sick with Covid-19, or by working in a health care facility treating Covid-19 patents). Other times, “the foundation that the dam was built on is not strong enough,” Bromage says, leading the dam to break. A person who is immunocompromised might be more at risk for breakthrough infection. “We know, for example, that people who have HIV had lower levels of protection,” Dean says. “It may reflect something about the immune response.” Age could play a role, too. There’s some evidence from Israel that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, at least, might be slightly less effective for people over the age of 80. Though on this question on effectiveness and age, Dean says “we don’t have a ton of data.” And then there are more common things in our lives that can make us temporarily more susceptible to infection. Sleep quality can play a role in the strength of the immune system. Stress can as well. It’s also the case that the vaccines just take a little while to reach full effectiveness. “The wisdom is that 14 days or some period after the second dose, you’re maximally protected,” Dean says. So you might be more likely to see a breakthrough infection early after being vaccinated, or when you’ve only received one dose of a two-dose vaccine. Breakthrough infections are less severe, and possibly less transmissible — even with new variants Here’s the good news: There are a lot of reasons to believe that when these breakthrough infections do occur, they’re not as bad as they would have been had the person not been vaccinated. For one, we know this from the clinical trial data of tens of thousands of people: Across all three approved vaccines, there was 100 percent efficacy in preventing deaths and hospitalizations. (Again, as Dean says, nothing is 100 percent. But this is pretty damn good.) Data collected after the trials, in real-world conditions, is bearing this out, too. Recently, a 5000-patient study out of Israel compared cases of breakthrough infections (after vaccination) with infections that occurred among the unvaccinated. Simply put, the study found that those who had breakout infections also had smaller quantities of virus in them. This particular study didn’t include information on symptom severity. But lower viral loads have been correlated with lower disease severity; they also lower the risk of transmission to other people. The Israeli study only assessed people who had taken the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine (it’s pretty much the only vaccine being offered in Israel). But it stands to reason to expect a similar pattern from the Moderna vaccine and, perhaps, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The results of the study “should encourage people to get vaccinated,” says Idan Yelin, a biology researcher at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who co-authored the analysis. “When you get vaccinated, you do something good to yourself, but you also do good for people around you. That should be the message.” But what about variants? Another study, yet to be published, also out of Israel, asked this question. It found that after one dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, people were slightly more susceptible to infection with the B.1.1.7 variant (which was first discovered in the UK and is now the dominant strain in the US), and the B.1351 variant (which was first discovered in South Africa) than to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. After the full two doses, the vaccines seemed to near-fully protect people against B.1.1.7 but were slightly less — but still quite — effective against B.1351. Interestingly, the study authors note, even though they see the B.1351 variant is slightly more likely to break through, there’s just not a lot of B.1351 spreading in Israel. “We think that this reduced effectiveness occurs only in a short window of time, and that the S.A. variant [B.1351] does not spread efficiently,” Adi Stern, the senior author on the paper, tweeted. That there isn’t much spread of B.1351 in Israel suggests “that these breakthrough infections are a dead end,” virologist Angela Rasmussen explains on Twitter. Though it might have a harder time spreading in Israel compared to other countries: To date, Israel has vaccinated more than 60 percent of its population. Other vaccines may be less protective against variant breakthroughs, particularly the one produced by AstraZeneca: It might be only 70 percent effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, and just 10 percent effective against B.1351. But the bottom line is still the same: The best protection against infections, from variants or not, is being fully vaccinated. The number of breakthrough infections depends on the amount of virus circulating If a vaccine is 95 percent effective, it means a person who is vaccinated is 95 percent less likely to get sick than another person, if exposed to the virus. The most important part of that last sentence: if exposed to the virus. Breakthrough infections will occur in a small proportion of those who have been vaccinated, but the number of breakthrough infections that accumulate depends on how much virus is out there circulating in the community. “The risk of these breakthroughs is really reflecting just how much transmission is in the community,” Dean says. Measles vaccines are not perfectly effective, either (they’re about 97 percent effective). But we don’t see a lot of measles cases among the vaccinated because it’s very rare to be exposed to the measles. Simply put, the more cases there are, the more breakthrough infections there will be. So the answer to the problem of breakthrough infections is just to vaccinate more people (to lower transmission even further), continue to wear masks, and maintain distance among groups of people of mixed-vaccination status. (Read the CDC’s full guidelines for vaccinated individuals here.) “Until we get these daily cases down, we’re going to be looking at these rare events,” Bromage says.
2 h
Wildlife is in peril, but that doesn’t mean conservation has failed
A bison crosses the road near Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in 2013. | Erik Petersen/Washington Post via Getty Images A chat with journalist Michelle Nijhuis about her new book Beloved Beasts on the history of the modern conservation movement. This story is part of Down to Earth, a new Vox reporting initiative on the science, politics, and economics of the biodiversity crisis. You don’t have to look far to find signs that wildlife is in peril. And most of the news stories about it these days follow a predictable formula: Species are going extinct and, in most cases, humans are to blame. To be clear, that’s true, and there’s every reason to be alarmed. A report from September, for example, found that the populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by almost 70 percent, on average, since 1970. Another finds that 1 million species are threatened with extinction. But what those stunning numbers — and the headlines they inspire — tend to obscure is the more hopeful stories of success in conservation. Though they may be harder to find, there are many. “It’s easy to forget that the world we live in is far richer thanks to those who found convincing reasons, and the required means, to provide sanctuary to other species,” environmental journalist Michelle Nijhuis writes in Beloved Beasts, a new book that chronicles the history of the modern conservation movement. “Without their work, there would likely be no bison, no tigers, and no elephants; there would be few if any whales, wolves, or egrets.” W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. The cover of Michelle Nijhuis’ new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in the Age of Extinction As an environmental reporter myself, I am generally skeptical about this. The data alone tell a depressing story that so easily overshadows blips of success. But as Nijhuis argues in her book, there’s still hope — and she does a good job in documenting the reasons for it. I recently spoke with Nijhuis for an episode of Vox Conversations to air on Earth Day (April 22), and posed a few questions that have been swirling around in my head for a while: Does conservation even work? Is it working fast enough? And is there any realistic way of reversing the extinction trend? Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. What we get wrong about the “real work of conservation” Benji Jones What inspired you to write this book, and why now? Michelle Nijhuis I’ve reported on environmental and conservation issues for a long time, and I’ve always been interested in conservation history, partly because I see that conservationists don’t know that much about their own history. I think people who are in the conservation movement know some iconic names. They’ve heard of Rachel Carson. They might know Aldo Leopold or John Muir. But they don’t have a sense of their own movement as a tradition that’s had successes and failures and learned over time. Benji Jones I think what comes to mind for many of us when we think of conservation is protecting charismatic species like pandas or tigers. How would you define conservation, and how has that definition changed since the beginning of this movement, more than a century ago? Michelle Nijhuis Conservation, in its most basic sense, is just the prevention of waste or loss of anything. People have practiced conservation of the species they depend on for food or shelter since the beginning of human history. The modern conservation movement came about in the late 1800s after people realized that their own activities could not only reduce the number of animals they lived beside but could drive entire species to extinction. That realization birthed a global movement to protect all species, whether they were useful to humans or not. That’s what conservation meant at the beginning. As the movement was informed by ecology, it’s come to mean not only protecting individual species but protecting the relationships among them and their habitats — and the relationship between humans and other species. Conservation is still perceived by many as a movement to save individual charismatic species. We saved the bald eagle or we saved a species of rhino from extinction. Those are terrific victories. But I think that perception is a bit misleading. It doesn’t include the real work of conservation — which is to preserve species in abundance, and in relationship with other species. The data is bleak, but there’s no shortage of successes Benji Jones The planet has lost 755 animal species and 123 plant species over the last five hundred years, according to your book. “People are still killing too many animals and destroying too much habitat,” you write. Is conservation working? Michelle Nijhuis I ask myself that question almost on a daily basis. Conservation has worked in some very identifiable ways in the past. There are certainly species and assemblages of species and landscapes that we wouldn’t have were it not for the conservation movement. We would have very few songbirds, for example, were it not for the people, mostly women, who stood up against the feather trade in the early 1900s. The feather trade was killing millions and millions of birds every year to decorate hats. Due to their work, we got the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are huge victories that we don’t really take into account when we’re thinking about whether wildlife conservation has worked. L. Prang & Co./New York Public Library Prints from the late 1800s showing women wearing feather hats. The conservation movement has learned a lot over the past century. It’s expanded its ambitions and learned what species need through the science of conservation biology and ecology. We know what species need to survive. What we don’t know and what we haven’t paid enough attention to is how human behavior needs to change to provide species with those things. Conservation has been slow to incorporate social science and human behavior into its work — to say, “We know what needs to be done, but how do we get there?” Benji Jones What are some examples of how we’ve done that right? Where conservation is working? Michelle Nijhuis One of the most successful efforts I’m aware of is a project I got to visit in Namibia. It’s now been around for about 30 years. It’s a system of community conservancies, where people — who are mostly subsistence hunters and farmers — have a great deal of influence in how to manage the local wildlife. They have the ability to set hunting quotas, for example. Over the decades, this has had a number of really positive and practical results. The numbers of black rhino, which were down to almost nothing in northern Namibia, are now pretty good, for example. But the social impacts are also significant. People in the conservancies care about the long-term future of the species they live next to, even if those species are a pain in their necks. They want to be able to hunt them for food. But they also just generally want them around. They have pride in them. It was very inspiring to me to see that potential for broadening the work of conservation to people who were not professionally part of the movement. Benji Jones I really love that example. How do those conservancies work? Michelle Nijhuis They are established by individual communities who live on communally-owned land in northern Namibia. The communities organize themselves as a conservancy. They elect their own leaders and then they hold regular meetings where some of these management decisions are made. It restores a level of authority to the management of species that has been missing since the days of colonialism. VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Black rhinoceros walking through the grasslands of Etosha National Park in Namibia, Africa, in 2017. The situation in North America is extremely different, mostly because there are not a lot of subsistence hunters and farmers here. But there are some of the same tensions. I think we could learn a lot from the example of what’s happening in Namibia, just in terms of uncovering what I think is a very common willingness among most people to help their local species survive. Benji Jones What are some other examples that give you hope that conservation is working? Michelle Nijhuis We’re seeing a global rise in Indigenous-led conservation efforts. There’s a real push to include the recognition of Indigenous land rights in what’s called the 30 by 30 initiative, which is a push to protect 30 percent of the globe’s land and waters by 2030. If those goals include the affirmation of Indigenous land rights and give people some long-term security to start managing their lands for the health of both their own livelihoods and other species, I think that could be a really exciting global shift. We’re always going to need parks and reserves because we’ve done so much damage to other kinds of habitats. But we also need to protect places where people are making a living off the landscape in such a way that other species can live alongside them. Focusing on extinction alone can backfire Benji Jones A lot of success stories, though inspiring, do seem hyper-localized. That is a depressing thought to me when I think about the scale of the problem. Do you think scale is relevant here, or is that the wrong way to think about it? Michelle Nijhuis I get very depressed when I think about the small scale of some conservation successes. I get depressed about timescales, as well. Some of these efforts that are successful have taken decades and decades to get to where they are today, and it often feels like we’re starting too late with too little. That said, the conservation effort in Namibia and others are actually quite large scale. They started out very small and grassroots, but they’re now a national institution. They’ve been around for decades. Benji Jones Not to be a downer, but it’s just tough. I understand that extinction is perhaps not the best metric to be using to assess where we are today, but across the board, it just really seems like things are moving in the wrong direction. What do you tell people who just point to the data and say, “Things obviously aren’t going well”? Michelle Nijhuis I tell them I agree. I totally sympathize with the focus on extinction because it is irreversible. Regardless of what some people might tell you about creating elephant wooly mammoth hybrids, there is no reversing extinction. But, at the same time, if we aren’t able to at least shift part of our attention to these longer-term efforts that are trying to protect species while they’re still common and put in place structures that will conserve species broadly, rather than just one by one, we’re just going to have more and more and more extinctions. It’s a very human problem: Do we focus on the crisis or do we focus on the long term solution? I also think that — as important as it can seem to focus on every looming extinction — it can backfire. People do get numb to the constant drumbeat of extinction coverage. Benji Yes, sometimes it feels like literally every story is exactly the same. It’s like, “Oh, here’s what we’ve lost. Great.” Michelle Right? You could almost, you know, write a Mad Libs about these stories. Benji So would it be fair to say that you have hope? Michelle I take refuge in a quote from Aldo Leopold. Leopold was a very optimistic person. At one point, when he was in a very grim mood, he wrote to a friend of his and said, “That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”
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What to do instead of calling the police
A New York City Police Department (NYPD) graduation ceremony on October 15, 2018. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images These alternatives can help keep communities safe for everyone. For the past two weeks, Americans have been hearing testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the killing of George Floyd. They’ve seen the video of Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” while being held to the ground for over nine minutes before his death. They’ve witnessed or been part of the uprisings that took place around the country last summer in response to the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. They know the names of Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, and too many other Black people killed by law enforcement in the last few years alone. Now more than ever, even people who previously had little personal experience with police brutality are learning about the racist history of policing and becoming interested in alternative ways to keep communities safe — without calling the cops. Still, in a society where the police are presented as the solution to problems from noisy neighbors to serious violence, it can be hard to know where to begin. Fortunately, organizers have been working on this for years. “People who are often the most criminalized and targeted by police” — like BIPOC communities, poor communities, sex workers, and immigrants — “already often have systems in place to not get the police involved,” Misha Viets van Dyk, national chapter organizer with the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, told Vox. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images People gather to protest the death of Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 12. This means a lot of resources already exist for people who want to learn about alternatives to bringing law enforcement officers — and potentially police brutality — into crisis situations. Below are four ways to startplanning for what to do and who to turn to when police seem like the only solution — from getting to know your neighbors to learning how communities can come together to prevent and address violence. “If people unlock themselves a little bit and try, we can imagine something different that not just makes our country safer, but our society a little bit healthier,” Thenjiwe McHarris, a member of the leadership body of the Movement for Black Lives, told Vox. Know your neighbors and your community For many, changing your relationship to police and policing starts before there’s ever a problem. The first step is often getting to know your neighbors, Viets van Dyk said. It’s fine to maintain boundaries — “not everybody wants to be friends with each other,” Viets van Dyk said. But just having a basic familiarity with the people who live nearby can help prevent problems down the road. For example, one recent analysis of 911 calls across eight cities in the country found that 23 to 39 percent were for low-priority or non-urgent issues like noise complaints. If neighbors know each other, they can talk a lot of these issues out together rather than bringing in outside authorities. If you’d like a neighbor to turn music down so children can sleep, for instance, “I’ve found that often people are more open to that kind of thing if we know each other already,” Viets van Dyk said. And being involved in your community is about more than getting along with people. It can also mean making sure the people in your neighborhood have their needs met. “A community can prevent a lot of things like theft if people have what they need,” Viets van Dyk said. “Generally people steal things because they need things and can’t otherwise access them.” Most communities already have grassroots groups working to help the most vulnerable residents get food, health care, housing, and other necessities. The mutual aid groups that exist in many places can be a good place to startunderstanding what community members need and how to help. Rather than thinking about alternatives to police only when something bad is happening, you can start by working to make your community a safer and healthier place for everyone. Learn about local mental health and medical resources People often decide to call the police because someone in their area appears to be intoxicated or in some kind of mental health crisis. One 2017 study of Camden, New Jersey, for example, found that 7 percent of calls were related to some mental or behavioral health need, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP). But police are not trained to address mental health or substance use issues, and calling them can lead to a person in crisis being arrested and jailed, rather than getting the medical treatment they may need, as Amos Irwin and Betsy Pearl write at CAP. Several police killings in recent years — like the fatal shootings of Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, last fall — happened when law enforcement officers encountered someone having a mental health crisis. Instead of police, a growing number of cities have crisis response teams composed of social workers, counselors, and others trained to help people with mental health or substance problems. In Eugene, Oregon, for example, a program called CAHOOTS sends trained specialists to help people deal with crises involving mental health or substance use, and refers them to further services or treatment, as Roge Karma reported at Vox. The program is somewhat unique in that it partners with police, and calls to 911 that involve mental health crises or related events — about 20 percent of all calls — can be routed directly to CAHOOTS. But cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis are considering the CAHOOTS model as well. Other areas, such as New York City, have mobile crisis teams that can respond if someone needs help. The directory Don’t Call the Police lists alternatives to police for many US cities, and readers can submit services in their area to add to the database. (Some crisis services do involve the police if they believe someone is in imminent danger; Don’t Call the Police notes in its listings whether a particular call might result in police being notified.) While not all communities have the same level of mental health services, Viets van Dyk said, if someone is in crisis, it’s often the case that “there are people who are able to deescalate those situations” — without involving the police. Take a community approach to stopping violence and protecting people While many calls to police are for noise complaints or other minor issues, some are for more serious, potentially dangerous situations. The New York City Police Department, for example, receives almost 600 calls about potential domestic violence incidents every day. At the same time, there’s been growing public attention in recent years to assault and violence committed by officers themselves. Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, for example, was sentenced in 2016 for sexually assaulting eight women of color (he was also accused, but not convicted, in five other assaults). And an Associated Press analysis found that between 2009 and 2014, 990 police officers lost their badges for sexual misconduct — and those were just the ones who were disciplined. For this reason among others, many survivors are reluctant to call the police in cases of sexual or domestic violence. “For a lot of us who have experienced that kind of violence, we know that we don’t usually get justice that way,” Viets van Dyk said. Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images People gather after hearing the news of the Kentucky grand jury’s decision to indict one of the three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, groups advocating for restorative justice and other non-carceral approaches have long been thinking through ways people can help keep each other safe. For example, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective has developed the idea of “pods”: “Your pod,” the group writes, “is made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm or abuse happened to you; or the people that you would call on if you wanted support in taking accountability for violence, harm or abuse that you’ve done; or if you witnessed violence or if someone you care about was being violent or being abused.” The collective has a worksheet to help people map their “pods,” so they know in advance who they can call on if they or someone they know is in danger. Identifying people in your life you can rely on can help if you face abuse or harm, Viets van Dyk notes: “I’ve felt a lot safer in situations where things have been kind of sketchy at home knowing that I have a friend that I can go stay with if need be.” At the same time, it shouldn’t be survivors’ sole responsibility to figure out how to keep themselves safe: “We have responsibilities towards our community” to ensure “that people don’t harm each other,” Viets van Dyk said. That means learning how to support survivors — and, potentially, how to intervene with perpetrators to hold them accountable. Fortunately, a number of organizations offer resources and trainings to help people do that. For example, the Oakland Power Projects, an initiative by the police abolition organization Critical Resistance, has offered training for health workers and community members on how to respond to crises without calling police. Other groups offer bystander intervention trainings and other resources to help people respond to instances of racism or other harassment without involving police. And the Creative Interventions toolkit, developed by organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers guidance on community-based approaches that address and work to remedy the root causes of violence. When police arrive at a scene, they often don’t do anything to address the deeper problems that can lead to violence, Mohamed Shehk, campaigns director of Critical Resistance, told Vox. But if communities come together to truly examine what caused the crisis or conflict in the first place, it can lead to “a much more transformative process of reducing violence in the long term,” Shehk said. Seek out resources to learn more Critical Resistance is just one of many groups that offer publicly available resources to help people learn about alternatives to policing in their communities. Others include Transform Harm, a hub created by activist Mariame Kaba with articles on restorative justice, community accountability, and more; and INCITE!, a network of feminists of color that has developed downloadable tools on stopping police violence and more. Overall, when it comes to thinking through ways to create safe communities without police involvement, “Black and Indigenous feminists have really done a lot of this kind of work already,” Viets van Dyk said. Showing Up for Racial Justice also has a flow chart of questions to think about before calling the police. For example, people can ask themselves, “Can I handle this on my own?” or “Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone whom I could call to help me?” As a reminder, use our flowchart of things to consider if you are thinking of calling the police:— SURJ DC (@SURJ_DC) April 20, 2018 And beyond reading on their own, people interested in alternatives to policing can also get involved in groups in their area, whether it’s a SURJ chapter (these focus specifically on helping white people fight white supremacy), mutual aid group, or other organization. They can also educate themselves on local, state, and federal budget processes, so they know how money is allocated to police as well as services like mental health and housing, McHarris said. And they can learn about efforts like the federal BREATHE Act, which would redirect money from federal law enforcement agencies to youth support and other services, as well as encouraging states to fund alternatives to policing. “We need to experiment with investing in actual infrastructure that can actually deal with root causes of harm, that actually cares about repair and rehabilitation and not punishment,” McHarris said. “Everyday people who live in communities should have a say about, what does it look like to not just stop and interrupt the harm, but to also create some sense of justice.”
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An Asian American hate crimes bill presents a rare opening for bipartisanship 
People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence on April 4 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images The legislation is narrow in scope — but could send a powerful message condemning anti-Asian racism. Senate Democrats on Wednesday are putting forth a key test on the limits of Republican obstruction: A bill aimed at combating anti-Asian hate crimes. The legislation, which is relatively narrow in scope, would designate a Justice Department official to review Covid-19 related hate crimes, and calls on the agency to provide reporting guidance for regional law enforcement bodies. It’s a pretty limited bill, meant to signal the federal government’s commitment to protecting Asian Americans, who have faced increased racist violence over the past year. But a vote on it could also have broader effects: If Republicans block it, that would provide more fodder to Democrats looking to build a case for eliminating the filibuster, and suggest the GOP is unwilling to condemn anti-Asian racism outright. Conversely, the bill could also offer a rare opening for bipartisanship: In fact, the No Hate Act, an even stronger piece of legislation aimed at improving hate crimes reporting, has both Democratic and Republican support, and could get added as an amendment. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), a chief sponsor of the legislation, spoke about the impact the hate incidents in the last year have had on her during a press conference on Tuesday. “As an [Asian American and Pacific Islander] person, it does give me pause,” she said. “Before, when I was walking around outside, I would have my earbuds on and I’d be listening to books on tape. I would never do that now.” The first vote to watch on this bill will be a procedural one. Before lawmakers consider the actual legislation itself, they will vote on a motion to proceed to it. Where Republicans land on this vote will be telling: If 10 GOP lawmakers don’t join the 50-person Democratic caucus to overcome this hurdle, then the legislation is effectively dead. However, if the support is there for this particular motion — which would open up debate on the legislation — lawmakers could actually work together and even strengthen the bill, potentially teeing it up for bipartisan passage. Republicans, including, notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have signaled an openness to weighing the bill and discussing amendments, an indication that the legislation is likely to make it past the procedural vote and get floor consideration, though it’s still not guaranteed to ultimately pass. (It will be worth watching the amendments process, for instance, to see if Republicans are proposing additions in good faith.) Depending on how things shake out, this could be a unique opportunity for bipartisanship — while also serving as a chance for the Senate to send a resounding message denouncing anti-Asian hate. The Senate’s hate crimes bill and a possible bipartisan amendment, briefly explained The Senate’s hate crimes bill is quite reserved: By allocating someone to the Justice Department who specifically focuses on Covid-19-related hate crimes, it would bolster the agency’s focus on tracking and prosecuting such incidents, which is important, but not exactly a sweeping change. The bill also pushes for better guidance from the DOJ for city and state law enforcement when it comes to online hate crimes reporting, and public education campaigns that help potential victims connect to resources. Additionally, the legislation urges Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to ensure that discriminatory language, like “China virus,” isn’t used to address the pandemic. Despite its limited approach, the bill could help raise the profile of this issue. “One of the greatest barriers to effective handling of hate crimes is resources,” says Brendan Lantz, director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University. “If this additional review translates to additional resources and guidance, it has the potential to make a difference.” In prioritizing this legislation, Democrats are also making an important point about the need to unequivocally call out anti-Asian hate, as incidents targeting Asian Americans have surged in the past year following the Trump administration’s decision to use racist language to describe the coronavirus and its origins. The organization Stop AAPI Hate has received nearly 3,800 reports of such incidents, though it’s important to note that some of them likely wouldn’t meet current federal standards to be classified as hate crimes. In the last few months, shootings in Georgia, which killed six women of Asian descent, as well as videos capturing brutal attacks on Asian American elders, have renewed focus on this issue as well. “There has never been a situation in my lifetime when I have felt this level of fear, of vulnerability, than I do right now,” Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) recently said. If senators vote successfully to proceed to the bill, one of the amendments that has bipartisan support is the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already backed the measure, according to an aide, and some Republicans have indicated a willingness to support it as well, because they feel hate crime reporting is currently unsatisfactory. Many studies have found that thousands of hate crimes likely go unreported each year for a number of reasons, including lack of trust in law enforcement. The No Hate Act would make reporting options more robust by including grant money for local and state law enforcement agencies to set up hotlines for hate crimes, and provide better training around hate crime tracking. It would also push for offenders who are convicted to serve out community service and educational courses related to the community affected. “The No Hate Act would improve reporting on hate crimes and promote a better, community-centered response to such incidences,” says Becky Monroe, the senior director of the Fighting Hate and Bias program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Both the bill as currently written and the No Hate Act are unlikely to fully address the root causes of hate crimes, though they could provide a more complete picture of how many people are being affected, helping to better combat them. “Education, public messaging — particularly from elected officials — and other community-based programs aimed at reconciliation and repair are more likely to reduce the incidents of hate crimes,” says Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke. These incremental changes, meanwhile, could help provide context for the scale of the problem. Republicans have a choice to make This vote is the first in a series that Senate Democrats have planned for this spring, and could reveal how much Republicans intend to obstruct important Democratic priorities. Other notable votes on the docket include one on the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, HR 1, and additional ones on gun control and immigration reform. Whether Republicans reject the hate crimes legislation could be a sign of just how intent they are on blocking Democratic measures regardless of the issue: Some Republicans have suggested this bill could be a federal overreach that puts pressure on states to comply with reporting requirements. “I’d love to see a bipartisan result here. But in some ways it goes too far, in our view,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) previously told Politico. Others, meanwhile, note that this is a subject area where both parties could actually work together to advance some reforms. “I’m trying to see if we can’t get this resolved and take this up tomorrow,” Moran told the Washington Post’s Paul Kane on Tuesday. Democrats are watching this vote and others upcoming keenly, as the debate over the filibuster continues: Because of this procedural relic, if lawmakers from the minority party opt to block a bill, it will need 60 votes to pass — a near-impossible threshold for Democrats to meet on priorities like the $15 minimum wage, in a 50-50 Senate. This bill — depending on how it’s treated — could offer more ammunition for Democrats who have been arguing for doing away with the filibuster, or, interestingly, provide a chance for Republicans and Democrats to actually agree on a piece of legislation.
