eSmart Systems raises $34 million to develop predictive maintenance software for utilities

Norway-based eSmart Systems, a six-year-old company delivering intelligent monitoring and remediation systems to energy markets, today announced that it’s raised $34 million in financing. The round saw contributions from Energy Impact Partners (EIP), Innogy Ventures, Equinor Energy Ventures, Nysnø Climate Investments, and Kongsberg Digital, and it brings the company’s total raised to over $40 million. […]

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Though House Democrats passed a $3 trillion replacement for the CARES Act in May, Republicans did not present their $1 trillion counteroffer until late July — just days before key provisions of the CARES Act expired. The Republican proposal was also larded with poison pills, such as a bill that would immunize most businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, that earned swift rebukes from Democratic leaders. Not long after Trump signed the four executive actions, a bipartisan mix of lawmakers denounced them for attempting to steal away Congress’s power to set the nation’s fiscal policy. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) called Trump’s actions “unconstitutional slop.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN that “as my constitutional advisers tell me, they’re absurdly unconstitutional.” But the reality is more nuanced. With one possible exception — there is a strong legal argument against Trump’s unemployment benefits order — Trump’s four actions are probably legal. The problem with these actions isn’t that they are likely to be blocked by a federal court, it’s that, with one exception, federal law places fairly rigid constraints on the president’s ability to provide pandemic relief. And Trump largely appears to be complying with those constraints. One measure may prove workable: the memorandum deferring payment of student loans. That memo appears to be lawful, and is likely to provide real relief to many borrowers. Otherwise, there is less to Trump’s actions than the president would like voters to believe. It’s far from clear whether anyone will receive enhanced unemployment benefits, due to the many legal constraints on those benefits. And even if those benefits are paid, they will be paid out of a limited pool of funds that will run out of money quickly. Similarly, while Trump deferred payments of some taxes, he can’t relieve taxpayers of their obligation to eventually pay those taxes. For this reason, according to University of Chicago tax law professor Daniel Hemel, “many employers will continue to withhold Social Security taxes from paychecks lest they be on the hook for the $$$ next year.” Trump’s actions, in other words, appear largely legal. They just won’t accomplish very much. Trump’s new policy onunemployment benefits has many problems, only one of which is that itmay be illegal Of the four executive actions Trump signed, the one that likely crosses the line in terms of legality concerns unemployment benefits. On the surface, Trump’s unemployment benefits memo seems to restore some of the benefits lost when the CARES Act expired at the end of July. Under the CARES Act, people collecting unemployment benefits received $600 in federal funds weekly in addition to the other benefits they were entitled to receive every week. Trump’s memo calls for $400 of these enhanced benefits to be restored to some unemployed people — although not for the poorest recipients of unemployment benefits. But it’s far from clear that Trump has statutory authority to make these payments. And even if he does, Trump’s power to do so is so limited that it is far from clear who, if anyone, will receive the $400 in weekly benefits and how long those benefits will last. For the unemployment insurance memorandum, Trump relies on a provision of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act that permits the president to “provide financial assistance” to victims of a major disaster, such as a pandemic, to help “address personal property, transportation, and other necessary expenses or serious needs resulting from the major disaster.” The memorandum directs “up to $44 billion” in disaster relief funds to be spent to provide most unemployed people with $300 — not the full $400 the memo seeks to provide to unemployed people — in federal benefits a week. Why only $300? Because federal regulations provide that the federal share of such disaster relief “shall be 75 percent.” The remaining quarter of the relief funds “shall be paid from funds made available by the State.” So, if Trump wants individuals to receive $400 a week, $100 of that money must come from the states. That’s a serious problem, given the tremendous fiscal burden the pandemic has imposed on state governments. According to a July paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Elizabeth McNichol and Michael Leachman, “the state budget shortfalls expected from COVID-19’s economic fallout will total a cumulative $555 billion over state fiscal years 2020-2022.” States, moreover, have far less power to borrow funds during lean economic times than the federal government. At least 40 states require a balanced budget, meaning that deficit spending is simply off the table. It’s far from clear that any of these states will be able to find the money to pay an additional $100 a week in unemployment benefits even if they want to. Bear in mind, as well, that Trump’s memo only calls for $44 billion to be spent on unemployment benefits. As Georgetown University law and economics professor David Super writes, “with roughly 25 million people receiving unemployment benefits, the $300 federal share of the new weekly benefit would last about six weeks, or until mid-September.” At that point, unemployed people would be in the same boat they’re in now. The $44 billion could last longer, of course — if many states do not participate in this program. Super also points to another problem with Trump’s memo — it may be illegal. Although one provision of the Stafford Act allows the president to “provide financial assistance” to disaster victims with relatively few restrictions, a separate provision only permits the president to provide benefits to the unemployed that do “not exceed the maximum weekly amount authorized under the unemployment compensation law of the State in which the disaster occurred.” But the whole point of the enhanced unemployment benefits is to provide additional funding on top of the amount authorized by state law. Super argues that this provision dealing specifically with unemployment benefits trumps the more general provision allowing the president to “provide financial assistance” more broadly. Often, when two different statutory provisions are in tension with each other, courts hold that the more specific provision supersedes the more general provision. But even if Trump does have the statutory authority to provide enhanced unemployment benefits, those benefits will be short-lived and likely will not be available in many states — if they are available at all. Trump’s tax memorandum appears legal, but unlikely to accomplish much Trump’s second memorandum purports to defer collection of payroll taxes, that fund Social Security and Medicare, for workers earning less than about $100,000 a year. This memo is probably legal. The Treasury Secretary does have the power to delay collection of certain taxes for victims of federally declared disasters, and Trump is the Treasury Secretary’s boss. But, while the Trump administration may delay collection of certain taxes, such a delay is unlikely to accomplish much. It’s likely that most workers will never see the impact of this policy on their paychecks. Delaying tax payments makes sense in certain circumstances. Suppose that a tornado wipes out much of a town and leaves local businesses without electricity for weeks. A federal order delaying collection of taxes will allow those businesses to rebuild, and to figure out how to operate in the middle of a disaster, without also facing the additional burden of setting aside money to pay for federal taxes. But the law Trump relies on in his memo only allows the federal government to delay payments for up to a year. It doesn’t relieve taxpayers of their obligation to pay those taxes eventually. Under normal circumstances, federal law requires employers to deduct a percentage of each of their employees’ wages in order to cover various federal taxes, and to pay this money to the IRS. The penalties for failing to do so are quite high. An employer that is just one day late in paying such taxes can be required to pay 2 percent of the unpaid tax as a penalty. After 16 days, this penalty rises to 10 percent. And an employer who “willfully” evades its obligation to withhold money from their employees and provide that money to the government could potentially be liable for 100 percent of the money their workers owe. Trump’s memo effectively lifts these penalties for as long as it is in effect, but it cannot do so forever. And employers who do not withhold payroll taxes from their workers are likely to be in for a nasty surprise when the tax bill comes due. Think of it this way. Imagine that I owe $3,000 this year in payroll taxes on my Vox Media salary. Ordinarily, Vox will withhold that money from my paycheck and remit it to the IRS. Under Trump’s memo, Vox could decide not to withhold that money. But Vox is still going to owe it eventually. And, when that obligation does come due, Vox could still be subject to penalties if it doesn’t turn over the $3,000 it owes to the government right away. As Hemel, the tax law professor, told me, the IRS has not yet issued guidance on what happens to employers who fail to pay once Trump’s memo expires. But he emphasized that federal law only allows the Treasury to delay payments for up to one year. Accordingly, said Hemel, if the memo expires on August 10, 2021, then “on August 11, 2021, the penalty is the same that it would have been on August 11, 2020.” Vox will need to turn over the $3,000 it owes the IRS once the memo expires, or face penalties. There are other complications. Where is Vox Media going to find the money to make those future payments if they haven’t been withholding it from my paycheck? Will it order me — and all of its other impacted employees — to give back the money that we’ve already been paid? And what if we’ve already spent that money? Does that mean that my future paychecks get docked to cover the deferred tax bill? Trump, for what it’s worth, says that he’ll make this temporary deferral of payroll taxes permanent if he wins the 2020 election. But he’s down in the polls. And a permanent tax holiday would require an act of Congress — something that Congress is far from certain to support even if Republicans hold onto power. Payroll taxes, after all, fund Social Security and Medicare. Cutting those taxes potentially endanger those two popular programs. Many employers, in other words, are likely to continue withholding payroll taxes even if they are temporarily not required to do so. Why risk being unable to make mandatory tax payments when Trump’s memo is no longer in effect? Trump’s executive order on housing is basically useless The CARES Act included a 120-day moratorium on evictions, but that moratorium expired on July 24. On Saturday, Trump signed an executive order claiming that his administration will “take all lawful measures to prevent residential evictions and foreclosures resulting from financial hardships caused by COVID-19.” But the executive order itself doesn’t actually do anything, at least not on its own. It requires the secretary of the Treasury and the secretary of Housing and Urban Development to “identify any and all available Federal funds to provide temporary financial assistance to renters and homeowners who, as a result of the financial hardships caused by COVID-19, are struggling to meet their monthly rental or mortgage obligations.” And it requires HUD to “take action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to promote the ability of renters and homeowners to avoid eviction or foreclosure resulting from financial hardships caused by COVID-19.” The order, in other words, instructs various agencies to look for ways to help out renters and homeowners who are struggling to meet their financial obligations. Maybe those agencies will find something. But the executive order itself doesn’t provide any assistance to anyone. Trump’s final executive order does provide real relief to people with student debt Trump’s final memorandum instructs the Education Department to temporarily suspend payments and interest “on student loans held by the Department of Education until December 31, 2020.” This relief is real, and it also appears to be lawful. That’s because of a provision of federal law that permits the Education Department to suspend such payments for up to three years for borrowers who have “experienced or will experience an economic hardship.” So the relief for borrowers is likely to be significant — although individual borrowers should probably wait and see how the Education Department actually implements this memo before celebrating. But people with student loans are likely to be the only people who see much relief from Trump’s executive actions. For the most part, the problem with those actions isn’t that they are illegal. It’s that the legal constraints on Trump’s actions prevent them from doing much. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Tony Evers, now Wisconsin’s governor, campaigning in 2018. | Darren Hauck/Getty Images It’s a key state for Trump’s chances, and Republicans hope to win a supermajority in the state legislature. The main event in Wisconsin’s general election this fall will be the presidential contest, especially since it’s one of the most important swing states in the country. But Tuesday’s primaries in the state will have interesting implications at both the congressional and state legislative levels. For the legislature, Democrats are trying to stop Republicans from winning supermajorities in both chambers. If the GOP wins those supermajorities, they could override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s vetoes and block any attempts to reform their extremely gerrymandered statehouse maps. Meanwhile, one of Wisconsin’s eight congressional seats might be in play — the third district, which Trump won in 2016 and is represented by a longtime Democrat, Rep. Ron Kind (D). He faces a primary challenger from the left, and two Republicans with the backing of different factions of the party are battling for the nomination to take him on. Finally, in the Fifth District, there will be a passing of the torch, as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R), who has been in Congress since 1979, is retiring. His likely replacement is already quite well-known in the state: It’s state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who’s been at the center of many controversies in Wisconsin’s tumultuous recent politics — though Fitzgerald has to win the primary first. Ron Kind draws challenges from left and right in Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) Wisconsin’s Third District, spanning the state’s southwest, is the closest thing to a swing district in the Badger State on the presidential level — Donald Trump won there by 4.5 percentage points in 2016. But the district’s congressional seat has long been occupied by Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who first entered Congress in 1997 and has won all his recent reelection contests comfortably. (Kind was unopposed in the general election in 2016, and won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2018.) Sensitive to his district’s pro-Trump result in 2016, Kind has stressed his moderation. For instance, he was cautious on the topic of President Trump’s impeachment (in explaining his eventual vote for it, he emphasized that he’s “the only member of Congress who has voted to open impeachment inquiries against Presidents Clinton and Trump.”) As a result, Kind has drawn challengers from both the left and right. In the Democratic primary, he’s facing Mark Neumann, a former missionary and pediatrician. Neumann has criticized Kind’s lack of support for Medicare-for-All, but his primary challenge hasn’t drawn much national attention. Kind is the clear favorite, according to Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the Republican primary, meanwhile, retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden is running against public relations professional Jessi Ebben. Van Orden has raised much more money and won the endorsement of former Gov. Scott Walker (R) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), making him the GOP leadership’s preferred candidate. Ebben, meanwhile, has won the backing of Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-OH) and the House Freedom Caucus’s political arm. Both are running as conservative Trump supporters, but, as Olivia Herken of the Lacrosse Tribune recently wrote, Van Orden has criticized Ebben for signing a petition to recall Gov. Walker back in 2011. Ebben (who is 30 years old) countered by saying she only did so because she believed Democratic “lies” back then, and that she’s now a conservative “convert.” The Cook Political Report currently rates this race as “Likely Democratic,” but still, Republicans are hopeful for a pickup if Trump can perform well in the district again. Tony Evers’s foe seeks seat in Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District Justin Sullivan/Getty Images State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (right) during