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Hispanics are being vaccinated at lower rates nationwide. Nevada is trying to change that.
A nurse administers a Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to an employee at an Amazon fulfillment center on March 31 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images Access barriers have created a Hispanic vaccination gap. Margarita Salas Crespo, a senior adviser to the Nevada Governor’s Office, knew that the process of getting the state’s Hispanic population vaccinated for Covid-19 would be challenging before it had even begun. Hispanics in Nevada had already suffered disproportionately from the virus: They are more likely to test positive for Covid-19 than any other ethnic or racial group in the state and have experienced high levels of unemployment as the state’s tourism-reliant economy was shut down. They were also the least likely to to get a Covid-19 test due to inadequate access and outreach, a trend Salas Crespo and others worried might be replicated when it came time to vaccinate. “I think it really did give us a sense that it was going to be a little bit tough for the vaccination rollout,” Salas Crespo said. “The state of Nevada and also our local governments started thinking that we’re going to have to really target the Spanish-speaking community to ensure that they’re getting the information that they need.” Those concerns have since been borne out, as data shows clear disparities in vaccination rates between Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups, both in Nevada and nationwide. As of April 7, just 15 percent of Hispanics in Nevada have received one dose of the vaccine as compared to 29 percent of non-Hispanic white people, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) analysis of data from 41 states that track the race and ethnicity of people being vaccinated. Nationally, it’s 16 percent of Hispanics compared to 29 percent of white people. “Those are disparities that we’ve seen since we began tracking the data and they’re persisting over time,” Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of the racial equity and health policy program at KFF, said. So what’s driving the disparity? The answer, experts say, is twofold: initial vaccine hesitancy and a lack of access. “I think a lot of this reflects increased access barriers that are associated with underlying inequities,” Artiga said. Some Hispanics were initially hesitant to receive the vaccine A small, but significant proportion of Hispanics were initially hesitant to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. According to a January KFF survey, 7 in 10 Hispanic adults were willing to get the vaccine, but only a quarter said they would do so as soon as possible; almost half said they would wait and see how others were reacting to the vaccine before they got it themselves. The greatest skeptics were younger Hispanics under the age of 50, who were less trusting of vaccine information from political sources, such as state government officials, President Joe Biden, and his chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. Now that broad swaths of the population are being immunized, willingness to get the vaccine has been increasing across racial and ethnic groups, Artiga said. At this point, there isn’t a meaningful difference in the willingness of Hispanics and the non-Hispanic white population. But among those who were or are now still skeptical of the vaccine, experts say misinformation on social media has played a pivotal role in shaping their views. Non-native English speakers who might not turn to vetted sources of information, such as newspapers and announcements from government officials, have been especially vulnerable as false rumors about the vaccine have circulated largely unchecked on platforms including Facebook. “As in any other community, there is a lot of fake news — the really ludicrous idea that you are being implanted with a microchip, [or] that the vaccine will give you the actual disease or will kill you,” said Julián Escutia Rodríguez, consul at the Mexican consulate in Las Vegas who has been advising state and local policymakers on the vaccine rollout in the Hispanic community. Policymakers and public health groups in some states have consequently made concerted efforts to run counter-messaging on social media, in both English and Spanish. The Nevada government has created two Spanish-language campaigns — “Está en tus manos,” which translates to “It’s in your hands,” and “Seguir adelante,” meaning “Go ahead” — to educate people about the vaccine, how they can get it, and why they should continue to practice social distancing and wear masks even after they are inoculated. Private groups have also stepped up to amplify that messaging. The Culinary Workers Union has held several bilingual virtual town halls with doctors, health care professionals and others to answer workers’ questions about the vaccine. Their aim is not just to communicate that the vaccine is a public health imperative, but that it’s also an economic one. “A lot of jobs were completely gone because of the pandemic,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, the largest union in Nevada that represents around 30,000 Hispanic workers. “We need to bring back Las Vegas. If more people get protection, that’s the only way we’re going to go back to the way things were, little by little.” Those messaging campaigns, and the simple fact that more time has passed and millions of people have now gotten the vaccine safely, have helped decrease some of that initial vaccine hesitancy. Hispanics continue to face barriers to accessing vaccines While most Hispanics are now willing to get the vaccine, they continue to face barriers to accessing it. This is due to underlying inequities in the health care system, fears about potential immigration consequences, and limited English and technology skills. As of 2019, non-elderly Hispanics were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be uninsured. Coverage rates have likely only declined during the pandemic as Hispanics have suffered disproportionately from high unemployment and may have lost their employer-sponsored coverage. That means that they may have more concerns about the cost of the vaccine. And although it’s supposed to be available for free, some people have reported being erroneously billed for it. Hispanics are also more likely to report difficulty traveling to a health care facility because they may rely on public transportation or not be able to take time off work. In Nevada, public health officials have set up vaccination sites near where Hispanics live and work, including in a number of major hotels along the Las Vegas Strip, in order to address this. Other states have allocated more vaccine doses to hard-hit, heavily Hispanic areas. The Biden administration has also sought to meet Hispanics where many of them already get their medical care by setting up vaccination clinics at nearly 1,500 community health centers nationwide. A March KFF report found that over a quarter of people who had received their first shot from community health centers were Hispanic, suggesting that they were doing a better job of penetrating the community compared to other health care facilities. “That really reflects the longstanding role those centers have played as sources of care for low income populations, people of color and particularly the Hispanic population,” Artiga told me. “They already have an established trusted relationship with the population, they know the barriers that they potentially face to getting care or a vaccination and they know how to address those barriers.” For recent Hispanic immigrants, language barriers have also posed an obstacle to accessing health care, which has historically made them more likely to experience adverse health outcomes than fluent English speakers. Absent Spanish-language information campaigns, they might not know how to sign up for the vaccine, or that they are even eligible as non-US citizens. Salas Crespo said that one of her office’s immediate priorities in planning the vaccine rollout was setting up statewide toll-free phone lines so people could talk to someone in Spanish or another language and be guided through the registration process or learn where they can get the vaccine. For those living in the US without authorization, the fear that seeking medical care could lead to their deportation also serves as a deterrent. That fear only ramped up under former President Donald Trump, who publicly derided Mexicans and sought to clamp down on unauthorized immigration from Mexico and Central America. Nevada’s government has sought to allay those concerns by assuring people that they are not sharing data about immigration status with the federal government, including immigration enforcement agencies, and that they can bring any kind of photo ID, such as a consular ID, to get their vaccine. The Mexican consulate in Las Vegas has also been holding vaccine clinics on its premises. “Opening the consulate of Mexico for the administration of vaccines is a very symbolic gesture because people feel they trust us,” Escutia Rodríguez said. “They feel confident coming here. They feel at ease. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re undocumented or not.” Some Hispanics might not have adequate internet access to be able to register for the vaccine and confirm appointments. “We cannot make the assumption that everybody has access to internet,” Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said. “We have a significant amount of people in Latino communities in the United States that do not have access to that technology, nor may know how to use it, even if they have access.” Rodríguez-Díaz said that the states that acknowledged these kinds of disparities early in the vaccine rollout have fared better in vaccinating Hispanics. But there is only so much public officials can do in a period of months to overcome longstanding barriers to accessing health care. “We all know that access to health care is not equitable at all throughout the country and this global pandemic just really highlighted how bad it really was,” Salas Crespo said. “I hope it will change how we do things.”
4 h
Can Clubhouse keep the party going?
Jeremy Bali Fake laughs, imposters, and scams — behind the invite-only audio app’s most obsessive users
5 h
Mank is the most-nominated film at the Oscars. Should it win Best Picture?
Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in Mank. | Courtesy of Netflix Exploring David Fincher’s complicated movie about Hollywood and the making of Citizen Kane. This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win? Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, deputy style and standards editor Tim Williams, and culture writer Aja Romano talk about Mank, David Fincher’s drama about Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the politics of 1930s Hollywood. The ambiguity and ambivalence of watching Mank Alissa Wilkinson: It’s funny: I think Mank may be the least “popular” of the Best Picture nominees — whatever that means in this weird year — but it’s also the most-nominated film by a long shot. I suppose that was inevitable; it is, after all, a movie about Hollywood, and that’s historically one of the Oscars’ favorite categories. But it’s not a loving movie about Hollywood. I watched it multiple times in the course of writing about it, and I kept being startled by how much it criticizes a certain kind of cavalier attitude in the industry about what effect movies actually have on the people who watch them. It’s definitely David Fincher’s most political film, and it also questions the idea that any movie can be “just” a movie. I think it’s a film about the “power of storytelling,” but not in the optimistic way most Oscar ceremonies use that term. To quote myself: It’s about how “there are big real-world implications to the way the movie business runs, from the lower-paid workers who struggle to make a living to the way the films they produce can distort the truth and benefit the powerful.” Of course, it’s about lots of other things. As you watched Mank, what stuck out to you? What worked, and what didn’t? Tim Williams: I was delighted at the ambition of much of this movie; I was sort of expecting a simple “... And that’s how we got Citizen Kane” story. In the flashbacks, you get that and a lot more. But the “Will he finish the script?” frame drops the hints of bigger ideas and doesn’t work on its own terms. There is usually a certain pleasure in a backstage drama (that, as we’ve said, Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of). I only half-enjoyed the “lol alcoholics” antics of Herman Mankiewicz, the washed-up screenwriter whom Orson Welles hopes has one last story to tell. The set-up feels intentionally dated, perhaps as a callback to the one-note movies Mank made for too much of his life. Still, this wizened, literally inert version of Mank just didn’t reveal much to me about the character. And it’s too hard to care about whether Citizen Kane will be made when there aren’t interesting obstacles in the way (besides a late-act appearance by Amanda Seyfried’s damsel who’s not really in distress). So it’s a bit disappointing for me that the movie doesn’t satisfy as a surface-level, behind-the-scenes story, even if that may be the point. I suspect part of the problem was in the rewrites of the film; Fincher retains the disputed theory that the real-life Orson Welles didn’t do much writing for Citizen Kane. But he has said he ultimately moved away from that idea being the central conflict of Mank, which seems to have sapped it of some tension. Luckily, I loved the other half of the movie, even when it was telling me through Mank’s asides and Fincher’s cold gaze that nothing matters. It is perhaps a foregone conclusion that Mank, who in his mid-career is already too old for this shit, will turn on his capitalist benefactors. But Gary Oldman and deft dialogue make the particular turns of this arc a joy to watch and listen. Mank’s turn comes too late to aid Upton Sinclair’s doomed campaign to bring a little socialism to California (including the movie industry). He does get in a few good monologues and the dubious honor of chewing the scenery of a GOP vote-counting party — scenery that somehow looks amazing under Fincher’s direction. Every frame of this black-and-white film is styled as an Important Movie, like so many movies after Citizen Kane. It’s easy to get swept up in the theatrics, even when little is actually happening. Perhaps the suggestion is that important movies don’t amount to much. I don’t really think Fincher’s movie is telling us that if Mank had made propaganda for Sinclair, the world would be different, but what is the movie saying, if anything? Netflix Gary Oldman in Mank. Aja Romano: It feels strange to be saying this about a film from David Fincher, who’s usually so searing and pointed in his themes and allegories, but I’m not really sure Mank knows what it’s saying. Partly that’s because performative ambivalence is probably its major theme, if we have to hang our hat on one. It’s a consciously ambiguous story about a man whose strong moral compass wars with exhaustion, exasperation, and apathy — a man who then wrote (or co-wrote) a consciously ambiguous story about another man whose once-clear conscience grew murky with corruption and malaise. But I think stating that theme so clearly is overdoing it. If Mank is supposed to be a treatise on the indifference of pre-war, Hays Code-era Hollywood to the social and geopolitical unease happening all around it, then Mankiewicz’s unerringly clear-sighted ability to read the room comes off less like a scathing commentary (from Fincher’s father, journalist and screenwriter Jack Fincher) and more like an attempt to find a knight in shining armor. The self-loathing irony of Mank’s Don Quixote speech can’t quite mask the open admiration the film has for him, however muddled and mired in a coterie of flaws his principles might be. There’s just something so irresistibly Hollywoodized about a main character who drinks too much and alienates everyone but secretly funds Jewish refugees escaping from Europe. The film keeps Mank on a pedestal, like those famous upward-angle camera shots from Citizen Kane that allow Kane to tower over us. I found Mank’s unmitigated adoration of its title character continually unsettling. I’m not sure whether that’s because it’s asking too much for him to be both the main character and the wry observational court jester of this narrative, or whether it’s because, in 2021, straightforwardly framing any straight cis white man as the uneasy moral conscience of his community rubs me the wrong way. And that brings me back to the film’s ambiguity and the ultimate ambivalence it left me with. But maybe I’m assuming too much. Do either of you agree that the film is too in love with its own subject? Or am I failing to give it its due for the many ways in which it tries to undermine Mank’s clairvoyant view of the world, if not himself? Alissa: I never quite had the feeling that the film adored Mank — or at least not any more than Citizen Kane adores Charles Foster Kane — but I don’t think your conclusion is unfounded, Aja. The text definitely can support it; he’s certainly presented as a kind of lovable rogue, and a guy who was perfectly happy to play along with the game as long as it played back. His conscience is questionable, at best; I saw him as more of the unhappy clown who speaks the truth, the miserable court jester, than a knight in shining armor. But whatever the film does think of him, leaving Mank himself aside, it seems really clear to me that it’s in conversation with the politics of the time, from Upton Sinclair’s appearances to the union and labor politics at the studio level. Did any of that stick out to you? What do you make of it? Why make that movie now? And is it a little weird or telling that it’s on Netflix, which traditional Hollywood studios have tended to see as the harbinger of the death of cinema? Do the politics and cultural context of Mank hold up? Tim: In Mank, it never feels like the socialists have a chance at winning over Hollywood, let alone California. Labor unrest is quelled with a single sob speech by MGM tycoon Louis Mayer, who convinces an angry crew to give up their pay for the good of the movies. Upton Sinclair is given a speech, too, but it serves only to confirm for Mank that he has cast his lot with the bad guys. Mank knows Sinclair isn’t going to win, despite the air of suspense as the votes are counted and Hearst clinks glasses as the GOP kingmaker. All Mank can do is lash out in defeat. So is this all resonant today? Today’s ultrarich are still buying up newspapers and media companies, producing a glut of cultural garbage, and obsessively policing their image, sure! But now the gatekeepers have in some ways been overrun, with no idea how to regain control (well, without essentially taking over the entire internet, as China did). Monoculture still has some footholds, most visible in all the Marvel-style movies and TV and the endlessly expanding universe of superhuman characters. Occasionally these movies subvert the idea of a superhero, but they don’t really push for collective action as an alternative. They generally do spectacularly well in China, because at the end of the day, socialist propaganda is not very exciting and action movies are. Netflix Mank is all about old Hollywood. If Mank is about the death of the auteur, then Netflix is both hero and villain, allowing creative freedom here and there but obscuring it all in the churn of content. But is creative freedom the thing Upton Sinclair fought for? His novels were famously didactic and unadorned treatises on the oppression of working people. I can’t imagine he cared about the Oscars, Hollywood’s chorus that pronounces the final judgment in Mank. (The Academy doles out a single screenplay award to Citizen Kane, bitterly shared by Welles and Mank.) It’s all muddled to me; I’m not convinced this film has any answers. It’s about Mank’s quest to redeem himself and to put his name on the big important movie some powerful people really, really wish did not exist. Citizen Kane does see the light of day and chip away at the mystique of the rich, but doesn’t point to anything to replace it with. So like Aja, I think this movie is a bit too enamored of its antihero to have a coherent political viewpoint. I don’t think that’s inherently a detriment, but it puts more weight on Mank’s thin frame. Mank gets in a good last jab at Orson Welles, who he seems to think is just another phony. It’s a very small, individualist triumph, immediately undercut by text before the credits that the writer died of alcoholism. The movie ends with the sense that Mank got a raw deal in life; someone like Upton Sinclair might say the individual deal-making is the whole problem. So maybe the frame story isn’t so removed from politics after all. Still, the lack of fireworks between Mank and Welles makes this less than compelling drama. Needs more lies about history — I mean, “movie magic.” (Arguably, there is already a considerable amount.) Whoops, I was supposed to talk about the parts of this movie other than Mank. Hard to do when it’s all about Mank! Aja: This is what I mean about the movie keeping Mank on a pedestal — it doesn’t do that purely through subtext, but also through its framing of so many of the other characters as essentially bit players in the You Must Remember This episode of Mank’s life. All three of the women who surround Mank, especially his wife Sara, come across as glorified extras whose parts have been built entirely around challenging Mank’s narrative of himself. But they fail to function as effective counters, given that they also begrudgingly love him. (What Strong Female Character in a movie that fails the Bechdel test doesn’t begrudgingly love the Difficult Man they’re put into the movie to coddle?) Sorry, am I making Mank sound superficial? A little — and that’s unfair to the film’s sharp shrewdness, its extravagantly witty script, its elaborate production design. It’s an excellent viewing experience. But beneath its polish, it treats both its political themes and most of its characters with what ultimately comes off as disinterest. The film’s centerpiece moment, for me, comes at the unwitting hands of Seyfried’s Marion Davies (who incidentally is perfect in this role, not a note wrong). When Mank desperately tries to get her to use her influence to stop production on the film that he knows will sink Sinclair’s chances, she tells him, “I already made my exit.” He immediately storms off in defeat, clearly seeing her rationale as a microcosm of everything that is Wrong With Hollywood. This is supposed to be the film’s showstopper irony, the moment when we see the tides of grand political fates turning around the whimsical vicissitudes of Hollywood celebrities. But it feels too easy — too self-serving as an example of Mank’s martyrdom in a land of hypocrites. Instead of painting Marion like a shallow political naif, Mank comes off like a showboat who’d rather dramatically race across a set to make an inexplicable demand of a busy starlet, and just as dramatically flounce away again once she’s turned him down, than take five minutes to explain to her what he’s asking and why. Just tell her why, Mank! That kind of thing makes it hard for me to know how seriously the movie wants us to take its interest in labor unions et al. — because the labor movement, too, is ultimately just more expendable backdrop for Mank’s own grievances. I think perhaps it’s fitting that a film like this wound up on Netflix. It’s demonstrably part of the classic genre of epic silver screen biopics, like Citizen Kane itself — meant to be seen on a screen 20 feet high and wow you with its masterful cinematography and commitment to spectacle. But it’s ultimately too complacent about its own pizazz, I think, to pull off the hat trick of dazzling you into loving it or agreeing with it (not that it knows what it wants you to agree with). It’s a film that instead rewards the repeated watching and analysis that a platform like Netflix engenders — and maybe that distancing effect has robbed it of some of its sheen. At least, in a different era, it would have stayed glossy through awards season. Now I’m not so sure. Netflix Amanda Seyfried in Mank. What to watch, read, and listen to after Mank Alissa: You’re both right, of course. There’s a lot to chew on here, but ultimately I wish I had gotten to see it on a big screen, while also being glad I got to rewind it and think about bits of it as pieces of filmmaking, not just one story. It’s complicated! So I want to ask you both: If people liked Mank — or didn’t, but wanted to — are there other movies you would recommend? Or TV shows? Citizen Kane, obviously, but what else? Aja: RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane, is the obvious choice here. Also try Cradle Will Rock, that lovely weird movie about labor unions, theater, and a radical off-Broadway musical that was too revolutionary to actually be performed. If “glossy biopics of eccentric Hollywood pioneers made by auteur directors” is the vibe you want, then The Aviator should probably be your first stop. And I’ve already mentioned it, but really the whole time I was watching Mank, I just kept thinking “This would have been better as a whole season of You Must Remember This,” the glorious podcast dedicated to vintage Hollywood deep-dives, so I’ll just toss that out there too. Its season on McCarthyism is essential listening, and makes for a great follow-up to Mank. Tim: I think the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is an interesting companion to Mank — another muddle of themes and tone about the perverse incentives of the Old Hollywood machine. It’s a farce, not a drama, and arguably even messier than Mank, but it definitely has some of the same appeal. If you’re looking for a period backstage drama with an intense focus on a single character, I highly recommend Opening Night, a John Cassavetes film about an actress who refuses to accept her societal role as the aging starlet. I kind of want to troll people and also recommend This Is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi’s goofy, deadly serious, and zero-budget documentary about Iranian censorship. If you hated Mank … well, you might also not like this, for different reasons? But at least the stakes feel much more immediate. Alissa: Oh, man, I love these suggestions. (This Is Not a Film is incredible!) Since Tim already took Hail, Caesar! and Aja already mentioned You Must Remember This, I’ll throw in Robert Altman’s The Player, which is set much later than Mank, but in a Hollywood that isn’t all that different — and has the satirical edge and bite that Mank sometimes lacks. It’s full of references and Hollywood in-jokes, but it is, for my money, a bit more fun to watch. And hey, there’s always Quentin Tarantino’s history-tweaking Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which digs into another Hollywood background story but with a whole different sensibility. Mank is streaming on Netflix. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.
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“It is not a blockade”: US says Saudi Arabia isn’t to blame for Yemen’s fuel shortage
People displaced by conflict receive food aid donated by a Kuwaiti charity organization in the western Yemeni province of Hodeidah on March 20. | Khaled Ziad/AFP via Getty Images Is there a fuel blockade in Yemen? It’s complicated. A March CNN report reignited calls, mainly from Democrats and progressive activists, for the US to do more to pressure Saudi Arabia to end what they call its “blockade” of Yemen. The report said Saudi warships were blockading the Yemeni coast, preventing fuel tankers from docking in the country’s main port of Hodeidah, and that this fuel blockade is directly contributing to the ongoing famine and humanitarian crisis in the country. Understandably, this led some activists and lawmakers to demand Biden do more to make Saudi lift the blockade and allow in the desperately needed fuel. There’s just one problem: The Biden administration says there isn’t a blockade — and that any restrictions that are in place aren’t coming directly from the Saudis, but mainly from Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The issue is exacerbated, they say, by the Houthi rebels who control most of the country. That’s a pretty stark disagreement. And it’s one that has critical implications for the lives of millions of Yemenis who are caught in the middle. Here’s what we know about what’s actually happening in Yemen, who is responsible for the shortages causing millions of Yemenis to suffer, and whether the Biden administration can or should be doing more to help. CNN’s blockade report launched a firestorm of controversy Saudi Arabia, along with several other countries in the region that joined its war effort, has been fighting a war in Yemen since 2015. They’re fighting to oust the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran that had just overthrown Yemen’s internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition, which until recently was also supported by the US, wants to return Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power. When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched the war, they used military force to stop planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran. But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting. That concern proved devastatingly prophetic. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that more than 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images A Yemeni girl from a family who was affected by the war checks her lunch from a charitable center on April 12 in Sana’a, Yemen. What CNN found last month fit the years-long pattern: Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year. “The Saudi vessels that patrol the waters of Hodeidah have control over which commercial ships can dock and unload their cargo,” the outlet reported. “Some goods are getting through — CNN witnessed aid being loaded on to trucks at the port after being delivered by ship — but not any fuel to deliver them.” This is what has activists so angry. “Food and medicine can’t be transported without fuel,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s lead lobbyist for Middle East policy. “It’s causing a humanitarian nightmare in Yemen right now.” What’s more, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals are losing power because they don’t have enough fuel to keep the lights on. In early February, President Joe Biden promised the US would stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in the war. But, he added, “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” In light of the CNN report, progressive activists and some Democrats want Biden to go further. Last week, nearly 80 Democrats sent a letter to the president demanding he do more to push Riyadh to end the blockade once and for all. The problem, though, is that the Biden administration has a totally different read of the situation. What the Biden administration says: It’s not a blockade, and it’s not really the Saudis While reporting on the letter Democrats sent to Biden, I asked the State Department for comment, as the agency’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, is leading America’s diplomatic response to the crisis. It turns out the State Department disagrees with the growing narrative since the CNN report’s release. “It is not a blockade,” a spokesperson for the agency said Monday. “Food is getting through, commodities are getting through, so it is not a blockade.” However, the administration does acknowledge there has been a slowdown in the amount of fuel coming into the country, and they’re concerned about it. “The United States understands the urgent need for fuel to get into Hodeidah port,” Lenderking told me on Tuesday. “This is a constant priority in our conversations with ​the Republic of Yemen government​ and Saudi Arabia.” Carolyn Kaster/Getty Images Tim Lenderking, left, was the deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia when then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, visited on July 22, 2015. But the primary culprit for the fuel slowdown, the State Department and the National Security Council contend, is not Saudi Arabia but rather the Hadi government. Here’s why: Even though it doesn’t actually control the bulk of the country and is operating out of Saudi Arabia, it is still the legitimate, recognized government of Yemen and thus retains authority over who is allowed to dock in Yemen’s ports. Which means that if the Hadi government doesn’t grant permission to a particular ship to dock in Hodeidah (or elsewhere), that ship can’t dock. The Saudi-led coalition enforces those decisions if necessary with its ships and planes, blocking any vessels Hadi’s government says can’t come in. And that process of approving ships to dock is where the State Department says the real problem lies, leading to the fuel shortage. The State Department said it opposes any arbitrary restrictions of commodities entering Yemen, but that “we respect the right of the government to control its access to ports.” However, the spokesperson added, “We do press them and work with them to make sure that their process improves and runs as smoothly as possible.” In other words, nobody, including the Saudis, is solely for malicious purposes trying to cut off fuel from Yemen. It’s just that the Hadi government’s approval whims are the main issue here. “It may have faltered, it may not be perfect, it may not be smooth, but it is a Yemeni government process, it is not a Saudi government process,” the State Department spokesperson told me. “We are working with many government officials to try to improve it, to make it as smooth as possible.” Okay, so who’s right? It’s important to keep three main questions in mind when trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong: Is fuel being blocked from reaching Yemen’s most vulnerable? If so, who is responsible for blocking it? Are they doing it on purpose? The answer to the first question seems to be yes. Data from the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen, the UN body that inspects certain ships coming into the country, clearly shows a significant drop-off of fuel making it into the country over the past two months. OCHA Yemen However, the Biden administration is correct that it’s not exactly a “blockade,” as UN data shows food and fuel are still getting in. The below snapshot from a March 2021 report shows that food imports actually increased from 2019 to 2020. UNVIM And even as fuel went down to zero in February and barely rose in March, food and other cargo were still getting into Yemen, including through Hodeidah. UNVIM As to who is blocking the fuel, both sides are kind of right and kind of wrong. The Biden administration is correct that any ship carrying fuel must receive approval from the Hadi government to unload at a Yemeni port like Hodeidah. “They have the final say on who gets in,” a spokesperson for the UN office overseeing the crisis in Yemen told me. But Saudi Arabia’s ships are the ones doing the actual physical blocking. So it is partly their fault, too, as they could choose not to do that. The Houthis are partly to blame here, too. Experts told me the rebels aren’t great about dispersing the fuel that is allowed to come off the ships. Sometimes they shut down gas stations so that the price of fuel they control on the black market goes up. So they are also responsible for why fuel isn’t getting to those who need it. As to the third question, is any of this happening on purpose, the answer also seems to be yes. All three parties — the Hadi government, the Saudis, and the Houthis — are guilty of purposely using fuel, and access to it, as a weapon in this war. In 2018, the warring parties agreed in Stockholm, Sweden, to, among other things, use revenues from imports at Hodeidah to pay civil service salaries in Yemen. In March 2020, though, the Houthis diverted 50 billion Yemeni rials (roughly $200 million) and used the money mostly to fund their fight — a conclusion confirmed by the United Nations in January. The State Department spokesperson made the same charge: “The Houthis profit from the trade, fuel, and those funds to support their warfront.” Experts told me in order to stop the Houthis from doing that, the Hadi government — with the Saudi-led coalition’s help — has denied permits to fuel ships in Hodeidah. In other words, the severe restrictions in fuel imports at Hodeidah aren’t happening out of pure malice, but they are happening on purpose. It’s part of an effort by the Hadi government and the Saudis to stop the Houthis from exploiting fuel revenues for their own benefit. The Hadi government “has declined to let them in [to Hodeidah] because of a long-running dispute with the Houthis over revenue payments,” the UN spokesperson told me. But that doesn’t mean State is pleased with what’s going on. The spokesperson said that the US is telling the Hadi government it should still allow fuel ships to dock and unload in Hodeidah despite their concerns over the Houthis. “We’ve really been encouraging them to understand the humanitarian imperative,” they told me. So case closed? Not exactly. Activists say the Biden administration can and should still be doing more to pressure Saudi Arabia It’s true that the Hadi government is denying permits for some vessels. It’s also true that the Houthis are siphoning off fuel for their own benefit. But could fuel flow more easily into Yemen if the Saudi-led coalition chose not to block ships from docking and unloading? Of course. This is a point activists can’t see past. “I don’t buy that is the Yemeni government’s fault. They do not have the navy or aircraft to bomb a ship that threatens to break the blockade,” said Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. “This is nonsense, and the State Department knows that.” “It is hard to fathom that after six years, the US is casting doubt about the existence of the oppressive blockade,” she continued. “It is harder because it is from the Biden administration from whom we expected better judgment.” Drew Angerer/Getty Images Twenty-six-year-old Iman Saleh (L), on her 12th day of a hunger strike for Yemen, speaks during a press conference alongisde Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) at Black Lives Matter Plaza on April 9 in Washington, DC. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the Biden administration is downplaying the Saudi role during this entire episode. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 1 did “call on all parties to allow the unhindered import and distribution of fuel,” but didn’t specifically call Riyadh out. That’s surprising for two reasons, experts say. First, the Biden administration has said that human rights are “at the center of US foreign policy.” Minimizing Riyadh’s role in blocking fuel into Yemen isn’t making human rights a priority. Second, it’s not like the Saudis have downplayed their own role. In March, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud proposed to reopen the airport in Sana’a in exchange for a ceasefire — the first time Riyadh openly acknowledged carrying out any kind of blocking effort in Yemen. Further, the Saudi-led coalition allowed at least four fuel ships in Hodeidah’s port in March after the Hadi government gave its approval, shortly following pressure from the CNN report. It’s clear, then, that Riyadh plays a key role in deciding which ships do and don’t get to operate in Hodeidah. This is something UN World Food Program Director David Beasley noted openly last month. “The people of Yemen deserve our help. That blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise, millions more will spiral into crisis,” he said in a speech to the UN Security Council. When I asked Beasley’s team what he precisely meant by “blockade,” a spokesperson said that “the fuel shortage is in reference to the coalition blockade.” Beasley’s remarks follow many other instances of the UN calling the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts a “blockade.” The question now is why the Biden administration won’t more openly and forcefully deride Riyadh’s involvement in blocking fuel from getting into Yemen. Analysts say one consideration is that the US is trying to broker a peace agreement between the Saudi-led coalition, the Hadi government, and the Houthis. If the Biden administration berates the Saudis repeatedly, they might lose leverage with a key party in those talks. Another reason experts noted is that the US is in the middle of negotiations to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, an accord Riyadh doesn’t like. By not speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s complicity in blocking fuel into Yemen, then Riyadh implicitly understands it isn’t to speak out about the Iran diplomacy. There’s one more: Pushing for Saudi Arabia and its partners to “end the blockade” could lead to the dissolution of the UN ship-inspection system that was put in place to facilitate shipments during a war and humanitarian crisis and curb the smuggling of weapons to the Houthis. If that happens, then it’d be far easier for Iran to send arms to the Houthis and further inflame the war. That also wouldn’t reverse the humanitarian disaster brought on by years of fighting. Whatever the reason, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling on the Biden administration to “urgently push” Riyadh to stop helping keep fuel from reaching Yemeni ports. “The interference, delay, and outright blocking of commercial goods and humanitarian assistance shipped to Yemen’s ports is a principal cause of price inflation, food insecurity, economic collapse, and the failure of public services in Yemen,” House of Representatives members wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Blinken on Tuesday. It’s unclear if Biden or his team will listen to them. What is clear, though, is that without Riyadh, a lot more fuel would be flowing into Yemen.
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Why some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress want to bring back a tax break for the rich
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Tom Suozzi, both of New York, announce their plan to restore the SALT tax deduction on July 14, 2020. They are joined by some big-name progressives in their push, including Reps. Katie Porter and Jamaal Bowman. | Raychel Brightman/Newsday RM/Getty Images Democrats want to raise taxes. So why are they debating cutting them for some well-off taxpayers? Democrats are trying to figure out how to pay for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and raise hundreds of billions of dollars to put toward rebuilding American roads and bridges. And yet somehow one of the big internal battles happening on the left is not about putting in place a more progressive tax regime, but reinstating one that can look quite regressive. In their 2017 tax bill, Republicans partially closed a tax loophole that mainly affected higher-income people in high-tax areas — i.e., relatively well-off people in blue states. They capped the state and local tax deduction (SALT) people can take when calculating their federal income tax at $10,000. People can still deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax bill, but only up to that point. Many Democrats — namely, those from states such as New York, New Jersey, and California — want to repeal the SALT deduction cap and go back to the old regime, where people could deduct all (or at least more) of their state and local taxes. They argue the cap unfairly drives up their constituents’ tax bills, might keep their states from implementing more progressive tax regimes on high-income people, and was a vindictive move by the GOP in the first place. “It was mean-spirited to begin with, politically targeted,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said at a press conference on April 1. But some Democrats, Republicans, and economists are saying hold the phone. “The vast majority of the benefits of repealing the SALT cap would go to the people at the very top. It would also be costly — and for that amount, we could finance much more worthy efforts to support American families and workers. We can say we are for a progressive tax code and for fighting inequality, or we can support the SALT deduction, but it is really hard to do both,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) in a statement to Vox. When the Senate took up a vote on whether to repeal the SALT cap in December 2019, he was the only Democrat to vote against it. It’s an issue where, ideologically, the stars don’t entirely align: Rep. Katie Porter wants to scrap the SALT cap; JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon doesn’t. A poll conducted by Vox and Data for Progress found that repealing the SALT cap isn’t popular among the broader electorate. Independents and Republicans generally oppose axing it, though a plurality of Democrats support repeal. According to the survey, which was conducted from April 9-12 of 1,217 likely voters, urban voters were likelier to support repealing the cap than rural and suburban voters. The poll noted that restoring the full state and local tax deduction would primarily benefit well-off Americans. Data for Progress Restoring the full state and local tax deduction doesn’t poll very well among likely voters, though Democrats like it more than Republicans and independents. Many moderate Democrats are arguing for the SALT deduction cap to be lifted, but so are some progressives. Take a look at New York Rep. Tom Suozzi, a moderate who represents parts of Long Island and Queens in New York, and has adopted, “No SALT, no deal,” as a sort of tagline on infrastructure as of late. “The first thing is just basic fairness, it’s not fair that you pay taxes on taxes you’ve already paid,” he said in an interview with Vox. Suozzi is joined by Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones on the issue. They’re both Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-aligned progressives and newly minted members of “the Squad.” Yesterday, I joined @RepMondaire @RepTomSuozzi @RyeGSL to discuss repealing the $10,000 cap on the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction. We need to repeal this cap and put money back into the hands of middle-class families.— Congressman Jamaal Bowman (@RepBowman) March 26, 2021 The debate over Democrats’ next move on infrastructure, which Biden has put forth as part of his American Jobs Plan, and whether and how to pay for it through taxes, is just getting started. Plenty of proposals are going to be on the table, including SALT. The White House has signaled some openness to it, but the matter is far from settled. “If Democrats want to propose a way to eliminate SALT — which is not a revenue raiser, as you know; it would cost more money — and they want to propose a way to pay for it, and they want to put that forward, we’re happy to hear their ideas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing on April 1. SALT, explained When people file their taxes, they can deduct certain expenses to make their taxable incomes lower. A lot of people just take the “standard deduction” and lop off a flat amount. Others, however, choose to itemize their deductions, so they can subtract things like charitable deductions and medical expenses. Generally, taxpayers choose whichever avenue will be more beneficial for them — as in, whichever will leave them with less income to be taxed. For decades, taxpayers who itemized their federal income taxes could deduct what they paid in state and local property taxes and either income or sales taxes (whichever was higher). It was one of the biggest federal tax expenditures, according to the Tax Policy Center. “One way to view the deduction was as an indirect subsidy for states, and basically, the federal government was saying to taxpayers, ‘We’ll take up 37 percent of the cost of your state and local taxes,’” said Frank Sammartino, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. But with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 under then-President Donald Trump, that changed: the law capped the state and local deduction at $10,000. Sammartino explained who was hit: “If you’re high-income and in a state with high state and local taxes, this is going to bite you.” The legislation also basically doubled the standard deduction from $6,500 to $12,000 for individuals and from $13,000 to $24,000 for couples, which softened the blow a little bit. But for many taxpayers, it still stung. Prior to the 2017 tax bill, about 30 percent of taxpayers itemized deductions on their federal returns, including claiming the SALT deduction. The higher-income the household, the likelier the deduction: in 2017, 16 percent of taxpayers with incomes between $20,000 and $50,000 claimed the deduction, compared to two-thirds of taxpayers in the $100,000 to $200,000 threshold and 9 in 10 taxpayers with incomes above $200,000. After the 2017 law, the proportion of people who itemize deductions on their taxes fell to about 10 percent, and an estimated two-thirds of them have an income of over $100,000. “Those that continue to itemize are generally high-income taxpayers,” Sammartino said. According to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if the SALT cap — which is set to expire in 2025 — were to be repealed earlier, it would overwhelmingly benefit those at the higher end of the income scale — the ones who were hurt by the bill back in 2017. The CBPP estimates that more than half of the benefit would go to the top 1 percent, and over 80 percent would go to the top 5 percent, of earners. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Lifting the cap on the SALT deduction would disproportionately benefit the top 5 percent of earners. The deduction is geographically concentrated as well. Prior to the TCJA, the 10 counties benefiting the most from the deduction were in four states: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. And six states claimed over half of the deduction: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It’s popular in other states, too, including Utah, Minnesota, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. While the burden of the SALT cap falls disproportionately on high-income taxpayers in those states, it can affect other people too. In a state like New Jersey, people’s property taxes can be high even though they’re not super rich. And in New York City, $150,000 in annual income isn’t landing you in a Fifth Avenue penthouse. Still, given the data, it’s hard to argue that scrapping the cap on SALT deductions is squarely aimed at helping the middle class. Some economists have even changed their minds on it. Jason Furman, President Barack Obama’s chief economist, did a tweet thread in 2017 that my colleague Dylan Matthews documented at the time, arguing lawmakers should keep the SALT deduction in place, making the case that Republicans were doing away with it to pay for tax cuts for even richer people (which to a certain extent, they were). Furman has since described restoring the deduction as a “waste of money” and the “Democratic version of trickle-down economics.” I like calling SALT repeal the Democratic version of trickle-down economics.It is *slightly better* trickle down but slightly better than terrible is, well, pretty bad.— Jason Furman (@jasonfurman) January 29, 2021 Jared Bernstein, one of Biden’s top economic advisers, isn’t a fan of putting the full SALT deduction back in place, either. 2a) Again, re SALT cap repeal, if you told me I'd be siding with R's against D's on a tax change, I would have concluded you'd lost your mind.— Jared Bernstein (@econjared) December 14, 2019 Why SALT isn’t settled: There are internal Democratic divisions over what to do Many lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — have been mad about the SALT cap since before the ink on the 2017 law was even dry. Since-retired Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey voted against the legislation in 2017, when he was chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He specifically cited the SALT limit in his reasoning, warning that it would “hurt New Jersey families who already pay some of the highest income and property taxes in the nation.” The SALT cap may have hurt Republicans in the 2018 midterms, as they wound up losing in some key impacted districts. In 2019, the House of Representatives voted to roll back the SALT cap, with many Democrats and some Republicans going along. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voted against the bill at the time, but she left the door open to doing something to “restructure” SALT. The bill failed in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans, but all Democratic senators voted for it except for one — Bennet from Colorado. Now, SALT is back up for discussion as part of the broader conversation around Biden’s plan for spending on infrastructure and jobs, which includes talk of potential changes to the tax code. Some Democrats are pushing for the restoration of the full deduction, or at the very least, some changes to the current cap, to be included as part of a broader upcoming package, even though those changes would mean a decrease in revenue at a moment when the White House is looking to raise it. How on board Biden is with that is unclear: Axios reports the president isn’t planning to rejuvenate the SALT deduction, but there are some big names encouraging him to go along. Pelosi has described the limit as “devastating” to California voters and said she shares the “exuberance” of lawmakers who are looking to do something about it. “Hopefully we can get it into the bill,” she said in April. “I never give up hope for something like that.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is up for reelection in New York in 2022, has also urged Biden to bring back the SALT deduction in full and has tried to further his argument by noting how hard-hit his home state has been by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Double taxing hardworking homeowners is plainly unfair; we need to bring our federal dollars back home to ... cushion the blow this virus — and this harmful SALT cap — has dealt so many homeowners and families locally,” he said in a statement in January. Some Democratic members of the House have gone as far as to declare, “No SALT, no deal,” in an effort to force the president’s hand on the issue. I've got a few words for anyone considering altering federal tax rates for families in North Jersey: No SALT, No Dice // No SALT, No Deal! See the statement below from my colleagues @BillPascrell, @RepTomSuozzi, & me:— Rep Josh Gottheimer (@RepJoshG) March 30, 2021 “I’m going to talk to my colleagues on the Ways and Means staff and I’m going to talk to the White House and I am going to talk to my other colleagues that are in a similar predicament as my state is in,” Suozzi told Vox. “Right now, no SALT, no deal.” Proponents of restoring the SALT deduction make multiple arguments. One is that capping it will cause wealthy people to flee from high-tax states. There’s not really a lot of evidence for millionaire mass migration when their taxes go up. The SALT deduction is a relatively bigger hit, but there’s not clear proof that rich people are fleeing high-tax states en masse because of it — plus, people move for plenty of reasons. (See: the pandemic.) They also say that the SALT deduction lets state and local governments tax high-income people to pay for public services for low- and middle-income people. The reasoning goes that letting rich people deduct their state and local taxes means states can tax them more to pay for health care, education, public transit, etc., and that it stops states from engaging in a race to the bottom to cut taxes. “For my progressive friends, I want to say very clearly, don’t be bamboozled by the conservative movement. They’ve been planning this for 40 years to figure out how to undo the progressive policies in progressive states by getting rid of the state and local tax deduction,” Suozzi said. Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of A New Contract with the Middle Class, said that to the extent the SALT deduction is an attempt to accomplish those goals, it’s doing so in a very roundabout way. “The idea that the best way to get states to spend more money, particularly on services that are actually progressive, is to give a massive tax break to the people who live there in the hopes that it will allow the states and cities to therefore tax them a bit more because they know they’ve got a break, and that that extra revenue will be used in a progressive way — that might be happening, but wow, that’s a pretty long way around,” he said. Democrats also make the point that the deduction limit wound up in the 2017 tax bill as a way for Trump to exact revenge on blue states that didn’t support him. “The notion that if Democrats had enacted a policy specifically targeted at Texas and Florida, the members from Texas and Florida wouldn’t try to reverse it … obviously [they would] if the shoe were on the other foot,” one Democratic aide said. “Republicans were so clear about what they were doing in 2017, they wanted to shift money from wealthier people in New Jersey and New York to wealthier people in Texas and Florida and other red states.” Reeves sees it a different way: “Good policy gets made for bad reasons.” This is really an issue of politics meets policy The fault lines around the SALT deduction aren’t really so ideological as they are geographic, which makes sense, given whose constituents are impacted by this and whose aren’t. It’s a non-issue for voters in many parts of the country, but places where it matters, it really matters: Rep. Mikie Sherrill, the Democrat now representing the district Frelinghuysen retired from, ran ads during the 2018 about the SALT deduction. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which represents the left-leaning faction of the House, has declined to take a position on the matter — its membership is split. “There are some members that feel very strongly about it because they’re in a state where that’s a very big issue for their revenue,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the CPC’s chair, told the Hill. The politics of the SALT deduction are a bit messy, but the bigger issue is really the policy angle, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advised Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. The Biden team wants to raise revenue to pay for infrastructure and other priorities, and lifting the SALT cap will do the opposite. It would cost an estimated $600 billion through 2025. “I don’t think it has much downside politically, it’s more of a dilemma for the economic team and the budget team,” Lake said. “Democrats right now are concentrating on who’s not paying their fair share as opposed to who’s paying their fair share.” The debate over what to do about the SALT deduction doesn’t have to be a binary one. There are other alternatives, like reducing all itemized deductions or limiting the tax rate applying to itemized deductions. Or, the federal government could raise the SALT cap to $20,000 for couples to at least get rid of the marriage penalty currently in place, or raise the top individual income rate back to 39.6 percent, where it was pre-TJCA. “If you wanted to raise revenue from higher-income people, you could just raise the top rates. It’s pretty straightforward, and it doesn’t distinguish between different regions of the country,” Sammartino said. Reeves chafed at the idea of raising the top rate to counterbalance lifting the deduction cap. “Why would you take with one hand and give back with the other? Why not just take with one hand and make the tax code a bit simpler?” he said. He instead pointed to a proposal from the Tax Policy Center for the federal government to help create a kind of “rainy day fund” to help states. Lake said she believes it would be “fairly easy to obtain some kind of compromise.” Biden ran on his ability to bring Democrats and Republicans together. It’s become increasingly obvious Republicans aren’t coming along for the ride with him on much of anything, and even though some of them might want to restore the SALT deduction, it’s likely to be tucked into a broader package that the GOP isn’t going to go for. And so the challenge on state and local taxes, as with so many other issues, is for the White House and congressional leadership to keep Democrats together. The debate on this, and myriad other tax proposals, is just beginning.