a 2011 press conference by then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The retirement of 21-term Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner means an open-seat contest in the Fifth District, which encompasses suburbs of Milwaukee. The district is heavily Republican, so the winner of the GOP primary could secure a safe Republican seat for some time (depending on how redistricting goes). The frontrunner here is Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Wisconsin state Senate, a staunch social conservative who has been a major player in the controversies that have roiled the state starting with former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. “He’s one of the few Republican leaders who’s still standing from 10 years ago,” says Burden. Fitzgerald helped craft a heavily gerrymandered state legislature map to entrench Republican majorities, and passed the 2011 law that restricted public sector unions’ collective bargaining abilities. Then, in the lame-duck session after Walker lost the 2018 election to Democrat Tony Evers, Fitzgerald and Republican legislators passed new laws restricting the powers of the governor’s office. More recently, Fitzgerald has been sparring with Evers over the governor’s statewide mask-wearing mandate. Fitzgerald’s opponent in the primary is businessman Cliff DeTemple, who has argued that he has less “baggage” and hasn’t been “in office too long,” but DeTemple is viewed as the underdog. In the general election, the GOP nominee will face Democrat Tom Palzewicz, an executive coaching consultant, but Palzewicz will face an uphill battle due to this district’s Republican lean. Key state legislative races could give Republicans a supermajority Though Evers won the governorship for Democrats in 2018, both chambers of Wisconsin’s state legislature remained in Republican hands, thanks in part to some spectacular gerrymandering. The good news for Democrats there was that Evers’s win would, it seemed, give him the power to veto unfair maps during the next redistricting in the 2021-2022 session. There’s just one catch — if Republicans manage to flip just six state legislative seats (three in the Assembly and three in the Senate), they’ll control two-thirds of each chamber, which would let them override Evers’s vetoes and gerrymander the state to their hearts’ content. That would be a tall order, but Mitchell Schmidt of the Wisconsin State Journal recently ran down the key districts that Republicans say they’re focusing on flipping. Some of those that have contested primaries are: Senate District 10: State Sen. Patty Schachtner (D-WI) is the incumbent, and the Republican primary features state Rep. Bob Stafsholt and small business owner Cherie Link battling for the nomination to take her on. Senate District 30: The Democratic incumbent here, Dave Hansen is retiring. The Democratic primary to replace him features his nephew Jonathan Hansen (a city council member) running against former healthcare executive Sandra Ewald. The GOP nominee will be attorney Eric Wimberger, who ran for this seat and lost in 2016. Senate District 32: Democratic incumbent Jennifer Shilling, who won her last reelection extremely narrowly over former state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R), isn’t running again. Kapanke will be the Republican nominee again. Candidates running in the Democratic primary are former state Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff (who was ousted from that post by state Senate Republicans), nurse Jayne Swiggum, and La Crosse man Paul Weber. Assembly District 14: State Rep. Robyn Vining is the Democratic incumbent here — she won by 0.4 percent of the vote in 2018. The Republican primary contenders are school board member Linda Boucher, Baptist church outreach ministry director Bonnie Lee, and electrician Steven Shevey. So these primaries will determine the candidates in these races, which will be key to determining whether the GOP can pull off a supermajority. But Wisconsin Democrats aren’t taking this threat lightly; they’ve launched a campaign called “Save the Veto,” and the state party just raised $10 million, the best fundraising quarter in its history. Elsewhere in the state legislature contests, the longest-serving state legislator in American history — 93-year-old state Sen. Fred Risser (D), who’s represented the 26th district since 1962 — is retiring. This is a safe Democratic seat, and seven Democrats are vying for the nomination. Burden points to business owner Kelda Roys as the leading candidate, but the contest also features two young Muslim women of color, Nada Elmikashfi and Aisha Moe. Both are critical of the Democratic establishment, and announced their bids before Risser decided to retire. Brianna Reilly of the Cap Times has more on this primary here. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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In the NBC TV show The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) attempts to teach moral philosophy to Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), to mixed results. | Ron Batzdorff/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images One study found that sitting in a discussion section on the ethics of meat led students to lower their meat consumption. One of my favorite running debates within moral philosophy as a discipline is whether moral philosophy, as a discipline, is any good or not. The latest salvo in the debate is an actual randomized evaluation of the effects of moral philosophy instruction. Describing their work in the journal Cognition, the authors — University of California Riverside’s Eric Schwitzgebel, University of Kansas’s Bradford Cokelet, and Princeton’s Peter Singer— describe it as “the first controlled experiment testing the real-world behavioral consequences of university-level philosophy