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Scientists haven’t figured out long Covid. Here are 5 of their best hypotheses.
Christina Animashaun/Vox From disturbing the gut microbiome to lingering in the brain, there are many ways the coronavirus might cause lasting symptoms. Most people who get the coronavirus will fully recover and go right back to their lives. But the latest research suggests that at least 10 percent have long-term symptoms, even after their body has apparently cleared the virus. The condition, known as “long Covid,” has emerged as a scary feature of the pandemic — a reminder that even as hospitalizations and deaths come down, millions of people will continue to suffer from the aftermath of infection. And, as it turns out, “this isn’t unique to Covid,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine, told Vox. Instead, Covid-19 appears to be one of many infections, from Ebola to strep throat, that can give rise to stubborn symptoms in an unlucky subset of patients. “It is more typical than not that a virus infection leads to long-lasting symptoms in some fraction of individuals,” Iwasaki said. The difference now is that, with 137 million Covid-19 cases worldwide and counting, long-haulers are more visible: Their suffering has come on in unprecedented numbers. It’s also possible the coronavirus causes long-term symptoms even more frequently than other infections. In this week’s episode of Unexplainable, we dive into what we know about long Covid and what other viruses can teach us about the condition, including the leading hypotheses for what might be driving symptoms in Covid long-haulers. We also look at what we can learn from patients who have been grappling with medically unexplained symptoms — the kind that don’t correspond to problematic diagnostic test results or imaging — for years before the pandemic hit. Here’s a rundown of what scientists think could explain the mysterious symptoms, and why even the vaccine might not help. 1) The virus and “viral ghosts” didn’t actually leave the body Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images Cell nuclei (blue) being infected by SARS-CoV-2 (red areas), the virus that causes Covid-19. The first explanation for what might cause persistent symptoms in people who’ve been infected with Covid-19 is the simplest: The virus or its components might still be lurking in the body somewhere, long after a person starts testing negative. We’ve learned from other long-term viral illnesses that, in some cases, pathogens do not fully clear the body. “It’s out of the blood but gets into tissue in a low level — the gut, even maybe the brain in some people who are really sick — and you have a reservoir of the virus that remains,” PolyBio Research Foundation microbiologist Amy Proal told Vox. “And that drives a lot of inflammation and symptoms.” These viral reservoirs have been documented following infections with many other pathogens. During the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, studies emerged showing the Ebola virus could linger in the eye and semen. There were similar findings during the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic when health officials warned about the possibility that Zika could be sexually transmitted. (Viral reservoirs are also why the moniker “post-viral” can be problematic, Proal added.) A related explanation for what might be happening with long-Covid patients is what Iwasaki calls “viral ghosts.” While the intact virus may have left the body, “there may be RNA and protein from the virus that’s lingering and continuing to stimulate the immune system,” Iwasaki said. “It’s almost like having a chronic viral infection — it keeps stimulating the immune system because the virus or viral components are still there, and the body doesn’t know how to shut it off.” Recent studies in Nature and The Lancet documented coronavirus RNA and protein in a variety of body systems, including the gastrointestinal tract and brain. In autopsies of people with chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers also found enterovirus RNA and proteins in patients’ brains, including, in one case, in the brain stem region. The brain stem controls sleep cycles, autonomic function (the largely unconscious system driving bodily functions, such as digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate), and the flu-like symptoms we develop in response to inflammation and injury. “If that area of the brain signaling becomes dysregulated [by viruses],” Proal said, “[that] can result in sets of symptoms that meet a diagnostic criteria for [chronic fatigue syndrome], or even for long Covid.” 2) Other pathogens lurking in the body reawaken Other pathogens already lurking in the body prior to a coronavirus infection might also exacerbate symptoms. For example, viruses in the herpes family — such as Epstein-Barr (the cause of mono) or varicella zoster (the cause of chickenpox and shingles) — stay dormant in the body forever. Under normal conditions, the immune system can keep them in check. “So, for example, 90 percent of people in the world already have herpes viruses,” said Proal. “But in those patients, the immune system keeps them in a place where they can’t replicate, where they can’t express proteins. They’re kind of controlled.” But then Covid-19 comes along, and all of a sudden these other viruses get a chance to gain a foothold again. With the immune system tied up fighting Covid-19, the other viruses may reawaken. And they — not the coronavirus — drive symptoms. 3) The immune system turns on the body Another key hypothesis: Long-Covid patients have developed an autoimmune disorder. The virus interrupts normal immune function, causing it to misfire, so that molecules that normally target foreign invaders — like viruses — turn on the body. These “rogue antibodies,” known as autoantibodies, “attack either elements of the body’s immune defences or specific proteins in organs such as the heart,” according to Nature. The assault is thought to be distinct from cytokine storm, an acute immune system disorder that appeared as a potential threat early in the pandemic. “Under that scenario, we talk about molecular mimicry,” Proal said. “Basically, the virus creates proteins that look like human proteins or tissue, and that kind of tricks the immune system.” Here, the the immune system tries to target the virus, which “if it has a similar size and shape to a human tissue or protein, it fires on the human tissue or protein as well,” she added. 4) The microbiome gets thrown out of whack It’s also possible the coronavirus might deplete important microorganisms in the gut microbiome — the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in and on the body. In one study, researchers tracked blood and stool samples from 100 patients hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 infection, testing some up to 30 days after they cleared the virus. (They also collected samples from a control group for comparison.) And they found Covid-19 infection was linked to a “dysbiotic gut microbiome,” even after the virus cleared the respiratory tract; they also hypothesized that it might contribute to the persistent health problems some patients are experiencing. “Under conditions of health, those communities are in a state of balance. It’s like a forest, like different organisms are doing different things, but it’s in a harmonious state,” Proal said. But Covid-19 could lead to an imbalance in the microbiome. “And a huge number of symptoms are tied to microbiome dysbiosis. Irritable bowel syndrome or even neuro-inflammatory symptoms can be driven by these ecosystems when they go out of balance, too.” 5) The body is injured Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Radiologists observe CT scans of Covid-19 patients’ lungs. The virus might have cleared the body but left injuries in its wake — scars in the lungs or damage to the heart, for example — and these injuries might give rise to symptoms. According to a recent preprint involving 201 patients, 70 percent had impairments in one or more organs four months after their initial Covid-19 symptoms set in. In other unpublished research, radiologists at the University of Southern California tracked hospitalized patients’ lung recovery using CT scans. They found one-third had scars caused by tissue death more than a month later. Other patients may have brain damage that causes neurological symptoms. There’s also growing evidence of widespread cardiac injury, even in patients who aren’t hospitalized. In a JAMA Cardiology study, researchers performed cardiac MRIs on 100 patients in Germany who had recovered from Covid-19 within the past two to three months. An astounding 78 percent still had heart abnormalities. For coronavirus patients who had to be admitted to intensive care units, there’s a related explanation: Long before the pandemic, the intensive care community coined a term for the persistent symptoms people frequently experience following stays in an ICU for any reason, from cancer to tuberculosis. These symptoms include muscle weakness, brain fog, sleep disturbances, and depression — the aftermath of a body lying around in a hospital bed for days on end and injuries or side effects from treatments patients received, including intubation. The term “post-intensive care syndrome” was“created to raise awareness and education, because so many of our ICU survivors were going to their primary care doctor saying they were fatigued,” said Dale Needham, who has been treating Covid-19 patients in the ICU at Johns Hopkins. “They had trouble remembering, and they were weak. Their primary care doctor would do some lab tests and say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you.’ The patient might walk away and feel like the doctor was saying, ‘It’s all in your head. You’re making it up.’” The Covid-inspired medical revolution So what might help alleviate the nagging symptoms of Covid long-haulers? One idea that’s been circulating is the Covid-19 vaccine: Some long-haulers are reporting their symptoms improving after they’ve gotten immunized. But others have reported feeling worse — and still others, no different. So researchers are racing to understand the effects of vaccination on long Covid, but it isn’t looking like a silver bullet just yet. Proal had a simpler solution that could be implemented today: “It’s time for medicine to be rooted in just believing the patient.” Even with growing awareness about long Covid, patients with the condition — and other chronic “medically unexplained” symptoms — are still too often minimized and dismissed by health professionals. People “want disease to kill you, or they want you to return to miraculous good health,” said Jaime Seltzer, director of scientific and medical outreach at the chronic fatigue syndrome advocacy group ME Action. “When you stay sick, compassion can fade. And that is not just friends and family. That is your clinicians as well; they want somebody fixable.” But long-haulers of any chronic condition can exist in a space between sickness and health for years, sometimes without a diagnosis. Their unexplainable symptoms can elicit outright skepticism in health professionals who are trained to consider patient feedback the “lowest form of evidence on [the evidence hierarchy], even under research on mice,” Proal said. The situation can be even more challenging for patients who never had a positive PCR test confirming their Covid-19 diagnosis. Of the dozens of medical appointments one Covid-19 long-hauler, Hannah Davis, had for her ongoing symptoms — which include memory loss, muscle and joint pain, and headaches a year after her initial disease — one of the best experiences involved a doctor who simply said, “I don’t know.” “The doctor [told me], ‘We are seeing hundreds of people like you with neurological symptoms. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to treat this yet. We don’t even understand what’s going on yet. But just know you’re not alone,’” she recounted. “And that’s the kind of conversation that needs to be happening. Because we can wait, but we can’t have the doctor’s anxiety being projected onto us as patients.”
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Violent crime is up. Newsmax and OANN viewers are most likely to say so.
People are bad at judging crime trends. People who consume right-wing media are more likely to think violent crime has increased than those who don’t, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress. The poll, which surveyed 1,209 likely voters about their perceptions of crime and has a 3 percentage point (plus or minus) margin of error, indicates that viewers of Newsmax and OANN, two right-wing media outlets that have a loose relationship with the facts — most notably in their perpetuation of the false conspiracy theorythat Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election due to mass voter fraud — are more likely to say that violent crime is on the rise. Data for Progress Forty-three percent of OANN/Newsmax viewers believe crime has increased in their communities, while only 30 percent of those who don’t watch right-wing news agree. The effect is more pronounced at the national level, where 87 percent of OANN/Newsmax viewers think crime has increased, compared with 70 percent of those who watch neither Fox, OANN, nor Newsmax and 71 percent of those who reported watching just Fox. In this instance, OANN/Newsmax viewers are closer to the truth when it comes to national shifts: Murder and violent crime have increased over the last year. As Vox’s German Lopez recently reported, “Based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher.” But that may not be the full picture, Lopez noted: The FBI analysis found violent crime was up by 3 percent nationwide, although not as uniformly as murder was. The three data sets all found some kinds of violent crime were up, including aggravated assaults and gun assaults, while others were down, including rape and robbery. Crime overall fell, largely due to drops in nonviolent offenses involving drugs, burglary, or theft (with an exception for car theft). Criminologists often look to murder rates to tell the real story of what is going on with violent crime. Although reported rates of burglary, assault, or other crimes may fluctuate (especially with the upheaval of the last year), murder is a more reliable indicator because there is either a missing person or a body. But rather than assuming OANN and Newsmax are better at portraying reality (considering the numerous ways they spread false information), it’s more likely this is a quintessential example of the saying that “a broken clock is right twice a day.” Americans are pretty bad at estimating crime trends According to the poll, people believe crime may have increased significantly nationwide and somewhat in their state, but when asked about their immediate community — for which they would feasibly have the greatest information — a minority of respondents, including OANN and Newsmax viewers, said they thought crime had increased. Only 33 percent of likely voters agreed that violent crime has increased in their immediate communities, while 72 percent and 51 percent, respectively, agreed that crime has increased nationwide and in their state. Gallup, whose annual crime poll asks respondents about the increase or decrease in crime in their area over the past year, found in October 2020 that 38 percent said more, 39 percent said less, and 22 percent said the same. Gallup similarly found a sharp divergence when asking respondents in the same survey about crime nationwide: In October 2020, 78 percent said there was more crime in the US as a whole compared with the previous year. Historically, people are not very good at estimating crime trends. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of voters (57 percent) said crime had worsened since 2008, even though violent crime had fallen nearly 20 percent during that time period. “Voters are usually more likely to say crime is up than down, regardless of what official statistics show,” wrote John Gramlich, a senior writer/editor at Pew. Since 1989 (excluding 2001), respondents to Gallup’s annual crime poll have said crime in the US increased over the year before, often sharply at odds with existing data. Media consumption may not be causing these differential views of crime. It could just be that people who believe crime is a bigger issue are more likely to watch right-wing news. Pew’s issue polling of the 2020 presidential election showed that 74 percent of Donald Trump supporters said violent crime was “very important” to their vote, whereas only 46 percent of Biden voters said the same. But whichever direction the causal arrow flows, it’s clear that people’s perceptions of crime are often (if not this year)divorced from reality. Pew Research Center
6 h
Fast food over fine dining: What spending data tells us about the pandemic recovery
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images Five charts that show how dramatically the pandemic affected our spending. You can paint a picture of the pandemic by what we bought or didn't buy. You can learn a lot by looking at where we went or didn’t go. And as vaccines become more widely available and the end of the pandemic potentially draws near, you can also use those measures to illustrate which industries have recovered or are still struggling Recovery from the impacts of the pandemic varies widely by industry, according to new data from Earnest Research, which uses de-identified credit card, debit card, and mobile geolocation data to track spending and foot traffic at businesses in the United States. Even within a category like food or retail, there are winners and losers based on the particulars of the pandemic that made one type more or less popular than another. The data is indexed to the same month two years earlier — so March 2020 data would show the percentage difference from March 2018 — in order to strip out some of the huge dips when many businesses were closed completely during lockdown. Food Spending on online grocers like Fresh Direct and Instacart and delivery services like DoorDash and GrubHub soared during the pandemic to rates 400 percent higher than what they had been a couple years earlier, as people sought a safer way to get food than going to the supermarket or restaurants. While below their pandemic peaks, sales remain elevated far above where they had been as these types of commerce continue to grow in popularity. Restaurant recovery varied by type, though none is booming. Sales at fast food and fast casual restaurants — think Chipotle and Chopt, where you can pick up food but don’t necessarily dine in — are above 2019 levels. Meanwhile, sales at restaurants where people typically dine in, both fine dining chains like Capital Grille or Sugarfish and casual chains like Applebee’s and California Pizza Kitchen, remained depressed. Supermarket sales are back to the 2019 baseline after sales surged nearly 30 percent in the early pandemic. Perhaps people are over a lockdown spent cooking for themselves, but it’s more likely that grocery shopping has moved online and into meal kits. Shopping The biggest areas of apparel growth were in active and athleisure brands like Lululemon, Spanx, and Nike, as Americans worked from home and got comfy. Even from our quarantine isolation, our fashion followed collective trends bolstered by social media. Unflattering bike shorts became the official uniform of pandemic summer. Unsurprisingly for those of us who have abstained from the strictures of pants and going out, professional and dress attire brands like Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic suffered most, and sales remain down. Purchases of fast fashion and luxury brands, however, are up — perhaps thanks to the beloved quarantine pastime of impulse buying online. And while certain types of clothing spend have recovered, the physical stores at which they were once purchased haven’t. Emergent Research data on foot traffic by category — which is different from their spending categories because they use different data sources — shows that people haven’t completely returned to clothing stores. In conjunction with the elevated spending data, this suggests that online sales have taken a bigger portion of clothing sales in a move that’s likely to be permanent. Fitness Even before the pandemic, physical gyms were in trouble, as people increasingly opted to work out at home on a new swath of at-home fitness equipment rather than in the gym. The pandemic closures during lockdown might have solidified that trend. Gym traffic is down 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels and spending is down significantly as well: 40 percent in March 2021 compared with March 2019, according to Earnest data. And it’s possible it will remain depressed, thanks to the enormous growth in spending on at-home workout equipment and subscriptions during the pandemic, with companies like Peloton and NordicTrack seeing rapid growth. Travel Travel recovery is a bit harder to pin down, especially since a lot of travel during the pandemic happened locally, with people traveling by car and staying in Airbnbs nearby. The data we have also ends in March, before the CDC gave the green light to vaccinated travelers. What we do know is that foot traffic to airports, hotels, and rental car establishments remains down. And while numbers are ticking upward, spending data on airlines and online travel also remain depressed as of the end of March, according to Earnest’s data. That said, many are predicting a travel boom this summer. As more Americans get vaccinated — currently nearly a quarter of the population are fully vaccinated — it is likely that more people will take to the air (or boat or rental car).Three-quarters of Americans are planning a post-vaccine trip within the next six months, according to a new survey from PredictHQ, a demand intelligence company. “My guess is there’s so much pent-up demand, domestic travel this summer will potentially be bigger than pre-pandemic levels,” PredictHQ CEO Campbell Brown told Recode. Americans, who have hoarded so many vacation days since the pandemic that some employers are paying them to take off, are about to summer like Europeans, according to the Atlantic, which reported searches and reservations for summer growing rapidly on online portals. For now, our travel habits are closer to getting back to how they used to be.
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Why Johnson & Johnson shots were paused — and why that’s so confusing
The CDC and FDA on Tuesday called for a pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. It has already been administered to nearly 7 million Americans. | Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images The logic and challenge behind the FDA and CDC’s decision to temporarily halt the one-shot vaccine. Rollout of the single-dose Covid-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson was halted Tuesday in the United States as regulators race to investigate rare blood clotting complications linked to the shot. The move may force thousands of people scheduled to receive the shot this week to scramble for an alternative. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a pause in distributing the vaccine after six reported cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). These clots block blood flowing out of the brain and can quickly turn deadly. The complications were found in women between the ages of 18 and 48, and they arose between six and 13 days after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “Of the clots seen in the United States, one case was fatal, and one patient is in critical condition,” said Peter Marks, the head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, during a Tuesday press conference. However, the fact that so few cases led to a nationwide pause of the vaccine has raised questions of whether the move was an overreaction. Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, argued that the CDC and FDA were acting “out of an abundance of caution” and emphasized that their Tuesday decision was a “pause,” implying that it is meant to be temporary. “I don’t think that they were pulling the trigger too quickly,” Fauci said. But the move has nonetheless created confusion for people slated to receive the Johnson & Johnson shot and raised fears that it could fuel hesitancy around Covid-19 vaccines. Johnson & Johnson itself was already reeling from a manufacturing error at one of its suppliers that ruined 15 million doses. And in Colorado, three mass vaccination sites stopped administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week after 11 people reported feeling of nausea and dizziness. For regulators, the episode highlights the tricky challenge of balancing caution against an urgent need for a vaccine in a still raging pandemic. And as they investigate the problem, they also have to try to maintain public confidence in the vaccination program. The pause helps show that that regulators are taking potential problems seriously, but if they botch the messaging, that could make people less likely to get vaccinated. What is cerebral venous thrombosis and how is it connected to Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine? CVST, also called cerebral sinovenous thrombosis, blocks blood from leaving the brain. In the general population, it occurs in about five out of a million people. Symptoms of CVST include headache, blurred vision, seizures, and a loss of control of the body. However, there are several factors that made regulators pay close attention to the recent cases following vaccinations with the Johnson & Johnson shot. Marks explained that patients with these clots also had thrombocytopenia, a condition where platelets in the blood drop to very low levels, leading to bleeding and bruising. The combination of blood clots and low platelets means that patients cannot receive conventional blood clot therapies like heparin, a blood thinner. That’s why health officials want to wait to investigate the concern and come up with new guidelines if necessary. Another factor is that these cases occurred in younger women, who normally don’t face a high risk of these types of clots. Very rare side effects, but right decision by @CDCgov @US_FDA to check the data and use science to guide next steps.— Ali H. Mokdad (@AliHMokdad) April 13, 2021 The pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine mirrors a similar halt in Europe of another Covid-19 vaccine, one developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, because of concerns about blood clots. In March, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator halted the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine before allowing distribution to resume. Regulators concluded the vaccine didn’t cause an increase in overall risk of blood clots. “This is a safe and effective vaccine. Its benefits in protecting people from Covid-19 with the associated risks of deaths and hospitalizations outweigh the possible risks,” said Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency, during a press conference last month. Both the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are based on a modified adenovirus vector. The adenovirus is a separate virus engineered to deliver DNA instructions to cells for making the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Nearly seven million people in the US have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is still under review and has not begun distribution in the US, although the US government has already purchased millions of doses. The mechanism connecting these vaccines to CVST isn’t clear just yet, but there are some hypotheses. Robert Brodsky, director of the hematology division at Johns Hopkins University, said last month that the spike proteins built using the instructions from these vaccines could, in rare cases, trigger an immune system response that interferes with the regulation of blood clots. That immune response could also damage platelets, accounting for the symptoms presented. More evidence is needed to verify that is causing the problem, but it could help scientists develop ways to treat or prevent the issue. But if a spike protein can trigger this reaction, then it’s likely that a whole intact virus could also trigger CVST in people who are vulnerable. The question is how best to protect those individuals from infection while also mitigating the risks of complications. Rare complications with Covid-19 vaccines pose a massive challenge for public health messaging It’s always tricky to communicate risk, but having to study and explain uncommon problems with vaccines was foreseeable. The Covid-19 vaccines were tested in tens of thousands of people in clinical trials, and all three that have begun distribution in the US — from Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson — were shown to be safe, with mild to moderate side effects. But when vaccines make the jump from thousands of carefully screened trial participants to millions of people in the general population, rare problems — the 1 in a million complications — start to emerge. That already happened with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after it started to roll out. Several recipients suffered severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. Similar problems emerged with the Moderna vaccine. The CDC estimated in January that the rate of allergic reactions to the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was 11.1 per million vaccinations, while the rate was 2.5 per million for Moderna. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccine use mRNA as their means to deliver instructions to cells for making viral spike proteins. That mRNA is encased in a lipid nanoparticle, which may be what’s triggering the allergic reactions. While researchers are still investigating the connection, the mRNA vaccines have continued distribution. Health officials modified the vaccine protocol to screen people with a history of severe allergies. They also added a 15-minute waiting period for recipients post-vaccination, since most allergic reactions arose in that window. Regulators could then take a similar approach to the one they used for allergies and the mRNA vaccines, adding a screening criterion for people at highest risk of these blood clots before they receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It’s too soon to say whether regulators did everything right when it comes to handling the pause and the public messaging around the vaccine. The willingness to wait and study potential problems may boost overall confidence in vaccinations, or the confusion and fears around complications could make more people wary. Or it may end up as a minor bump in the vaccine rollout. And what about people who have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Fauci said that for people who received the vaccine more than a month ago, they’re out of the woods. But people who have had the shot more recently and start to experience symptoms associated with CVST should alert their physician about their vaccination record. “If you look at the time frame where this occurs, it’s pretty tight, from six to 13 days from the time of the vaccination,” Fauci said.
Tech billionaires are staying “very, very quiet” on proposals to tax their wealth
Bill Gates has declined to get involved in a tax fight in his home state. | Lintao Zhang/Getty Images It is relatively easy for a billionaire to say they support higher taxes. More is on the line if they are asked to do something about it. Billionaires like Bill Gates have long said that they, theoretically, would be in favor of paying much more money in personal taxes. And yet Gates and some of the wealthiest people in the world are staying silent on a series of active proposals that would do just that, sidestepping a legislative package in their home state of Washington that targets them specifically. Washington is home to four of the richest people on the planet: Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bezos’s ex-wife novelist MacKenzie Scott, and longtime Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. And the state in 2021 is also home to some of the most aggressive proposals to tax the ultra-rich, including a first-of-its-kind proposal to tax the wealth of billionaires at the state level. All four of them have declined to campaign for the tax increase proposals, spurning requests to back the measures and staying on the sidelines. “They have stayed very, very quiet during this conversation — and it’s not for a lack of trying,” said Noel Frame, the state legislator behind the wealth tax. “I talked to folks who talk to them, and they have chosen not to engage.” Frame has approached her contacts with ties to the Gates, Ballmer, and Bezos families to see if the billionaires would be interested in publicly supporting her proposal. But she hasn’t even secured a meeting. Other pro-tax activists in Washington state say they have recently spoken with some of those families in recent months about the need, in general, for rate increases. Asked about the wealth tax, Gates spokespeople didn’t return repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Bezos said his boss had no comment on the measure. And aides to Ballmer and the publicity-shy Scott didn’t return a request for comment. Their silence and inaction bother some activists because Gates and Ballmer, at least, claim to support paying more in taxes. And yet it is relatively easy for a billionaire to say in a television studio or in a blog post that they, in theory, support a far-away, unlikely-to-ever-happen tax increase. Far more is on the line if they are asked to spend their social capital and proactively back a measure that is tangible and alive, working its way through the legislative chambers that they routinely prod on other matters they care about. So in some ways, the measures in Washington state are a test of whether their rhetoric was just rhetoric — or whether they are prepared to back their beliefs up with muscle. “Silence is consent,” said Chuck Collins, an inequality critic who collaborates with Gates’s father to push for higher taxes. “Here’s the proposal that your state legislature is considering. Yes or no? Where do you stand?” These proposals are not all loony legislative long shots that are patently unworthy of their attention, either. The state Senate just narrowly passed the capital gains tax, a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee. And although the wealth tax proposal is seen as unlikely to become law this session, the measure was voted out of committee late last month, a sign that there is some momentum behind it, or at least credibility. Both measures face their fates this month in the final days of the legislative session. Washington is one of the only states in the country without a state income tax, and progressives there have spent the last decade exploring ways to add new revenue streams, all of which would probably trigger legal fights. More of the advocacy and energy in Olympia has revolved around the likelier-to-pass capital gains tax proposal, which takes a 7 percent cut off of sales of stocks or bonds in excess of $250,000. While it does not as narrowly target billionaires, it still effectively taxes the well-to-do. Anti-tax activists say it would make Washington, which does not have any capital gains tax right now, a less hospitable place for business. The wealth tax proposal would levy a 1 percent fee on all assets over $1 billion, an attempt — like its national inspirations — to increase the tax burden that the ultra-rich pay. But critics charge that, unlike the national proposals, Washington state billionaires can easily move out of state and could do so if it passes, sapping Washington of any tax revenue from them at all. “Why are you going to give these people a reason to make their economic domicile a different state?” said Matt McIlwain, who has helped organize the tech community against tax proposals and runs a venture capital firm that invested early in Amazon. “Come on, Bezos grew up in Texas and Florida. He’s got a bunch of operations and projects in his own life — not to mention different aspects of what’s going on in Amazon — in other states. He doesn’t need Washington state to be his home state.” The state is the latest battleground in the simmering fight over how much America should tax its richest citizens. The mega-wealthy are facing calls for higher taxes in part due to the pandemic, which has widened inequality. And so while passing a wealth tax through Congress is quite difficult, tax advocates are capitalizing on a vulnerability for the rich: They tend to live near one another, making state and local proposals a side door of sorts into achieving a similar outcome. Gates, Ballmer, Bezos, and Scott have all gotten much wealthier over the last year when Big Tech stocks surged as the world relied more on tech companies. The foursome has about $500 billion in assets, according to tracking by Bloomberg. At the beginning of 2020, they controlled about $320 billion. While recruiting billionaire endorsements is not a priority for either the pro-tax or anti-tax activists, Frame said she reached out precisely because it would rebut her critics’ arguments. “Any time you have the affected taxpayer coming to the table and saying, ‘I’m okay with this change. I’m okay with this increase. Yes, please tax me,’ that’s always a coup,” she said. Guided by his father, Bill Gates Sr., who served as the public face of a failed push 10 years ago for a state income tax, the younger Gates has been the most consistently vocal about wanting to pay substantially more in taxes. That’s been especially so in his home state of Washington, which he has said has “the most regressive tax system in the country.” Gates has expressed concern that taxes could go “too far” — including, at times, wealth taxes. But, in general, he has said he supports substantially higher rates, including higher federal estate taxes and capital gains taxes, along with an institution of a state income tax in Washington, which it currently lacks. “I think the rich should pay more than they currently do, and that includes Melinda and me,” Gates said in a year-end 2019 blog post about his views. Ballmer’s tax views are more of a moving target, but he has in recent years voiced more and more comfort with increases. An avowed deficit hawk, Ballmer has stressed the need for a closer look at federal spending patterns. But he has also increasingly sounded more fiscally liberal in recent interviews, saying in 2019, for instance, “I certainly know that there are things I believe in that might require more” in tax revenue. “Because I’ve been very fortunate, I can say to you I’d be happy personally to pay more taxes,” Ballmer said at a conference earlier this year. Bezos, whose politics have been described as libertarian, has displayed an anti-tax streak: He, along with Ballmer, donated to a group a decade ago that opposed a measure trying to create a state income tax in Washington. And when Bezos said last week that he supported Amazon paying more in corporate income taxes to finance Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, he didn’t offer anything about whether he backed paying more in personal income taxes — another part of the Biden economic package — to finance that same policy goal. And then there’s Scott, who has the most limited paper trail on these policy questions. She has said nothing to date explicitly about taxes. She has, however, repeatedly expressed deep concerns about wealth inequality — reflecting recently on how the pandemic functioned as a “wrecking ball” for the poor while enriching billionaires, stirring a speculative belief from progressives that she may agree with them, Activists on both sides aren’t necessarily surprised these billionaires have taken a pass right now. Some Washington political observers think billionaire non-engagement is only sustainable because the wealth tax currently faces long odds this legislative session. The capital gains tax on the cusp of becoming law took years of advocacy before it became a front-burner debate in the state. And yet John Burbank, a longtime Washington tax activist who has met with Ballmer aides in recent months to discuss progressive state tax policy more generally, said he actually saw the billionaires’ inactivity and neutrality as a win for his side. Why? Well, he said, at least the billionaires weren’t actively speaking out against the bill — as they might have in the past.
It’s not just Big Oil. Big Meat also spends millions to crush good climate policy.
Getty Images A new study reveals how the companies you buy meat from block climate action. You probably already know that the fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars trying to sow doubt about climate change and the industry’s role in it. But did you know that big meat and dairy companies do the same thing? According to a new study out of NYU, they’ve spent millions of dollars lobbying against climate policies and funding dubious research that tries to blur the links between animal agriculture and our climate emergency. The biggest link is thatabout 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy. “US beef and dairy companies appear to act collectively in ways similar to the fossil fuel industry, which built an extensive climate change countermovement,” write the authors of the study, published in the journal Climatic Change. One of the authors, Jennifer Jacquet, says the paper should spur a vigorous public response.“People should be mad,” she said. “And we should build a system where we can prevent this kind of influence.” Comparing the meat and dairy industry with the fossil fuel industry is not a facile analogy. These industries have worked in tandem for years to undercut climate policy. For example, in 2009, Tyson and other meat companies got nervous about the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as Waxman-Markey,which would have established a cap-and-trade system. They worked alongside the fossil fuel industry to stop the bill. Had it passed, it would’ve been the first congressional bill to directly tackle greenhouse gas emissions. But it never made it past the House. Now, more information is coming to light about how big meat and dairy companies work against climate policies: through lobbying, through political campaigns, and through academic research. How Big Meat lobbies against climate-friendly policies Let’s start with lobbying. It’s not a surprise that meat and dairy trade associations would lobby for things like access to federally owned public lands for cattle-grazing or industry-friendly manure management regulations. That’s more or less their raison d’être, and it’s what they’ve done for decades. But as the authors determined, “more recently they have been involved in blocking climate policy that would limit production.” Six of the big US groups — the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the American Farm Bureau Federation — have together spent about $200 million in lobbying since 2000. And they’ve been lobbying annually against climate policies like cap-and-trade, the Clean Air Act, and regulations that would require farms to report emissions. Individual meat companies likewise spend millions on lobbying. Tyson, for example, has spent $25 million since 2000. Now, that may not sound like much if we compare it to what individual companies in the fossil fuel industry spend — Exxon alone spent over $240 million during the same period. But the study notes that we have to look at these amounts in proportion to each company’s bottom line. Taken as a share of total revenue over the past two decades, Tyson has spent 33 percent more on lobbying than Exxon has. “The relative spending is very much an indicator of political engagement,” Jacquet said. These figures refer to meat companies’ total spending on lobbying, not only climate-specific lobbying. That said, even policies that are not explicitly about climate — like crop incentives or land-use decisions — can also drive harmful emissions. When Big Meat gets involved in political campaigns The study also found that the big US meat companies have spent millions on political campaigns, typically to support Republican candidates. Again, these companies are big spenders in this arena relative to their bottom line. Since 2000, Exxon spent about $17 million on US federal political campaigns, while Tyson spent $3.2 million. “But taken as a share of each company’s total revenue over that period, Tyson has spent double what Exxon has on political campaigns,” the study notes. Meat and dairy companies bankroll candidates because it pays off. Members of Congress they’ve funded, like Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), have backed pro-agriculture bills and frequently voted against climate change legislation, including cap-and-trade. According to the study, in some cases funding from Big Meat is the biggest contributor to a politician’s financial resources: “Hormel Foods was the largest contributor to Rep. Gutknecht (R-MN) over the course of his career — a former Congressman who has regularly questioned climate science.” Sometimes, Big Meat has also funded Democratic candidates. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Tyson was known to be one of Bill Clinton’s main backers — to the point that Clinton was actually nicknamed the “Chicken Man.” Tyson, which is headquartered in Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, did not respond to a request for comment. Can you trust environmental research funded by Big Meat? The meat and dairy industry also funds their own academic experts, who then publish research that minimizes or denies the causal link between animal agriculture and climate change. Industry-funded research isn’t always necessarily flawed. But it’s certainly fair to wonder about the integrity of industry-funded research that happens to advance that industry’s goals. As Undark has reported, you might read a white paper that paints a hopeful picture of the cattle industry’s emissions, only to then realize that the co-authors run dairy groups or received livestock industry funding. This happens in adjacent industries, too: You might hear a scientist denying that overfishing is a major problem, say, only to then find out that they’ve received funding from fisheries and seafood industry groups. (To be fair, we should note that plant-based meat companies have also commissioned analyses from outside researchers, though much less extensively.) The new study out of NYU provides other examples of how meat-industry-funded research seeks to downplay the industry’s environmental costs — like emphasizing that its emissions are small relative to those of other sectors, like transportation, instead of acknowledging that animal agriculture causes almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which means it’s still a big driver of climate change. In fact, the NYU paper notes that if the Food and Agriculture Organization is right in projecting that meat consumption will rise 73 percent by 2050, emissions by some meat and dairy companies could exceed the emissions of several fossil fuel companies. That means people who care about the climate need to get serious about holding Big Meat and Big Dairy accountable, just as they’ve been trying to do for years with Big Oil. “There has to be a big reimagining of meat and dairy,” Jacquet said. Whether that will entail a reduction in meat consumption or a total switch to plant-based or lab-grown meat and dairy, one thing is for sure: “Given what we know about climate change,” Jacquet said, “it seems clear that business as usual is not the answer.”
Biden wants all US troops out of Afghanistan by September 11
US Army soldiers return home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan on December 10, 2020, at Fort Drum, New York. | John Moore/Getty Images Biden promised to end forever wars. America’s forever war may be ending. President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all 3,500 US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, finally bringing an end to America’s longest war 20 years to the day after the terror attacks that prompted it. Biden is expected to announce the decision, which was first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by Vox, on Wednesday. A senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday that US forces “will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1 and plan to have all US troops out of the country” by the 9/11 anniversary. The decision is momentous. Biden is the fourth president to oversee the war, but, if all goes to plan, he will be the first to end it. It will mean the end of trillions spent, the American end of a conflict that took roughly 2,400 US lives (not including the thousands of Afghans) and that has plagued US foreign policy for two decades. Biden didn’t come to this decision lightly, though. It is the result of a months-long policy review that began when he got into office. As part of that review, Biden was presented with three broad options for how to proceed in Afghanistan. The first was to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all US forces in Afghanistan by May 1. The second was to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third was to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date. Biden is sort of choosing the second option: extending America’s presence a few months beyond the deadline, but without the Taliban’s explicit approval. That could be a problem, as the Taliban had previously warned that if the US didn’t abide by the May 1 deadline, it would end its months-long ceasefire with the US and resume attacking American troops. The senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday that the US would respond if the Taliban targeted Americans, raising the possibility of tit-for-tat retaliations in the months ahead. But with Biden making clear there’s a firm withdrawal date, the Taliban may decide to hold off on attacking the US, some experts say, so as not to risk making the Americans change their minds. The senior administration official said that the withdrawal timeline wasn’t conditions-based, meaning the US will leave no matter what happens over the next few months. Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), who advised top US generals in Afghanistan and was a national security adviser in the Obama administration, likes that plan. “I’ve seen what conditions-based gets you,” he told me in an interview after the news broke. “It gets you 20 years in a war in Afghanistan.” There’s also another factor here: The president launched a Hail Mary effort to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban before US troops left. But that plan hit a major stumbling block on Monday when the insurgents rejected an offer to attend a meeting in Istanbul with Kabul officials later this week. Perhaps knowing that achieving peace on a shortened timeline wasn’t going to work, Biden is opting to announce a withdrawal and get US troops out of harm’s way. “What we won’t do is use our troops as a bargaining chip in that process,” an unnamed official told the Washington Post. Most experts, though, think Biden realized there’s little more the US can achieve in the country militarily after nearly 20 years of war. “Biden’s decision to finalize a troop withdrawal, not tied to improved conditions on the battlefield or the peace table, signals a sense of resignation with the long US intervention there,” said Andrew Watkins, the senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. But, he warned, “this may just be the start of a whole new chapter in Afghanistan’s conflict.” The US war in Afghanistan is ending. Afghanistan’s troubles aren’t. Biden pledged during the presidential campaign to bring all US “combat troops” back from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. By using the squishy term “combat troops,” he was essentially leaving the door open to maintaining a small number of troops in the country whose mission would focus solely on counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda, not fighting the Taliban. It seems Biden has abandoned that approach. “We’re going to zero troops by September,” the unnamed senior official told the Post. Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Afghan women, youths, activists, and elders gather at a rally to support peace talks and in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 29, 2021. The administration is still concerned with ensuring groups like al-Qaeda don’t use the country to plan attacks against America or its allies, though, a senior administration official told reporters. However, the plan is to “reposition” America’s “counterterrorism capabilities, retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of the terrorist threat to the homeland from Afghanistan.” In other words, there will still be US forces in the region keeping an eye on the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, but those troops won’t be in Afghanistan itself. The US won’t completely abandon Afghanistan, though. “We are ending our military operations while we focus our efforts on supporting diplomatically,” the official said. Three other key questions remain unanswered ahead of Biden’s Wednesday address. The first is when all NATO troops will leave the country. The senior administration official said that “we will coordinate with NATO allies and partners about a drawdown of their forces in the same time frame” — meaning they also will leave Afghanistan before September 11. That makes sense, as NATO can’t really do much without American firepower in the country. What’s more, those troops only really joined the US-led war effort in Afghanistan because the US asked them to, calling on NATO allies to come to America’s aid after it was attacked on 9/11. So if the US isn’t going to be fighting the war anymore, there’s little reason for its allies to stay, either. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are currently in Brussels, home to NATO headquarters, explaining Biden’s decision to the allies. The second question is what will happen to the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. The US wants to remain as a key player in diplomacy, but some analysts say the Taliban will have far less incentive to make concessions to the government once US troops are no longer there backing it up. Some experts, then, say the withdrawal will undermine any leverage America had left in the war. Others disagree. “Ultimately the future of Afghanistan is something Afghans have to come to collective terms on, and the US military presence is preventing that from occurring, said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on the war at the CNA research organization in Arlington, Virginia. That leads to the third, and most important, question: What’s going to happen to the country after America leaves? The Taliban currently controls most of the land in the country — and that’s with the US military still there. With the US gone, the Afghan military and security forces will be a lot weaker. That’s why many experts warn that a US troop withdrawal could very well be followed swiftly by a complete Taliban takeover of the country, including the capital city of Kabul. If that were to happen, it would spell doom for millions of Afghans, not least women and children. When the Taliban last ruled the country, from 1996 to 2001, it imposed an extreme, and extremely brutal, form of Islamic government on the country that saw women banned not only from working but even from appearing in public without a male chaperone, and girls banned from attending school. Though the Taliban of today is not quite the same organization it was when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, it still aims to establish its version of an Islamic government — and if the way it governs in the areas already under its control is any indication of what that might look like, the future is likely to be bleak for women. Afghans will also suffer as the Afghan government, trained for years by the US military, tries to fight back against any Taliban advances. A worsening civil war will only exacerbate the nation’s many problems. Biden’s decision to withdraw isn’t without its perils, then. Republicans, for example, are already blasting the move. “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “President Biden will have, in essence, cancelled an insurance policy against another 9/11.” But after two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, with very little to show for it except trillions spent and 2,400 Americans dead, many say it was time for the US to leave. “This is the right decision,” Rep. Kim told me. “We need to end the war this year.”
Sanjena Sathian’s Gold Diggers is a playful social satire with teeth
Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian | Penguin Press This terrific debut novel uses heists and alchemy to deconstruct immigrant ambition, striving, and sin. In the first half of Sanjena Sathian’s terrific debut novel, Gold Diggers, it’s the early ’00s, and Kanye is all over the radio. But the gold that Sathian’s protagonist Neil has on his mind is a little more literal than the gold Kanye is rapping about. Neil, 15 years old, is ensconced in an Indian American enclave in the suburbs of Atlanta, listlessly attempting to live up to his parents’ expectations for him. Too nerdy to pass as cool and too bored by most of his classes to flourish as one of the smart set, Neil longs to excel, to win his parents’ approval, to win over a hot girl. He dreads mediocrity, but he fears he may well be that dread monster, an average kid. Anita, Neil’s former best friend and current crush, has a solution to his fears: gold. Anita and her mother Anjali have been pilfering gold trinkets from the rest of the Desi community. Following a process Anjali learned from her mother in Bombay, they render the gold into an alchemical elixir they refer to as “lemonade.” And once drunk, the lemonade transfers some of the ambition and drive, some essential sense of purpose, out of the gold’s previous owner and into the person who has consumed it. For that reason, Anita explains to Neil, the gold has to be stolen from the rest of their community. “Who else is really, truly ambitious?” she asks. “This is immigrant shit.” After Neil catches Anita and Anjali in the act, he decides that he wants in on their scam. And so with few compunctions, he commences stealing the ambition — “skimming off the top, really” — of his classmates. The giddy heist-movie energy of what ensues powers the first half of Gold Diggers: It’s all teens high on hormones and lemonade, pickpocketing their classmates for glory. But Sathian capably balances the slick pleasures of Neil and Anita’s small-time crimes with a clear-eyed foreboding. These characters are stealing, even sinning. And they will be punished for it. So when Sathian skips forward in time to 2016 in the second half of the novel, Neil has been fundamentally changed by his winner-take-all ruthlessness. He is still purposeless, still struggling to find a sense of self that exists outside of his parents’ ambitions and his desire for his peers’ approval. He’s a history grad student at Berkeley now, struggling to peck away at his dissertation, filled with mixed envy and disdain for the friends who rode the tech bubble to California like modern-day gold seekers. Still, he is haunted by what he did in high school. The structural choices here are heavily reminiscent of those in Jonathan Lethem’s much-admired debut Fortress of Solitude, which also sees its cynical East Coast protagonist fleeing to Berkeley, haunted by the mildly supernatural betrayals he committed as a teenager. But Sathian is a fundamentally more optimistic novelist than Lethem. She is willing to offer her characters redemption for their sins. And it’s easy to root for Neil’s redemption. He is an occasionally monstrous figure, selfish and petty and shallow in a painfully teenage way. But he’s caught in a system that has left him with no winning moves: He has to succeed, or what are all his parents’ sacrifices for? And yet how can he win when there can only ever be one real winner? And what would success even look like for him? It’s because these questions are unresolvable that as an adult, Neil considers both himself and Anita to be “conceptual orphans.” “We had not grown up imbibing stories that implicitly conveyed answers to the basic questions of being,” he thinks: “What did it feel like to fall in love in America, to take oneself for granted, in America? Starved as we were for clues about how to live, we would grip like mad on to anything that lent a possible way of being.” Gold offered that possibility, until it didn’t. Sathian’s most compelling figure, though, is Anita. She’s a pageant queen as a teenager, working to discard the social liability of an association with Neil; Neil’s sister refers to her dismissively as a “climber.” But she’s loyal enough to their old friendship to bring him into her gold plan without second thoughts. And when we meet her as an adult, her suspended animation is dramatically different from Neil’s. She’s working a series of well-paying jobs that come with low social status, like event planning; she’s flitting in and out of a long-term relationship with a guy both she and everyone around her considers too good for someone like her, because she will clearly never achieve anything meaningful. “Meaningful” in Anita and Neil’s circles means something specific: a job that is well-paying, with high social status, that will lead to marriage and children. It’s the dream of America, and it is what these characters were taught they had to strive for, in order to justify the sacrifices of their parents. It’s “immigrant shit.” The project of Gold Diggers is to deconstruct that dream. But what makes the novel so compelling is the playfulness with which Sathian deconstructs it. You feel for the characters and the ways they have been warped by their pursuit of greatness and the ways they are haunted by their sins — but also, there are heists and alchemy. It’s a blast. For both Neil and Anita, redemption can come only by making full use of what they took — and in finding a way to give it back. Their attempt to find a way to accomplish both of those objectives takes up the second half of the novel. And if it turns out that redemption takes the form of a heist, with a mystical interlude to boot? Well, that’s just a bonus.
Biden wants to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure. He might need the world’s help. 