instruction.” In other words: Does sitting in a moral philosophy class actually nudge you toward more moral decisions? The argument over the moral effects of philosophy dates to the ancient Greeks or earlier, but in recent decades a foundational article is Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt Youth?” Published in 1957 and commenting on the evolving nature of philosophical instruction in England’s premier university, Anscombe’s essay was an allusion to the criminal charge against Socrates — that he “corrupted the youth” of Athens — that led to his execution. And while Anscombe was an Oxford moral philosopher, she was also a devout Catholic. Her conclusion was that Oxford’s moral philosophy instruction could not corrupt the young elites of Britain any more than the base and vile culture of their upbringing had already corrupted them. More recently, the philosophers Annette Baier and Kieran Setiya have argued that the corruption charge was justified based on the fact that introductory moral philosophy courses, in particular, teach students that the discipline has come to no shared conclusions on the nature of morality. Instead, it has split into competing factions. There are some utilitarians and some Kantians (arguing that morality derives from the nature of rational thought), and some Aristotelians (emphasizing character and pursuit of the virtues), and learning about the profound differences between each can lead students to conclude we know nothing about the nature of morality — and thus that anything goes. In Baier’s words, “We, in effect, give courses in comparative moral theory, and like courses in comparative religion, their usual effect on the student is loss of faith in any of the alternatives presented. We produce relativists and moral skeptics, persons who have been convinced by our teaching that whatever they do in some difficult situation, some moral theory will condone it, another will condemn it.” In other words, students learn that experts disagree about the nature of right and wrong, which leads them to lose faith that there is a firm difference between the two. To date, the debate has mostly centered around individual philosophy professors — people who have much expertise but whose judgments are inevitably partial and contradict each other frequently. So I was pleased to see that three philosophers have actually conducted a large-scale randomized experiment to see if moral philosophy can alter student’s moral decision-making — and in what direction. Schwitzgebel, Cokelet, and Singer do not look at abstract outcomes, like how well students do after a class on tests of moral reasoning capacity. They instead look at a very concrete outcome: Do students eat less meat after learning about philosophical arguments against factory farming? Tracking students’ meat spending after philosophy class The experiment was conducted with 1,332 UC Riverside students across four different introductory philosophy courses. All the classes had small discussion sections (each capped at 25 students) run by graduate student teaching assistants. One week, the sections focused either on the ethics of charity (the control group) or the ethics of eating meat (the treatment group); students were informed that this was part of a “teaching experiment.” Neither of these topics was covered in lectures, so the discussion sections were the whole treatment. The study authors chose meat-eating for several reasons, but a key one was that “among philosophers who write on the issue there is widespread (though not perfect) consensus that it is generally morally better for the typical North American to eat less factory farmed meat.” Few ethical areas have that degree of consensus, but factory-farmed meat is so bad for humans and animals alike that it’s hard to construct a defense (though some have tried). That allows the authors to test if the instruction “worked” by seeing if the discussion caused people to eat less meat. And it worked! Not only were students in the meat ethics sections likelier to say they thought eating factory-farmed meat is unethical, analysis of their dining cards — basically debit cards issued as part of UC Riverside’s meal plan that students can use to buy meals on campus — suggested that they bought less meat too. Fifty-two percent of dining card purchases for both the control and treatment groups were of meat products before the class. After the class, the treatment group’s percentage fell to 45 percent. This effect wasn’t driven by a few students becoming vegetarians, but by all students buying slightly less meat. It’s possible this effect was temporary; the authors only had a few weeks of data. But it at least lasted for several weeks. This result is somewhat surprising. One of the authors, Schwitzgebel, has conducted surveys suggesting that the moral views and behaviors of moral philosophers aren’t appreciably different from those of other philosophers and non-philosophy academics (one exception to this trend appears to be meat-eating). Despite being “experts” on morality, ethicists don’t seem to behave differently or have different moral opinions than people in other fields, which arguably casts some doubt on the existence of moral expertise. In an email announcing the paper, Singer said that Schwitzgebel expected a null result on the new experiment too: that is, he didn’t think the moral instruction would do anything. “It’s an encouraging result for those challenging the ethics of eating meat, because it shows that what happens in a classroom can persuade people to eat less meat (even if the difference isn’t as sharp as I would have wished),” Singer concluded. I hope this is only the beginning of a large literature on the effectiveness of philosophical instruction. But it’s a promising start. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. 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