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been leading the push for other countries to put in place a global minimum tax for corporations. | Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images Biden’s plan to tax corporations will depend on the rest of the world going along. President Joe Biden wants to raise taxes on corporations. Part of his success could hinge on getting the rest of the world to go along, or, at least, trying. It’s no secret that companies would rather not pay taxes — and that they employ a litany of tricks and schemes, both domestic and international, to keep their tax bills low. Over the past 35 years, the average corporate tax rate worldwide has been more than halved, falling from 49 percent in 1985 to 23 percent now. Despite efforts to improve the international tax regime, including with the 2017 tax law put in place under President Donald Trump, companies still find a plethora of workarounds. That includes profit-shifting, where companies book profits from higher-tax jurisdictions in lower-tax jurisdictions to lower their tax bills. Profit-shiftingby American and foreign multinationals costs the US tens of billions of dollars a year as they remain undeterred from seeking out tax havens in places such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, and Singapore. The White House and some Senate Democrats are calling for revamping the US tax code’s approach to international taxation and trying to reduce profit-shifting further, including increasing the minimum tax on the overseas profits of American companies from 10.5 percent to 21 percent. Biden also aims to increase the US corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. His administration appears well aware that one element that would make their efforts easier — or at the very least ease concerns about US competitiveness and actually enforcing its tax rates — would be for the international community to go along. That’s why the US is also throwing its weight behind the idea of a global minimum tax for countries to put in place worldwide. The hope is that it would stop countries from lowering their tax rates to attract investments and businesses in what many economists and politicians describe as a perpetual “race to the bottom.” “We can use a global minimum tax to make sure the global economy thrives based on a more level playing field in the taxation of multinational corporations, and spurs innovation, growth, and prosperity,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in an April speech. “The US government is serious, many of the European governments are serious, but with anything that’s multilateral, there are still risks and hurdles ahead” Yellen is leading America’s charge with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international economic organization, and the Group of 20 (G20) to establish a global minimum tax across multiple countries. The idea has been gaining traction within the OECD for quite some time, though it’s far from a done deal. The rate will likely be a sticking point (some countries would prefer a much lower minimum than others), and even if the OECD does reach an agreement, it’s nonbinding — individual countries would then have to figure out whether to enact it. Still, there’s progress. “I think there’s a much better chance now that the US has gotten behind it,” said Craig Hiller, leader for international tax services at Ernst & Young Americas. “The US government is serious, many of the European governments are serious, but with anything that’s multilateral, there are still risks and hurdles ahead.” The US can try to clamp down on tax haven abuse, but only to a point The US can take measures to try to make sure its multinational companies are paying their fair share in taxes, and efforts have been ramping up — to varying degrees of success — in recent years. “Irrespective of international coordination, I think the US can strengthen its rules against tax haven abuse,” said Seth Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was largely favorable to corporations, including multinationals, had some provisions to try to get at some international profits. It implemented the Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income rate, or GILTI, of 10.5 percent, which was supposed to act as a minimum tax for offshore profits. And it tried to curb the practice of US companies paying high interest and royalties to foreign affiliates to try to lower their American tax bills. “Multinationals still shift hundreds of billions in profits offshore each year” But those provisions didn’t work great: As Chye-Ching Huang, executive director of the Tax Law Center at NYU Law, explained in recent testimony before the US Senate, “their design undermines their effectiveness, and retains incentives to locate profits or investment overseas in some circumstances, and increases those incentives in others.” Substantial profits remained outside of the law’s reach, and corporations still found ways to average out income and taxes so they could get around the minimum, among other issues. “By relocating their profits in Bermuda and the Caymans, they can bring the foreign average down to the GILTI rate, and so there are still profits that are flowing to tax havens, despite the minimum tax,” Hanlon said. Huang, in her testimony, was matter-of-fact: “Multinationals still shift hundreds of billions in profits offshore each year.” Under Biden, the White House has laid out plans to overhaul parts of the tax code put in place in 2017, including the GILTI regime. Among other items, it would calculate the tax rate on a per-country basis, so companies couldn’t try to average out their German tax bill with their Swiss one, and it would increase the minimum tax rate to 21 percent. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Mark Warner (D-VA) have also released a proposal on international taxation meant to tighten the US code, including righting some of the perceived wrongs in the 2017 bill. Still, there are concerns that if the US continues to tighten rules and other countries don’t go along, it will be out on a limb. “The concern is that if the US has a minimum tax and no one else in the world has a minimum tax, there’s a disadvantage of being a US company versus being a company headquartered in another country,” Hiller said. “This is why the Biden administration has now stressed its strong support for a global minimum tax.” The Biden administration wants to bring the rest of the world along on its tax plan A global minimum tax is basically what it sounds like: It would put a minimum tax rate on profits no matter where they’re coming from. Reuters has a good explainer here. When US negotiators brought up the idea of the global minimum tax at the OECD under the Obama administration, they say they were basically “laughed out of the room.” But times have changed. Discussions within the OECD about a global minimum tax amid broader negotiations over cross-border tax rules are advancing, and while there’s still not widespread agreement on everything — the US has been the holdout on some issues — there’s hope a consensus could be on the horizon by midyear. To be sure, the OECD is not a legislative body; all it can do is make recommendations. So if it were to reach an agreement on a global minimum tax, it would be up to countries to then implement it. That would take time for them to do, but it also isn’t a given. “One risk is that other countries don’t implement it; the other is that they probably won’t enact the same system as the US, they’ll do something different, and it’ll still be more favorable,” Hiller said. But the hope is that if enough countries put something in place, especially the ones that are home to big multinational corporations, it would be enough to make a difference. The race-to-the-bottom problem has become increasingly apparent. As Jeff Stein outlined in the Washington Post, 76 countries cut corporate taxes between 2000 and 2018, while only 12 kept them the same and six increased them. Today, fewer than 20 countries have corporate tax rates over 30 percent, compared to more than double that number at the turn of the century. 76 countries cut corporate taxes between 2000 and 2018 There are some questions as to whether a global minimum tax is a good idea, Hiller noted. “There’s a question of is tax competition a bad thing?” he said. Or should the US be able to weigh in on what Ireland is doing, tax-wise? He added that tax havens also view themselves as playing an important role in the global economy. While the US and other high-tax countries might prefer a higher global minimum tax than, say, countries where the corporate tax rate is lower, something might be better than nothing. And as Jordan Weissmann points out at Slate, even just some countries taking action could make a difference: 10 countries headquarter about 80 percent of multinational profits. The US can act on taxes without getting the international community to follow, and there’s debate about what the impact of that would be. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has warned he believes that a global minimum tax will fail and argued that the administration’s push for it is an acknowledgment that Biden’s proposed corporate tax increase from 21 percent to 28 percent will make the US less competitive. “‘Race to the bottom’ is the way the Biden administration describes competition among developed countries to get to a tax code that attracts investment and maximizes growth. It is a race we should be leading, not trying to prevent,” he said in a statement in April. Others say the competitiveness argument doesn’t hold as much water as figures such as Toomey would like. After all, before the 2017 tax bill, America’s corporate tax rate was 35 percent. “Concerns about the competitiveness of US multinationals ignore the evidence,” said Kimberly Clausing, deputy assistant secretary of tax analysis at the Treasury Department, in Senate testimony in March. “Both before and after the 2017 Tax Act, US multinational companies are the envy of the world, not just for their high profits and market capitalization, but also for their tax planning acumen. US multinational companies paid similar effective tax rates as peers in other countries, even before the 2017 tax law dramatically lowered US corporate tax rates.” At least for now, the Biden administration’s plan appears to be to try to bring other countries along in its attempt at further corporate tax clampdowns and sharpening its appeal. “Competitiveness is about more than how US-headquartered companies fare against other companies in global merger and acquisition bids,” Yellen said in March. “It is about making sure that governments have stable tax systems that raise sufficient revenue to invest in essential public goods and respond to crises, and that all citizens fairly share the burden of financing government.”
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You can finally ask Facebook’s oversight board to remove bad posts. Here’s how.
Bloomberg via Getty Images It’s a long shot, and you can’t appeal to remove ads. Starting Tuesday, Facebook and Instagram users have a new way to try to get offending Facebook posts removed. The oversight board, a court-like body that the company has created to handle its trickiest content moderation decisions, has announced that users can now appeal decisions made by Facebook to leave posts up. It’s a big expansion in scope. For the first few months of the oversight board’s operations, users were only been able to appeal to the board if they thought Facebook had wrongly taken down their own posts. But now, the oversight board is rolling out a process that allows users to challenge decisions made by Facebook’s content moderation team that resulted in content not being taken down. That could include anything from content a user has flagged because they think it’s a scam to content they believe to be hate speech. Here’s how it works: To get the oversight board involved in appealing a decision, users first need to report content that they see to Facebook, and then exhaust their options to get the content removed through Facebook’s existing review systems. After Facebook issues its final decision, users are notified. This is where the oversight board can get involved. If Facebook decides to keep up a post or comment that a user reported, that user will receive a special “Oversight Board Reference ID” and a deadline to appeal the decision to the oversight board. To file such an appeal, users need to log onto the oversight board’s website using their Facebook account, where they’ll need that code for reference when writing up their request for appeal. Facebook When a user reports a piece of content on Facebook, they can request another review, through Facebook, and argue that a post goes against its community guidelines. If it decides to take on the case, the oversight board will designate a panel of five of its members. (Currently, the board has 20 members, though it eventually wants to expand to 40). After those members deliberate, they’ll issue a draft decision, which the entire board then reviews. If a majority of the board supports the ruling, it’s shared with Facebook, which has said it will respect whatever decision the board makes. In other words, the board’s decisions are supposed to be binding. The board can also issue recommendations based on the issues and questions raised in the case, but those are nonbinding, meaning Facebook doesn’t have to listen. The oversight board has set up its system such that many users can object to the same post that’s been left up, and the board will compile those complaints into a single file to be reviewed at once. The oversight board says content including posts, statuses, photos, videos, comments, and even shares are all eligible for the new review system. Importantly, ads that appear on Facebook are not eligible for review, though ads are listed as something that users will be able to appeal decisions about in the future, according to the board’s bylaws. Facebook When a final decision is reached by Facebook, users will receive a “Reference ID” they can refer to in their appeal. A clear downside to this workflow is that the odds that the oversight board takes up your appeal in a case are probably low. The body says that, since it began operations last October, it has received more than 300,000 user appeals, but it’s only issued a handful of decisions. If you appeal your decision and your case isn’t taken up, it’s unlikely you’ll find why. Still, it’s notable that Facebook oversight board seems to be expanding its scope. Some of the most contentious moderation decisions involve content that Facebook has chosen to leave up. “Think of the Nancy Pelosi cheapfake video in which footage of the speaker of the House was edited misleadingly so that she appeared intoxicated,” Evelyn Douek, a content moderation expert at Harvard Law School, wrote in Lawfare last year, “or hate speech in Myanmar, or the years that Facebook hosted content from Infowars chief Alex Jones before finally deciding to follow Apple’s lead and remove Jones’s material.” The announcement comes as the oversight board continues to try to bolster its own legitimacy and introduce itself to Facebook’s billions of users. Some experts have criticized the board for its limited powers, pointing out that it makes decisions post-by-post, and that it doesn’t have discretion over Facebook’s overall design, like the algorithms that decide what gets the most attention in peoples’ News Feeds. Others have said the oversight board is an essentially an exercise in public relations, and can’t provide the oversight that the company requires. The “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” a group of scholars and activists who have criticized the company and the oversight board, said that Tuesday’s announcement reflects how “Facebook is washing its hands of the toughest decisions the company itself should be making.” The group added, “And rather than address content moderation issues across its platforms, it’s turning increasingly to adjudicating random, high-profile cases as cover for the company’s failings, instead of seriously grappling with the systemic content moderation crisis that its algorithms and leadership have created.” At the same time, attention will remain on the oversight board, especially as people await its upcoming decision as to whether to uphold Facebook’s decision to suspend Donald Trump from the service. Trump frequently posted content that Facebook decided to keep up, despite outcry from civil rights group, Facebook employees, and users. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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The best €44 I ever spent: The first sweater I bought in years
Dana Rodriguez for Vox Getting a basic item of clothing became a lot more fraught than I’d bargained for. I first thought about buying a new jumper (what Americans call a sweater) on New Year’s Eve, as I walked into a friend’s apartment for a couple of drinks before curfew. It was one of my first evenings out in Milan since my homecoming: I was born here but spent most of my adult life abroad, and when I came back in late December 2019, it was only a few weeks before the local Covid-19 outbreak. I spent the evening wishing I’d worn something else. I looked sheepishly at my friends’ turtleneck jumpers, shiny dark blazers, and perfectly slim-fit shirts, and hoped they didn’t notice the ensemble I’d tossed on. My dark blue jeans were once neat, but their hems had become frayed over the years. The white and gray striped shirt fit me perfectly when I bought it in 2014 but the fabric had since stretched and stiffened. As for my red jumper, it was just too red and too bright. “I should take better care of myself,” I remember thinking, and I set out to buy a new jumper. The search morphed into agony. I wasn’t after anything fancy: A smart-looking, no-frills, plain-colored jumper would do the trick. But for weeks, I scanned half a dozen sites without making the purchase. I tormented my girlfriend, soliciting her opinion about the tiniest details. I copied and pasted the URLs of a handful of jumpers I liked onto a sticky note on my laptop, with information about their price, available sizes, and color. I returned to those pages at least once a day, musing about which ones would fit me better, checking if there had been any price reductions, making sure my size was still available. Several times, I added a jumper to the cart and hovered over the “Pay now” button, but something would make me question the purchase and prevent me from buying. What surprised me was not so much the overthinking as the familiarity of that behavior — I’d gone through iterations of the same block several times, and the discomfort of the experience had made me stop trying. This was the first jumper I would buy myself in about six years. I can remember a time in my life when buying clothes came easily to me. The chests of drawers and wardrobes at my parents’ place are still full of the stuff I hoarded as a teenager, when I changed styles every other year: the baggy hoodies and low-crotch jeans I loved when I was 13 and 14; the chunky skateboarding shoes and skinny pants of my mid-teens; the leather jackets and rock band T-shirts I wore at age 17 and 18. I continued through my early college years, when, to impress people at parties, I stockpiled T-shirts with graphics I once found funny but now make me cringe. I don’t know for sure when things changed. I know it wasn’t an abrupt shift and that it began years ago. I first became aware of it in 2014 during an internship in China, when my boss, a Brit, noted that I looked quite “scruffy” compared to the Italians he knew, let alone the residents of Milan, a city widely considered to be a global fashion capital. It was a time in which I moved frequently to chase education opportunities, work experience, and absurdly high self-improvement goals. I spent years bent on trying to master Mandarin. (I failed.) It built anxiety, which I eventually began to talk to a therapist about during the pandemic. And all the while, I left behind the way I looked. I began looking in the mirror less and less often. In several family photos, my hair looks unkempt and overgrown, a feat born out of the fact that I insisted on cutting my own hair but hardly ever sat down to do it. I seldom bought any clothes, and when I did, it wasn’t to look better, it was to fulfill an unavoidable practical purpose. When the sole of my shoes came loose, I got myself some new ones. When I moved to the UK, I bought a warmer waterproof coat. If the pockets or crotch of my jeans had too many holes, I bought a new pair. The last jumper I remember buying was at a fast-fashion retail store in 2015, as I prepared to start my master’s. It was a cheap, slightly oversized, dark blue cotton and wool jumper for about €20, although, to be honest, I can’t remember if I paid for it myself or someone else gave it to me. It is still in my wardrobe today, shabby and partly covered by lint balls. Now, to be clear: Other people have occasionally bought me clothes, preventing my physical appearance from being left completely adrift. I currently own two sweatshirts — one gray, one green — and both are presents from my girlfriend. She also gave me the fanciest jumper I currently own, a woolen quarter-zip dark blue pullover, as a Christmas present two years ago. My mom also sometimes bought me clothes, although she would often pick items several sizes too larger, as though I still had to grow to fill them out. In 2018, she gave me a green vest that would fit me only if I gained 30 pounds; in 2019, a leather jacket whose sleeves were long enough to cover most of my hands; in 2020, size L Scooby-Doo pajamas. It’s hard for me to say why I never bought clothes. Some may praise my behavior, believing it to stem from an unflinching ethical conviction — a sort of epic stand against consumer culture and the fast-fashion industry. Or you could think I developed a taste for a scruffy-looking clothing style, one that creates the appearance of carelessness but where a lot of attention is paid to the choice of baggy clothes and worn-out jeans. But neither is my case. For years, I considered buying and intended to buy clothes — and several times I spent entire half-hours in retail stores and online shops — but I invariably steered clear of purchasing. I never thought it would be worth the money and the hassle to buy an object whose sole purpose was to make me look better. It was only earlier this year, long after the New Year’s Eve drinks sent me meandering on the internet, that I began thinking about the reasons for my block. One day, after I got stuck procrastinating in the wait for a price reduction that would never come, I mentioned my newly found habits to the therapist I’ve been speaking to. He wondered why. “What impression do you get from people who don’t look after their physical appearance?” he asked. “Unkemptness?” I suggested. “Distress,” he said. That was why I didn’t have anything nicer to wear on New Year’s Eve. If the way we present ourselves on the outside reflects the way we feel about ourselves on the inside, I wasn’t doing great My neglect for myself ran deeper than the buying block I faced with this jumper, perhaps fed and augmented by the pandemic’s grip on social life. Since we were put under new restrictions in the fall, when I go out to see my parents or buy groceries, I throw a coat on top of my pajamas and walk out the door. I hardly ever look in the mirror and often go longer than three weeks without shaving. I haven’t had a haircut in more than two years and have started to tie my hair in a bun at the back of my head, but I comb it rarely and haven’t bought any hair care products. When untied, it falls below my shoulders — ruffled, unruly, frizzy. I eventually settled on a knitted turtleneck jumper for €44, including a €5 delivery fee. My size was not available for many of the jumpers I was obsessively tracking, and in my fleeting moment of resolve, it seemed to possess most of the qualities I was after. It was dark blue, not black, so I hoped I could match it with several of my other clothes; the turtleneck made it more fashionable than the old jumpers I owned; and the thin layer of silk, cotton, and cashmere promised to be light but warm. I tried it on seconds after it landed on my doorstep. At first, it felt awkward, like the times I remembered seeing myself after a haircut. The jumper covered most of my neck, making my unshaven beard stand out. It wrapped tightly around my shoulders and chest as if it were a new second skin. When I looked in the mirror, I thought it made me look slimmer, orderly, and perhaps taller, too. It clashed with so many parts of the way I looked — my unkempt hair, the beard — and made them look out of place. It made me look good, and I wasn’t used to it, and I still had so much work to do. In the next couple of days, I felt an urge to return the jumper. A part of me considered whether it was the best use of my money. Perhaps I really didn’t need a new jumper. And what was more, I had done nothing to deserve one, like I had done nothing to deserve any new clothes in the last few years. But I’ve resisted that urge, and I’m glad I did. I still go weeks without shaving — three, at the time of writing — and haven’t yet cut my hair. But I’ve been wearing my new jumper a lot to the few social occasions we have: dinner with the family, or a quick hi to some friends. I’ve had it on so much that my girlfriend mocks me every time we go out. “And what are you going to wear todaaay?” she says in a sing-songy voice. Part of me feels ashamed, knowing I’ve probably worn it a few times too many. But another part doesn’t mind the mockery and cherishes the warmth around my neck and silky feel on my skin. It feels less like a piece of clothing and more like a first step. Alessio Perrone is a reporter and writer currently based in Milan. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Slate, and LitHub.
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What a 1,600-year-old New Zealand tree can tell us about climate change
A massive kauri tree rests in three pieces in the parking lot of the Ngāwhā marae, or meeting house, in New Zealand’s far north, watched over by Donna Tukariri. | Kate Evans Buried in mud for millennia, some of the hulking kauri trees in rural Northland are portals to the past, present, and future of Earth’s climate. This story is part of Down to Earth, a new Vox reporting initiative on the science, politics, and economics of the biodiversity crisis. In February 2019, Mark Magee was scraping the bucket of his 45-ton excavator through a hillside when it hit something 30 feet down that wouldn’t budge. It was high summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and Magee, a construction foreman, was clearing a platform for a new geothermal power plant near Ngāwhā, a tiny community in New Zealand’s Northland region, the long peninsula that stretches from the city of Auckland to the country’s northern tip. He called in additional digger drivers to help. Gradually, as the machines peeled away the mudstone encasing the obstinate object, they realized it was a tree — and not an ordinary tree. More and more of it appeared, a seemingly endless log. When it lay uncovered, complete with a medusa-like rootball, it measured 65 feet long and 8 feet across, and weighed 65 tons. It was a kauri tree, a copper-skinned conifer endemic to New Zealand. The indigenous Māori hold the species sacred and use its honey-colored softwood for traditional carvings and ocean-going canoes. Although this kauri tree had clearly been buried for thousands of years, Magee was astonished to see leaves and cones stuck to its underside that were still green. The power company, Top Energy, called in a local sawmiller named Nelson Parker to examine Magee’s find. Parker, a champion woodchopper with powerful shoulders and a missing finger, had been digging up, processing, and selling kauri logs like this one since the early 1990s. As soon as his chainsaw bit into the bark, he knew from the color of the sawdust (dark yellow) and from the smell (subtle, resiny) that this tree was very old, and worth a lot of money. Parker also knew that swamp kauri, as the buried trees are known, are worth a lot to science. One this large would be of special interest to a group of scientists who study the information that the ancient trees have coded into their rings. After removing the roots, he cut a four-inch-thick slice from the base of the trunk and sent it to them for analysis. What he couldn’t know then was that this particular tree held the key to understanding an ancient global catastrophe — and how it may have shaped our collective past. A brief history of the swamp kauri boom The kauri tree, or Agathis australis, is one of the largest and longest-lived tree species in the world. An individual kauri can live for more than two millennia, reaching 200-feet tall and more than 16 feet in diameter. Today, the living trees grow only in remnant pockets in northern New Zealand, where the national Department of Conservation lists them as threatened, due to a century of heavy logging, forest clearing for agriculture, and, more recently, the onslaught of a deadly fungus-like pathogen. Yet for tens of thousands of years, kauri forests dominated a vast swath of the upper North Island. As the trees grew, they recorded information in their annual rings about the climate and makeup of the atmosphere. When they fell, some of the heaviest plunged deep into nearby peat bogs, where they stayed mostly unchanged for millennia. Itinerant 19th-century gumdiggers, who sought the swamp kauri’s preserved golden resin for use in varnish and jewelry, were the first to exploit the trees for profit, digging up fields and wetlands in search of buried gum. In 1985, after environmentalist protests, the New Zealand government banned loggers from cutting live kauri on public land, and Parker and other Northland timber merchants turned their attention to swamp kauri. They clawed the trees from the earth with excavators and sold the exotic wood to furniture makers in New Zealand, the United States, and several European and Asian countries. The industry grew slowly until around 2010. Then, it exploded, thanks to demand from a booming China, where customers are often willing to pay more for materials with antiquity. Fetching up to $200 per cubic foot, swamp kauri became one of the most valuable timbers in the world. Chinese agents roamed rural Northland, New Zealand’s poorest region, offering farmers cash in exchange for the right to prospect on their land. The lure of a fast buck also attracted a host of dubious kauri extractors. Among them were the aptly-named “Swamp Cowboys,” who drained endangered wetlands — only 8 percent of Northland’s wetlands are still intact — to reach their quarry. In the years that followed, conservation groups successfully fought to restrain the swamp kauri industry and hold the national Ministry for Primary Industries and regional council accountable. Finally, in 2018, New Zealand’s Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision limiting swamp kauri exports. By then, the shadiest companies had gone bankrupt, and swamp kauri exports dropped from more than 200,000 cubic feet in 2013 to around 10,000 cubic feet in 2019. The end of the swamp kauri boom was a big victory for wetland advocates — and a big relief for the scientists who study the ancient trees. The slowdown has made it easier for them to take samples from every piece of unearthed swamp kauri before it disappears into the mill and heads out of the country. Every single tree, they know, has a story to tell. Long-lived, well-preserved kauri are something of a ‘high-resolution time-capsule’ In a windswept paddock on Northland’s remote Karikari Peninsula, on a cool October day in 2019, I watch Andrew Lorrey use a chainsaw to cut a four-inch slab called a “biscuit” off the end of a huge kauri trunk. Around him, beached on the surface like stranded whales, were dozens more unearthed logs, their forms twisted and gum-encrusted, the tortured roots of their massive stumps reaching for a squally sky. Lorrey, a stocky, bearded American originally from New England, is a climate scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). He came to the country in 2002 to study swamp kauri for his PhD. During the “gold rush” years, he felt a lot of pressure to “scurry around” collecting samples, knowing most of the wood was slipping through his fingers. But over time, he and a handful of other scientists forged relationships with the main timber extractors. “I want to look back and say I did what I could to get this precious natural archive preserved for science,” he tells me. Kate Evans Scientists collect a “biscuit” from each ancient kauri log, enabling them to analyze the annual rings and take samples for radiocarbon dating. Swamp kauri fall into two age clusters: “young” trees that died anywhere between a few thousand and around 13,000 years ago, and “ancient” ones that were alive more than 25,000 years ago. No one has yet found a kauri from the roughly 12,000-year span in between. That was the height of the last glacial period, when temperatures were cooler and sea levels more than 300 feet lower. Scientists speculate that the kauri’s range may have shrunk during that time because of the cold, or that the forests moved to lower elevations on the continental shelf when sea levels fell, and were later submerged as the climate warmed and seas rose again. Or perhaps the trees from that time are simply still out there, waiting to be discovered. The landowner here on the Karikari Peninsula, a taciturn, pipe-smoking farmer named Chris Hensley, found this batch of buried logs when he was converting an old pine forestry plantation to pasture. For Hensley, the kauri are a nuisance. “They bugger up the farm equipment,” Lorrey says. But for Lorrey, they’re treasure. After learning about them, he quickly organized an expedition, driving more than four hours from Auckland to examine them. Hensley had used his digger to lay the huge haul — 104 individual trees — on the ground like matchsticks. “When I got there, I said, ‘I’ve got gold,’” Lorrey remembers. Now, Lorrey moves from log to log, slicing biscuits from each one, making detailed notes about their measurements and where they were found, then brushing the cut faces with a white glue-based paint to protect the wood from the elements. While Lorrey works, Hensley arrives to watch.A tiny white fluffy dog jumps from his truck and runs frenetically among the dark logs. Knowing the age of the timber will help him sell it later, Hensley says. “This way I get them dated for free.” What the scientists get in return is something they can’t find anywhere else. There’s no other wood resource like it for this part of Earth’s history, full stop. There are other ancient trees in the world, but none as old, as long-lived, or as numerous as the kauri. Because migrating ice sheets demolished everything in their path, few trees survived the glacial periods in the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists have found only a handful — including one 23,000-year-old cypress buried in a volcanic mudflow near Mount Fuji in Japan. Northland, however, remained ice-free. “The kauri are globally unique,” Lorrey says. “There’s no other wood resource like it for this part of Earth’s history, full stop.” Other natural climate archives, such as ice cores, lake sediments, and stalactites and stalagmites, also allow scientists to peer into the past. But trees are the “gold standard,” Lorrey says, because they directly sample the atmosphere, and make a new record of it and other aspects of the environment in each annual growth ring of wood they lay down. Unlike ice cores and lake sediments, tree rings don’t compress over time. Multiple trees growing at the same time can be cross-referenced, too, smoothing out any local or individual variation that might interfere with broad conclusions about the climate. (Imagine a single tree growing poorly for a few seasons because its roots were waterlogged or it was shaded by others.) Long-lived, well-preserved kauri are therefore a kind of “high-resolution time-capsule,” Lorrey says. Tree rings illuminate the past in several ways. Most simply, counting them under a microscope reveals how long a tree lived. The biscuit that Nelson Parker cut from the log found near the village of Ngāwhā, for instance, indicates that the kauri was about 1,600 years old when it died: 1,600 rings, 1,600 years. Measuring the varying width of the rings from year to year allows scientists to observe changing growing conditions. Chemical analysis of each ring canindicate relative humidity, rainfall patterns, and soil moisture. And by using computer programs and eyeballing tree-ring patterns to string together multiple samples from different times and locations, scientists can create long tree-ring sequences, called “chronologies,” that span millennia and help reveal larger regional climate patterns. University of Auckland dendrochronologist Gretel Boswijk and collaborators, for example, used 700 samples of both ancient and living kauri to piece together a continuous 4,491-year chain of trees that lived between 2488 BC and today. The chronology allowed Boswijk’s colleague, Anthony Fowler, to figure out that kauri are especially sensitive to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that affects annual temperatures and rainfall around the world. “When we have an El Niño year, here in the north of the country we’ll get more southwesterly flow — clearer skies but also cooler average temperatures,” Boswijk says. “Kauri tend to respond well in those conditions, so they tend to put on a wide ring.” Conversely, in a warmer, cloudier La Niña year, kauri add narrower rings. “They get stressed, they don’t grow as well.” Using this information, the team was able create a 700-year reconstruction of ENSO variability in northern New Zealand, providing a lengthy picture of the country’s natural climate variation. For comparison, historical climate records date back only 150 years. The longer timeline is crucial for climate modelers trying to predict how ENSO will respond to future anthropogenic warming. Scientists have also assembled a handful of other kauri chronologies that go even further back in time, each covering a few millennia of the past 60,000 years. But because they’re not connected to the present, they’re called “floating chronologies,” meaning their calendar ages remain relatively uncertain. Lorrey dreams of one day finding the right logs to link all of them into one unbroken chain. In the meantime, the floating chronologies and ancient kauri samples are already proving incredibly valuable for global science in other ways. As a start, they can help scientists determine the ages of other plant, human, and animal artifacts, from as far back as tens of thousands of years ago. Read the rest in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.
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The next generation of Black farmers
Black farmers have endured systemic racism and institutional neglect for the last century. Biden’s stimulus plan offers relief. | Luis Alvarez/Getty Images “It’s a reminder of my beginnings and who I am”: 3 Black farmers on their relationship to their vocation. Growing up, I never imagined living on a farm and working the land as a possible future. As a poor Black kid in an urban community, farming was a foreign concept. So much of what I saw about farming felt overwhelmingly white, with little mention of Black farmers and their communities. My parents and others around me would talk about wanting to go down South and living on the land. It sounded more like a dream than a possible reality. The rare coverage about Black farmers was primarily limited to loss and discrimination. Broken promises combined with programs that relied upon white state and local decision-makers stacked the deck against newly independent Black people in the United States. Federal Homestead Acts largely benefited white landowners providing highly subsidized opportunities for ownership. The number of Black farmers has dwindled over the past century, and as of 2012, less than 2 percent of all farmers identified as Black. That’s because millions of acres of land owned by Black farmers were lost or outright stolen, such as through federally funded farm programs discriminating against Black farmers by refusing to issue loans those farmers were otherwise entitled to. Systemic racism and institutional neglect left many Black farmers without the support and financial investment of their white counterparts. A 2019 investigative report by the Atlantic explored the institutional policies adopted by the federal government beginning in the New Deal to support struggling farmers, and how Black farmers were so often left out of these benefits. A documented pattern and practice within federal government program administration for farmers, including the USDA’s administration of loans and debt forgiveness, continued to benefit white farmers while excluding Black farmers and others of color all the way through the Trump administration. Reports indicate the federal bailout given to farmers under the Trump administration almost exclusively benefited white farmers. But change is coming. Passed as a part of the sweeping American Rescue Plan this year, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act and the Justice for Black Farmers Act provide financial assistance, loan forgiveness, and more to Black and other farmers of color who have been historically left out of federal aid efforts. The passage of this landmark legislation provides long-overdue support to Black farmers. It includes funding for research and grants at historically Black colleges and universities as well as a provision in the Justice for Black Farmers Act that would create a Farm Conservation Corps for young farmers from disadvantaged communities. I spoke to three Georgia-based Black farmers who shared thoughts about their relationship to farming as not simply a vocation, but as a lifestyle and cultural practice. Whitney Jaye and Alsie Parks both work with SAAFON, a Southern-based farming collective working to strengthen and support Black farmers in building alternative food systems and to help young people exist and work in relation to land. Nakita Hemingway, whose specialty is cut flowers, also shared her journey to farming, and she’s very proud of her seed collection. All three farmers I spoke with challenged traditional notions of productivity and value, adopting a more holistic approach to their craft. But they also explored the expansive opportunity in innovating and living a joyful existence as farmers. Through our conversations, I got the sense of possibility for a future in connection with the land. All three challenged traditional notions of productivity and value, adopting a more holistic approach to their craft. But they also explored the expansive opportunity in innovating and living a joyful existence as farmers. As my children approach adulthood, they have expressed greater interest in farming and growing and overall adopting a way of life more consistent with an agrarian lifestyle. They also have me looking at my large yard through a different lens. Our interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. “This is truly who I am” Nakita Hemingway, Gwinnett County, Georgia I grew up in the metro Atlanta area, but I was born in Savannah. Every summer was spent in rural Georgia and rural South Carolina. So, being connected to the land outside of my ancestry, it’s really a part of my personal identity and my DNA. My ancestors were rice farmers in the coastal Carolinas. It’s unfortunate that we, as Black people, have traveled so far from our history, being willing or unwilling. But our culture is deeply rich in agriculture. So in many ways, for me, it’s a reminder of my beginnings and who I am. My husband, who is not African American, is a fifth-generation farmer from Central Illinois. And when I met him, I knew that he grew up on a farm, but he had no interest in farming. And it wasn’t until our daughter was born that we realized this is a part of our legacy that we want to pass along to our children. At my age, and I’m in my early 40s, you stop looking at life from personal gains to “all right, now it’s time to pivot to what can we pass along to our children.” I believe that’s a true testament to the American story — in many ways, we have different backgrounds but are also similar. Farming in this space, pursuing a simpler life, is everything to me. A lot of women my age, they’re happy about their purse collections and their shoe collections. And I’m bragging about my seeds, the fact that I have over 500 different varieties in my personal seed collection. The reality is this is truly who I am. Prior to discovering this space, there was this journey in my soul to connect with the land and the natural places. We as Black people, we have learned to work with what we’ve been dealt and what we have. But that doesn’t speak to all of our talents. I am an extremely innovative person, and I am very creative. Farming is very technical and analytical. And it’s so funny, because when we’re talking about STEM and we’re talking about technologies, people look at farming from the lens of the past. But farming is very tech-driven. And there’s great innovation in this space. “We’ve been able to use the land as a refuge” Whitney Jaye, DeKalb County, Georgia I was having a conversation for a podcast and the question that was asked was basically like, “How has the land mothered you?” And how I responded to that question in part was thinking about the ways that the land has really been like a refuge. So when I think about urban farming, what came to mind was the Great Dismal Swamp. It’s a swamp where, throughout American history, maroons [formerly enslaved people] basically ran away and found a home there and said, “I will not be in bondage here.” Courtesy of Brandon Stephens of Brandon Gregory Photography Whitney Jaye is a farmer in DeKalb County, Georgia. When I’m processing our relationship to land and thinking about sustainability, I’m thinking about the embodiment of our ability to survive really being tied to the ways that we’ve been able to use the land as a refuge. I’m thinking about maroons running to the mountains, I’m thinking about maroons running to the swamp. The land in the South has also been that place where we could just honestly be some inkling of free. It runs counter to the narrative where we oftentimes internalized that the land was this place and source of the trauma. I think about us being in these places, including cities, and building refuge in places where we are ultimately put by a system that was designed to destroy us. So much of how people have come to understand the positioning of the lifestyle and lifeways of Black farmers is through the lens of loss and trauma. And it’s really important that while we can name that, we can also name the abundance of what currently exists in our constellation of Black farmers, the survival skills, strategies, and tactics we can learn from the people who have been holding land since Reconstruction and before. It is really important that we also name the abundance because if not, what ends up happening is that we invisibilize not only our legacy as agrarian people, but also our present and our future. So being very clear that while those things have certainly happened, we are still here. And what can we learn from where we are? What can we learn from the folks who are still on the land? And prioritizing that in how we think about what are strategies for getting more folks on the land. Part of that has got to be uplifting and amplify how we’ve survived. “Our ancestors and elders sacrificed a lot to be able to call the land their own” Alsie Parks, DeKalb County, Georgia There was an urban growing program [that teaches practical urban farming and agriculture techniques] that I was a part of specifically for Atlanta youth. I see that as an entry point to not only get some fundamental skills of being able to grow and provide maintenance for the plants and the food that is grown, but also to generate a spiritual connection to the land. I spent my summers in the country picking pecans with my granddaddy in the backyard, and in my grandmother’s flower garden. My granddaddy would bring home rabbits and skin them in the backyard. Even though my grandparents chose to move to a larger city, they held on to those agrarian lifeways and practices, and I’m just so grateful that I was exposed to them. I feel like a lot of folks, especially from Atlanta, have roots and lineages that extend throughout different rural communities in Georgia. And so I ground myself in those lived experiences. I’ve had so many foundational experiences that don’t make me feel distant from the land. My mom, I think, had a similar kind of experience where she grew up in Augusta, but she was always in Lincolnton, Georgia. She would spend time with her aunties and uncles, supporting them with their farms. She also went to a Black boarding school in Keeseville, Georgia, and they were self-sufficient. There’s also folks that have ancestral land, who understand through their family’s kind of cultural inheritance the power and the wealth that is embedded in the land. Our ancestors and elders sacrificed a lot to be able to call the land their own. And I think ownership and stewardship in a lot of ways, especially for Southerners, are interchangeable because this is generational wealth that I’m able to pass on. I’m also able to pass on the importance of it through my descendants. Oftentimes, some of our families still have their land, but it does not have the same kind of infrastructure that you would think of when you think about a production farm. So I find that a lot of folks are searching for ways to be able to provide for themselves and make a livelihood off of the land where it’s like, we’re trying to exit this kind of economic system that has just extracted our love and labor and our skills, and what does it actually look like to reclaim our labor and our ability to be able to provide for ourselves. A lot of our elders who have embraced these different models and different modalities of making a life on the land for themselves and the lineage of their families who hold so much of the agrarian knowledge in the technical practices and the culture are longing to transfer this to us. They’re like, “I don’t want this to die with me.” And I think we’re in a unique space to really embrace what it looks like to be inviting intergenerational knowledge and skill and cultural exchanges on the land for healing, but also like extending that lineage and that legacy. Because there’s so many things outside of us that are telling us that is not a way to be able to provide for us, when I know that is a way for us not only to survive but for us to thrive. Anoa Changa is a journalist covering electoral justice and culture based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a retired attorney and hosts the podcast The Way with Anoa.
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Am I spending too much time on TikTok?
It’s the world’s most delightful — and powerful — dissociation machine. A few years ago it seemed like all the hottest new products were tools for self-soothing. Fidget spinners, weighted blankets, adult coloring books, DIY slime, vapes — these are things you use when you want to feel less anxious, or when you want to feel nothing. The anxiety economy has exploded since then: From 2012 to 2017, meditation became the fastest-growing wellness trend in the US, and the most popular video game of the last year involved living on a peaceful island where nothing bad ever happens. In a trend story on the drug ketamine, which offers users a zonked-out zen, The Cut described it as “instead of fueling anxiety and heated close-talk, it makes you feel like you’re giving your brain a bath in a pool of warm macaroni.” The thing is, I don’t need a drug to do that, because I have TikTok. It quickly became obvious to me when I joined in 2018 that TikTok would become a very big deal. It wasn’t because I knew anything about the business model or had any real insight into what, specifically, makes a successful social media platform (who does, really?). It was because I would open the app and suddenly four hours would pass and I’d have no idea how. TikTok is, to my knowledge, the only major social platform that has had to build in a function to tell you to log off of it if you’ve been scrolling for more than an hour — and of course, everyone hates said function. You open TikTok and it knows exactly what your eyeballs want to look at most, to the point where people joke that their For You page knows more about them than they do. This has mostly made my life better, or at least more entertaining. But at a certain point, it begins to feel ever so slightly like the central object of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a video so captivating you no longer have any desire to do anything besides watching it until you slowly lose your mind. Whenever I want to feel and think nothing, which is a lot of the time, I go on TikTok. I’ve tried to use this as a force for good: I’ve started scrolling TikTok while on the treadmill so that I’m less focused on the agony of being on a treadmill, even though I’m doing an exercise routine I learned from, of course, TikTok. I’ve had to instill screen time rules in a way I never have with any other platform: I no longer allow myself to scroll at night in bed, when simply opening the app could destroy my sleep cycle for a week. @tiktoktips Pause your scrolling. Time for a night time snack break! ♬ original sound - TikTok Tips TikTok is the kind of mental pacifier that people pay good money for: an hour in a sensory deprivation tank can go for a hundred bucks, and now that psychedelics have been commercialized as avant-garde wellness products, we’re hurtling towards a future in which you can “book a stay at a ketamine resort in Colorado or weed hotel in Arizona for your next family trip.” In a story for the New York Times magazine about the pursuit of nothingness, Kyle Chayka writes that “No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible.” A common instinct I have when writing about internet trends is to assure readers that whatever thing is in the news that week about What Your Child Is Doing Online just isn’t that deep. This — the desire to dissociate, to suppress all knowledge and emotion and sensation — feels like the opposite, though. This feels like the genre of viral tweet that’s like, “I didn’t come here to work, I was put on this earth to eat berries and play in the ocean.” It feels like a response to simply containing too much: too much information, too much stimulation, too many feelings. It feels like a loud, honking alarm that signals something is very wrong with the way we spend our time and derive meaning, and it makes me want to log off forever and go for a walk in the woods. “Go touch some grass” is a common retort when someone accidentally exposes how internet-poisoned their brain has become, but it is also just good advice for everyone. The irony is that the way I’ve chosen to dissociate, by scrolling TikTok, only exacerbates the problem: I’m still staring at a screen. Which is fine, for the most part. I don’t think moral panics over “screen time” are all that warranted, but it does sort of start to feel like we’re an adult generation of iPad babies, gripping our little screens with our mysteriously goop-stained fingers and wobbling around the world. And you weren’t meant to do that. You were meant to eat berries and play in the ocean. This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
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From beans and rice to BBQ: Muslim Americans’ Ramadan cuisine reflects their diversity
A man calls Muslims to prayer before breaking their Ramadan fast by eating halal Mexican tacos from a food truck in Santa Ana, California, in 2017. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images Iftar, or breaking fast, is more than pita and hummus. The month of Ramadan begins today and Muslims will spend the next four weeks fasting and dedicating time to worship. But even though most Muslims will abstain from eating or drinking between dawn and dusk, this doesn’t make food any less important. In fact, the process of deciding what to eat for iftar — the meal that breaks the day’s fast — can be long and complicated, especially when coupled with midday cravings and coffee-withdrawal headaches. But what Muslims eat during Ramadan, and how, goes beyond the stereotypical imagery of a family eating from a communal platter of rice and meat. A Google search for “Ramadan food” will likely result in images of samosas or recipes for lentil soup, which can offer an unnecessarily narrow view of who Muslims are and the dishes they like to cook and eat. While many Muslims worldwide do eat these foods, and most adhere to the halal dietary standard — meaning foods that are religiously permissible; for instance, pork and alcohol are not— Ramadan cuisine has no boundaries and brings up a larger issue of inclusivityin Muslim American communities. A common misconception is that the Muslim faith is synonymous with Arab or South Asian cultures. But while people who are originally from the Middle East-North Africa region do contribute to the largest percentage of Muslim Americans, almost 30 percent of Muslims in the US are Asian, while one-fifth are Black. It goes without saying that these people represent many cultures, traditions, and cuisines, all of which they incorporate into religious events. So even though mosque events may overwhelmingly serve hummus and pita bread, this isn’t representative of the people who go to consume it. This is something that Nazima Qureshi, a practicing nutritionist and co-founder of the Healthy Muslims, has noticed. “[Religious] communities are created by the stakeholders at that mosque and a lot of times, unfortunately, it’s a very ethnic base, so you’ll have the South Asian-led mosques and the Middle Eastern mosques,” Qureshi told Vox. This leadership plays a big role in the decision-making and tends to exclude people from cultures that have less concentrated Muslim populations, something that Qureshi thinks should change. “Muslims come from so many different cultures,” she said, “so as a nutritionist, I try to incorporate a lot of different flavors to accurately reflect the Muslim community.” Qureshi said that many of her Muslim clients feel like they have to give up their cultural food in order to eat healthy, so she tries to reverse this perspective by celebrating what her clients (literally) bring to the table. In my family, for example, Ramadan is a time to experiment with the vast array of dishes in our family cookbooks. I come from a mixed North African, Pakistani, and Quebecois background, so Wednesday’s iftar could be a tajine stew while on Thursday we might have chicken korma. I talked to three Muslim Americans, who value their cultural cuisines as well as their faith, about how their intersecting identities are reflected in the ways they observe Ramadan. Their stories have been edited and condensed. Sahla Denton, 21, Cottage Grove, Oregon I’m half Mexican, half Jamaican, and I grew up with both of those cultures equally. But I’m also Muslim, which has a big influence on my family’s lifestyle. Since we’re from such different ethnic backgrounds, we don’t have a lot of traditions that other Muslim families have, so we’ve made a lot of our own. One thing we’ve had to do in general is adapt our traditional dishes because there are a lot of Mexican and Jamaican dishes that aren’t initially halal. For example, Mexicans use a lot of pork fat, so we have to alter even the regular beans and rice. A lot of Jamaican cakes use rum, so we’ve had to find ingredients that balance the sugar other than alcohol. Our non-Muslim extended family has also adapted to us — like now all our aunties know how to make dishes that are good for us to eat, and it’s brought us together a lot more. One of our family’s staple dishes, that we’ll definitely be eating this Ramadan, is escovitch, which is a Jamaican dish made of fish and topped with onions, carrots, and bell peppers tossed in vinegar. Courtesy of Sahla Denton The Denton farm. Courtesy of Sahla Denton The Denton family produces much of the food they eat themselves. As Muslims, we believe in taking care of the land, animals, and plants we benefit from, which was one of the values we’ve had since starting our family farm. We produce most of the food we eat, and if we have anything extra, we try to redistribute that. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an active food pantry in town where a lot of local farmers donate extra produce and animal products. My dad and I were some of the first volunteers to stock the pantry with milk and eggs from our farm animals when it opened. We will definitely continue doing that this year during Ramadan, and then once we start harvesting, we’ll have produce to give as well. One of my favorite Ramadan memories was when I was little and we used to go to the mosque for iftar. It would be me and my friend, and we’d have to help the little kids serve their food, and so I remember going back and forth to the food line so many times, but it was a lot of fun. The food was all really good because it was usually a potluck, so there was Mexican food, there was Pakistani food, there was food from all over the place on one table. Dawood Yasin, 51, Berkeley, California Ramadan, for me, is proximity to God through subtraction to make space for addition. And so the subtraction obviously is food, and the addition is worship. This Ramadan I’m hoping to experiment with a simple diet, where I will break my fast with dates and bone broth, but I still love to cook. My family originated from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal, and we have our traditional foods like jag (beans and rice). But over the past two years I’ve been putting energy and intentionality into American barbecue. On the 17th of April, it will be 25 years since I converted to Islam, and for most of that time I wasn’t able to eat barbecue because no one made it halal.You’re not going to see an iftar in the mosque where they’re serving barbecued chicken and cornbread. It’s biryani and kebabs, you know, Mediterranean or South Asian cuisine. Which is great, I mean, everyone has their own inclination. But I wanted to expose more people to the possibilities of making this cuisine halal, and the response has been incredible. Courtesy of Dawood Yasin Dawood Yasin set out to make halal barbecue, and succeeded. I see food as an expression of love to my family. Because if I love you, then I’m going to ensure that the best form of protein, vegetables, and food in general, is what I’m serving you. And if that means I have to go get it myself I will. I’ve spent full weeks at a time bow-hunting on backcountry trails and trekking through mountains to fish. I started this hashtag on social media #getyourownhalal, which to me is the coupling of being outdoors and getting the best food for your health. I actually don’t see a separation between wellness and religion. When I look at religiosity, I see it as a lifestyle, so there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two: If I’m unhealthy, I can’t worship properly. When I was 45 years old, I had a knee injury and I couldn’t prostrate to complete the Muslim prayer for six months. I had to pray in a chair during that time and I thought to myself, imagine if this was a perpetual state? I missed prostrating and putting my head onto the ground, and I knew that if my lifestyle was ever the cause of restricting my worship, I would have to address it. One of the aims and purposes of Islam is preservation of life, because there can be no preservation of religion if there is no life. Seba Ismail, 19, Boston, Massachusetts I have a really big sweet tooth, so my favorite Ramadan dishes are desserts. We’re Egyptian, so my mom makes atayef,which is a sweet dumpling filled with cream, and we only have them during Ramadan because my mom says she wants us to savor it more and really appreciate it. I used to beg her to make them for my birthday and she would always say “no, you gotta wait until Ramadan,” so as a kid I would always get super excited for when the month started because it was the only time I could eat them. This year I won’t have that because I’m spending Ramadan on campus in Pennsylvania, and since Ramadan for me has always been so tied to community, I’m kind of excited to experience it by myself. I feel like it’s more of a test for me and my relationship with God. In the past, Ramadan would be my mom telling me to go to the mosque for prayers, or going to iHop for suhoorwith my hometown friends, and I feel like I relied on a lot of people for my Ramadan experience. Now it’s just myself, and I don’t really know how to do that, but it’s kind of cool. Courtesy of Seba Ismail Seba Ismail is celebrating Ramadan as a college student for the first time. My family is Nubian, so growing up I would get a lot of people asking me, “How are you Egyptian, if you’re Black?” And because I don’t wear the hijab, people are also surprised when they find out I’m Muslim. I feel like I had a really big identity crisis that came from a lot of misinformation and ignorance. A lot of people don’t know about the complicated past of colonization in North Africa, or the slavery that happened there, or the displacement of Indigenous groups. I don’t think we talk about the diversity of the Muslim community enough, like the Black Muslim population is huge — 15 percent of the world’s Muslims live in sub-Saharan Africa — but most people don’t know that. Bucknell University has a primarily white population, so I get a lot of questions about Ramadanand fasting that Muslims joke about but that I’ve never had to answer before, like “You can’teven drinkwater?” “How does your body survive?” and “Do you just stand outside and like, look at the sun to see when you can eat?” A lot of these people have only ever seen Muslim people on TV, which is kind of shocking to me and frustrating at times. I’m still figuring out how to navigate it. Growing up, my parents would always tell me, “you’re Egyptian,” and then I go to Egypt and they’re like, “you’re American,” and then inAmerica, they’re like, “you’re neither.” But I think now I’ve found a space in between, where I can be somebody who doesn’t have to fit in one box or the other.
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What the Supreme Court got wrong about homicides committed by cops
Law enforcement stands guard as crews remove artwork from temporary fencing outside the Hennepin County Government Center on April 2, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Demonstrations have been ongoing outside the Government Center as the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with multiple counts of murder in the death of George Floyd, continues inside. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images Rogue officers like Derek Chauvin probably won’t be deterred by good law, but excessively vague law encourages bad behavior. On Wednesday, more than one week into the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd, Chauvin’s lawyer read an excerpt from the department’s manual governing the use of force. “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force,” the manual stated, “must be judged from the perspective of the reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Minneapolis revised its manual after Floyd’s death to place clearer and tighter constraints on officers engaged in the use of force. But the vague rule laid out in the version of the manual that was in effect during Floyd’s fatal encounter with Chauvin is fairly typical of the guidance provided to officers in the field. As Sgt. Jody Stiger, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department called by prosecutors in the Chauvin trial, testified, most police departments derive their policies governing the use of force from Graham v. Connor. Graham isa 1989 Supreme Court case that, in the words of scholars Osagie Obasogie and Zachary Newman, “established the modern constitutional landscape for police excessive force claims.” The language Chauvin’s lawyer read from the police manual was lifted, word for word, from the Court’s decision in Graham. Authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of the primary proponents of a tough-on-crime approach that often animated the Court’s decisions during his tenure, the Graham opinion warns that police accused of using excessive force often have to make difficult decisions in highly stressful situations. In determining whether an officer acted reasonably, Rehnquist wrote for his Court, “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Perhaps even more significantly, Graham left cops with little guidance on just what limits the Constitution places on use of force by police. As then-University of Virginia law professor William Stuntz wrote six years after Graham was handed down, “one searches in vain for any body of case law that gives” Graham’s vague reasonableness standard “some content.” Yet, while some academics did criticize Graham’sapproach early on, many prominent commentators outside of the academy only recently have started to think of Graham as a major wrong turn by the Supreme Court. Though three justices joined a partial dissent by Justice Harry Blackmun that criticized some parts of Rehnquist’s decision, all nine justices agreed with most of Rehnquist’s reasoning. That includes Justice Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights lawyer. But with the benefit of hindsight — and with the benefit of empirical evidence showing that clear legal rules lead to better policing — Graham now looks like a serious error by the Court. As Rachel Harmon, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Law of the Police, told me in an email, “Graham offers a standard focused on judging the use of force after it has happened,” and it “offers very little guidance to officers and departments about how to use force.” It does little, in other words, to advise police on how they can avoid conduct that might needlessly injure or kill a criminal suspect. It’s unlikely that clearer rules would have saved George Floyd’s life. As Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified at Chauvin’s trial, Chauvin “absolutely” violated department policy when he knelt on Floyd’s neck after Floyd was already subdued and handcuffed. But clear rules can ensure that cops tossed into a dangerous and uncertain situation can fall back on those rules, rather than making a potentially deadly decision with only their fear to guide them. As law professors Brandon Garrett and Seth Stoughton wrote in a 2017 article, Graham’s “‘split-second’ approach presents obvious problems from the perspective of law enforcement supervisors, who cannot provide meaningful guidance about or oversight of how officers react in the moment in an objectively reasonable way.” Graham was correct about one thing. Officers do sometimes find themselves in “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” encounters where they have to make quick decisions about how to use force. But if we want these officers to make the right decision in these fraught moments, police departments need to provide them with clear guidance on how they should react. And the Supreme Court’s vague “reasonableness” standard does nothing of the sort. How clear rules can save lives On a fall night in 1974, Officer Elton Hymon arrived at the scene of an alleged home break-in. He soon found Edward Garner, an eighth-grade boy weighing about 110 pounds, in the backyard of the home. Hymon later admitted that he was “reasonably sure” that Garner was unarmed. Yet, as Garner attempted to climb a fence at the edge of the yard, Hymon shot him in the back of the head and killed him. Police later found a stolen purse and $10 in Garner’s possession. The stunning thing about Garner’s death, which formed the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision in Tennessee v. Garner (1985), is that Officer Hymon had every reason to believe that he acted lawfully when he killed an unarmed 15-year-old boy who’d committed a fairly minor act of theft. A Tennessee state law provided that, after an officer notifies a suspect of their intention to arrest the suspect, if “he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.” In other words, state law clearly permitted police to use deadly force against fleeing felony suspects. Nor was Tennessee particularly unusual in this regard. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in her dissenting opinion in Garner, in 1985 “nearly half the States” still followed a “venerable common law rule authorizing the use of deadly force if necessary to apprehend a fleeing felon.” As a 1736 treatise described that common law rule, “it is no felony” for a law enforcement officer to slay a suspect who “shall either resist or fly before they are apprehended.” Garner, which abandoned that common law rule in a 6-3 decision, represents a “high-water mark” in the Court’s decisions governing use of force by police, according to Garrett and Stoughton. Unlike future decisions like Graham, Garner laid down a fairly clear rule that police could follow when determining whether to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. Under Garner, in other words, police would no longer use their own judgment to decide whether to fire on a fleeing suspect. The Court told police when they could use deadly force — if the suspect “poses a threat of serious physical harm,” if they “threaten[] the officer with a weapon,” or when the suspect “committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm” — and thus informed police that they could not use deadly force against other fleeing suspects. The impact of Garner on police behavior was swift and dramatic. According to a 1994 study by criminologist Abraham Tennenbaum, homicides committed by police dropped about 16 percent in the nation as a whole after Garner was decided. In states that previously followed the unconstitutional common law rule, “the reduction was approximately twenty-four percent (23.80%).” A more recent appeals court decision bolsters the proposition that clear legal rules are effective in reducing police violence. In Estate of Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst (2016), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard an allegation that police used excessive force when they repeatedly used a taser to subdue a mentally ill man, who died during his encounter with the police. Though the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the cops, on the theory that the officers were protected under a doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” the court also laid down several limits on the use of tasers by police. “A police officer may only use serious injurious force, like a taser, when an objectively reasonable officer would conclude that the circumstances present a risk of immediate danger that could be mitigated by the use of force,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for her court. She added that “‘physical resistance’ is not synonymous with ‘risk of immediate danger.’” The Fourth Circuit oversees federal litigation in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and a 2017 report by Reuters found that eight major cities in those states adopted stricter policies governing the use of tasers by police in the immediate wake of the Armstrong decision. These policies proved very successful in reducing the use of tasers. In Baltimore, police used Tasers 47 percent fewer times last year than in 2015, according to records reviewed by Reuters. Deployments fell 65 percent in Virginia Beach; 60 percent in Greensboro, North Carolina; 55 percent in Charleston, South Carolina; and 52 percent in Huntington, West Virginia. Norfolk, Virginia, saw deployments plunge 95 percent. As Professor Harmon told me, cases like Garner and Armstrong demonstrate that “when courts provide clearer guidance, it can make a difference.” Regarding the Armstrong case, Harmon told me that she “would want to know more about what officers used instead of tasers before throwing a victory parade, but it does illustrate the power of the law, when courts actually provide specific and meaningful guidance to the police.” The Supreme Court moved away from giving clear guidance to police after Garner The facts of Graham v. Connor are as shocking as the facts are in Garner, even though they did not result in anyone’s death. Dethorne Graham was a Black man and a diabetic living in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1984, when he felt the beginning of an insulin reaction. Because such a reaction is treated with sugar, Graham asked a friend to drive him to a convenience store so he could buy some orange juice. But when they arrived at the store, there was a long line. Fearing he would not be able to buy the juice fast enough, Graham immediately left and asked his friend to take him to a friend’s house instead. A police officer witnessed Graham’s very brief visit to the store and deemed it suspicious, because the cop pulled Graham and his friend over and would not let the two men go even after Graham’s friend explained Graham’s medical condition to the cop. At one point, while Graham was waiting for the officer to let him go, he got out of the car, ran around it twice, and then passed out on the curb. Erratic behavior can be a symptom of a diabetic emergency, but the police apparently took Graham’s behavior as a sign of something sinister. After more officers arrived on the scene, Graham was handcuffed and forced face-down onto the car’s hood. When Graham told the police to check his wallet for a decal indicating that he is diabetic, an officer told him to “shut up.” They eventually let him go after they received a report that Graham hadn’t done anything wrong at the convenience store. And yet, despite these disturbing facts, the Supreme Court’s decision emphasized that police must deal with “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” situations when they encounter someone like Dethorne Graham. Graham didn’t say that there are no limits on police conduct. In addition to holding that police must behave as a “reasonable officer” would behave, the Court also listed several factors that lower courts could consider when an officer is accused of excessive force, “including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” But these were simply factors that could be considered, not bright-line rules that gave clear guidance to police about what kind of conduct is permitted. And the Graham case itself suggests that these factors offer little protection for many victims of excessive force. After all, Graham himself committed no crime. He posed no threat to anyone, and he neither resisted arrest nor attempted to flee. But the Supreme Court sent his case back down to a trial court for a second hearing, and Graham ultimately lost his case. One possible explanation for the lopsided vote in the Graham case — again, much of the decision was unanimous — is that the Supreme Court hands down decisions that are intended to be read and applied by lawyers and judges, not by police officers. Despite Graham’s admonition that judges should evaluate an officer’s conduct without “the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” courts are in the business of hindsight. Lawsuits, by their very nature, do not arise until after an alleged legal violation has occurred. So, when an officer is hauled into Court due to allegations of excessive force, Graham reminds judges that they will probably know more about the circumstances that led to that allegation than the officer reasonably could have known at the time. Yet, while Graham’s holding may offer a useful reminder to judges, we also know that police departments use decisions like Graham to shape their own policies and training manuals. And the sort of open-ended legal standards that judges are accustomed to applying to individual cases do not provide adequate guidance to police officers. A vague standard may be useful for a judge with a law degree, years of legal experience, and months to study the facts of a particular case. But such standards are inadequate for a cop who, often for the first and only time in their career, is caught in a dangerous situation with their gun drawn. Nevertheless, since Graham, the Court has only doubled down on its preference for vague, flexible standards over clear legal rules governing police. In Scott v. Harris (2007), for example, the Court ruled in favor of police officers who, during a high-speed chase, rammed a suspect’s car off the road and caused him serious injury. Yet, rather than evaluating this case under the fairly clear rule laid out in Garner — Garner, after all, was a case about when police can use potentially deadly force against a fleeing suspect — Scott arguably abandoned Garner’s approach altogether. While the fleeing motorist’s “attempt to craft an easy-to-apply legal test in the Fourth Amendment context is admirable,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court, “in the end we must still slosh our way through the factbound morass of ‘reasonableness.’” “Whether or not Scott’s actions constituted application of ‘deadly force,’” Scalia added, “all that matters is whether Scott’s actions were reasonable.” As one federal judge wrote just a few months after Scott was decided, under the Scott decision, “there is no Garner bright-line test.” There is only a vague “reasonableness” test. One major problem with this approach is that it gives virtually no guidance to police departments when they draft their own policies guiding the use of force, and it can lead individual officers to guess what kind of behavior is acceptable if they are in a situation that might require force. As Harmon, the UVA professor, writes, the Supreme Court’s current framework “does not answer adequately the most basic questions about police uses of force: when a police officer may use force against a citizen, how much force he may use, and what kinds of force are permissible.” Again, it’s unlikely that a more rules-based approach, like the one the Court took in Garner, could have saved George Floyd’s life. Chauvin appears to have shown such extraordinary disregard for his department’s policies that even his own police chief testified against him at his murder trial. But clear rules can and do save lives. According to Tennenbaum’s study of Garner, that decision “reduced the total number of police homicides by approximately sixty homicides a year.” That’s 60 people a year who would have died if the Court hadn’t given clear guidance to police officers.
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Israel’s suspected attack on an Iranian nuclear site complicates US-Iran talks
Unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear site in Iran in 2014. | Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP/Getty Images Iran has been ramping up its uranium enrichment. The suspected Israeli cyberattack on the Natanz nuclear site might be retaliation for that. A mysterious power outage occurred at one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities on Sunday in what reports indicate was likely an act of cyber-sabotage carried out by Israel — and it could have serious ramifications for the future of the floundering 2015 nuclear deal. The New York Times, citing intelligence sources, reports that what seems to have been a “deliberately planned explosion” at the Natanz nuclear site on Sunday “completely destroyed” the power system for centrifuges that enrich uranium — a material that, if enriched to high levels, can be used to make a nuclear bomb. That caused a blackout at the facility, and it may take over nine months to restart production. If that timeline proves correct, it’d be quite the blow to Tehran’s nuclear advancement. The timing of the incident is particularly striking, as it comes right as the United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement are meeting in Vienna to discuss how the US and Iran can come back into compliance with the terms of the deal. Under that original agreement, Iran agreed to significantly curb its nuclear program — including its uranium enrichment efforts — in exchange for the removal of some of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US. But after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed those sanctions, Iran once again began to enrich uranium above the levels set by the deal. Just last week, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesperson, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said his country had produced 55 kilograms (roughly 121 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent, up from about 17 kilograms in January. Uranium enriched to 20 percent is considered “highly enriched,” but it’s a far cry from the 90 percent enrichment needed to make nuclear material for a bomb. Iran claimed, then, that it moved slightly closer — but still not particularly close — to actually having enough material to make a nuclear weapon. Still, the announcement was nevertheless provocative — which most experts say is exactly the point. The general belief is that Iran is making these advancements to pressure the US into returning to the agreement and once again lifting the sanctions that have hamstrung Iran’s economy. But it seems Iran’s announcement may have angered another nation enough to take action to try to curb Tehran’s nuclear progress: Israel. Why Israel is thought to be behind the blackout The Jerusalem Post and Israeli public broadcaster Kan report that the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, launched a cyberattack that sparked the explosion that shut down multiple parts of the Natanz facility. Top Iranian officials appear to agree. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency that “the Zionists” — Iran’s term for Israel — “want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.” Amir Levy/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters as he speaks on March 24 in Jerusalem, Israel. Multiple Iranian officials called the suspected strike “nuclear terrorism,” with one claiming the attack fit with other “crimes against humanity which the Israeli regime has been doing for many years now.” It’s true that Israel has for years taken action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear work. Last summer alone, explosions occurred at an Iranian missile-production complex, an aluminum plant, and — just like this past weekend — the Natanz nuclear site. The consensus at the time was that Israel was responsible for each of those strikes. And last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was killed in an ambush by gunmen 40 miles outside of Tehran. That came just weeks after an international monitoring agency confirmed that the country had taken new steps to blow past restrictions outlined in the nuclear deal. Once again, the belief within the intelligence and expert communities was that Israel had orchestrated the assassination. It’s therefore entirely possible that Jerusalem was behind the latest Natanz incident. “It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, told the Associated Press on Sunday. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’” Israel’s government rarely confirms or denies its operations publicly, partly to avoid retaliation and to maintain some semblance of mystery — and deniability. But Israel’s top military officer, Aviv Kochavi, seemed to hint at his nation’s involvement just a few hours after Iranian officials confirmed the attack. Israel’s “operations throughout the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemies,” he said on Sunday in Jerusalem. “They are watching us, seeing the capabilities and carefully considering their steps.” It’s unclear if the Biden administration got a heads-up before the strike, though many believe the US was probably informed, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Israel at the time of the incident. The Biden administration firmly denies any foreknowledge or participation, though. “The US was not involved in any manner,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. Either way, two big questions arise from this episode. The first is whether the Natanz attack might lead to a greater confrontation between Israel and Iran. Experts I spoke to don’t really think so, as Jerusalem has carried out many of these strikes without a serious overt response from Tehran. They “fit a pattern of how the Israelis have tried to set back Iran’s program in the past. In that sense, this is business as usual,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC. The second is if the attack might derail the sensitive negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal. And that, experts said, is certainly possible. How the Natanz attack might impact Iran deal negotiations The signatories of the 2015 nuclear pact — Iran, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany — as well as representatives from the European Union, met last week in Vienna to discuss how the US and Iran could get back into the agreement. Tensions were already high, with neither Washington nor Tehran wanting to appear to be caving to the other. The optics mattered so much that the US delegation posted up at a hotel across the street from the hotel where the Iranians held their meetings, requiring European diplomats to shuttle back and forth. EU Delegation in Vienna/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Representatives of the European Union, Iran, and signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria on April 6. Even with those complications, the US and Iran struck a tiny bargain: They set up two working groups, which by diplomatic standards is considered progress. The first one will examine how the US can return to compliance with the deal, namely by lifting the sanctions the Trump administration put back on Iran after the US withdrew. The second working group will explore how Iran can return to compliance, requiring it to once again restrict its nuclear program. More talks are planned in Vienna this week, and experts say the specter of the Natanz explosion will haunt the talks — though they’re divided on just what impact it will have. Some say it’ll complicate negotiations. “The attack at Natanz will undoubtably complicate talks to restore the nuclear deal. The window may not close completely, but Iran will likely harden its position about the sequencing of actions for the US and Iran to return to compliance,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, which supports the US returning to the deal. “The nuclear agreement will not last if its benefits to Iran are continually undermined.” Those making this argument say that Iran has less political space to agree to a deal with the US now, because doing so would be extra embarrassing after being attacked. As a result, any progress on this front will at best be delayed and at worst derailed indefinitely. “Iran doesn’t like to appear that it is negotiating from a weakened position or under pressure,” Eric Brewer, who worked on nuclear issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tweeted on Monday. Others, though, say that delaying Iran’s uranium enrichment by nine months actually weakens Iran’s position in nuclear talks. If Tehran increased its enrichment to pressure the US to get back into the pact — essentially proving it would keep inching closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon unless the US agreed to come back to the deal — then without the ability to enrich uranium as quickly, that pressure on Washington potentially decreases. What’s more, Iran is used to Israeli attacks. It therefore won’t be shocked into changing its long-term goal of getting the sanctions relief it desperately needs. All eyes will be on the negotiations in Vienna this week to see how Iran responds. What the Iranian negotiators choose to say and do will directly impact how quickly the US can get back into the Iran nuclear deal — or if it can get back in at all.
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How owning a brand’s stock keeps customers loyal
A Columbia Business School study published in February identified a direct link between stock ownership and increased consumer spending. | Getty Images The fintech app Bumped wants stocks to be the new customer rewards programs. 2021 has been a big year for stonks. Day trading has increased dramatically throughout the pandemic as more people are at home and out of work, and the GameStop short squeeze in January briefly directed national intrigue toward the world of amateur investing, a phenomenon powered by no-fee trading apps like Robinhood. And while some, like Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, believe investing to be the new American dream, a little more than half of Americans (55 percent) own some form of stock, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. Ownership was more common (62 percent) prior to the Great Recession and is still largely tied to factors like education, household income, age, and race. Yet, stocks are more accessible than ever: Trading fees are extremely low, and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) are on the rise. The concept of the “ownership economy” is gaining steam, even among regular Americans who aren’t tuned into the latest tech developments, as evidenced by the NFT craze. The ownership economy’s basic premise is that equity — allowing people to have a stake in a brand, business, artist, or even influencer — generates loyalty, and establishes a relationship between the stakeholder and whatever they’ve invested in. According to research released by the Columbia Business School in February, stock ownership drives consumer loyalty, and retail investors increase their spending at companies in which they own stock. This is, of course, good news for recognizable brands with devoted followings. The rise of conscious consumerism during the Trump presidency has moved consumers to think critically about the brands they buy from. For better or for worse, people are demanding more from corporations and are willing to boycott or wage social media campaigns to demonstrate their discontent. On the flip side, the Columbia research shows how consumers are moved to financially support brands they have a stake in — even if it’s only a few shares. The study, titled “Bumped: The Effects of Stock Ownership on Individual Spending,” analyzed transaction data of more than 9,000 American users from Bumped, a fintech app that opens a brokerage account for users and rewards them with stock through purchases from certain retailers. Users are able to preselect their preferred brands from 16 different groups, like travel and fashion (the study only observed the six most popular categories), and are automatically granted stock when they spend at those stores. The researchers accessed data on users’ spending transactions before and after they opened Bumped brokerage accounts. They found that after users were granted stock from selected companies, their weekly spending increased by 30 to 40 percent (an average of $23) toward those companies, and remained around that rate for three to six months. Loyalty, the researchers concluded, was a driving factor in maintaining a consumer’s relationship to a brand, and this incentivized relationship “closely resembles the compensation programs which address executives through stocks.” Bumped CEO David Nelsen told Vox that the app allows for consumers to participate in an “entirely new reward mechanism,” similar to points or cash-back rewards. This isn’t exactly a novel idea; people naturally hold greater affinity for things they’ve invested in, but fintech developments that track and categorize credit card spending have only recently made this rewards process possible, he added. “The concept of having millions of people investing small amounts became much more prevalent with Robinhood,” Nelsen said. “We didn’t have fractional shares when I was an investor, and it was harder to own things. Now, this technology is more widespread, and companies are building tools that break things down into smaller units to allow more people to participate.” This idea of fractional ownership and equity is not exclusive to publicly-traded companies. Tech enthusiasts can become accredited “angel” investors for startups in need of funding, now that the Securities and Exchange Commission expanded its eligibility requirements for private investors. Similar to NFTs, fans can use bitcoin to “invest” in influencers through BitClout, a startup that claims to sell “shares” of a celebrity’s clout on the blockchain. Most research into consumer and investor behaviors has generally categorized people as either a consumer or an investor. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing was one of the first that sought to combine those two categories, although it relied on self-reported data to analyze participant motivations. Still, it found that investors are motivated to engage in brand-supporting behaviors in addition to purchasing more from the company, such as serving as informal brand ambassadors. These behaviors solidify a longer-term commitment to a company’s success, compared to cash rewards or points that can be redeemed over a shorter period of time. Some user testimonies Bumped shared with Vox emphasized the value of having an ownership stake, but similar to ESOPs, it’s unlikely that the fractional stocks offered will amount to a significant percentage of total company shares. However, this could still have a greater impact on the corporate end, as Bumped looks to expand its offerings through partnerships with different companies and banks. “You’re allowing millions of people to become small shareholders,” Nelsen said. “That can be extremely impactful for any brand.”
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