This tiny flashing kit can break your bad online security habits

The number of cyber attacks is estimated to have risen by 67% over the last five years, with the majority of these data breaches being traced back to human error. The potential risks of such attacks are vast and can have a serious impact on both organizations and individuals. But protecting ourselves against cyber security threats can be extremely complicated. Not only is the technology we use on a daily basis getting more complex, but attackers are constantly finding new ways to bypass security measures. Yet staying up to date with safety measures and new devices is not always practical.…

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The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19)
The afternoon sky glows red from bushfires exacerbated by climate change near Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019. | Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images “Shifting baselines syndrome” means we quickly get used to climate chaos. For as long as I’ve followed global warming, advocates and activists have shared a certain faith: When the impacts get really bad, people will act. Maybe it will be an especially destructive hurricane, heat wave, or flood. Maybe it will be multiple disasters at once. But at some point, the severity of the problem will become self-evident, sweeping away any remaining doubt or hesitation and prompting a wave of action. From this perspective, the scary possibility is that the moment of reckoning will come too late. There’s a time lag in climate change — the effects being felt now trace back to gases emitted decades ago. By the time things get bad enough, many further devastating and irreversible changes will already be “baked in” by past emissions. We might not wake up in time. That is indeed a scary possibility. But there is a scarier possibility, in many ways more plausible: We never really wake up at all. No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise. The youth climate movement continues agitating, some of the more progressive countries are roused to (inadequate) action, and eventually, all political parties are forced to at least acknowledge the problem — all outcomes that are foreseeable on our current trajectory — but the necessary global about-face never comes. We continue to take slow, inadequate steps to address the problem and suffer immeasurably as a result. NurPhoto via Getty Images A Palestinian girl fills plastic bottles with drinking water from a public tap during a heat wave in Gaza City on July 6, 2020. David Wallace-Wells, author of the popular and terrifying climate change book The Uninhabitable Earth, discussed this possibility in a New York Magazine piece written during the apocalyptic fires late last year in Australia. One might have thought that fires consuming hundreds of millions of acres and killing more than a billion animals would be a wake-up call, but instead, Wallace-Wells writes, “a climate disaster of unimaginable horror has been unfolding for almost two full months, and the rest of the world is hardly paying attention.” Maybe climate chaos, a rising chorus of alarm signals from around the world, will simply become our new normal. Hell, maybe income inequality, political dysfunction, and successive waves of a deadly virus will become our new normal. Maybe we’ll just get used to [waves hands] all this. Humans often don’t remember what we’ve lost or demand that it be restored. Rather, we adjust to what we’ve got. Concepts developed in sociology and psychology can help us understand why it happens — and why it is such a danger in an age of accelerating, interlocking crises. Tackling climate change, pandemics, or any of a range of modern global problems means keeping our attention on what’s being lost, not just over our lifetimes, but over generations. Shifting baselines are a form of generational amnesia In 1995, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly published a one-page article in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution titled “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome in fisheries.” It contained no original experiments, no numbers or equations, but it went on to be the most cited and widely discussed thing he ever wrote. Pauly had something particular in mind about the transition from pre-scientific (anecdotal) to scientific data, but the conceptual architecture of shifting baselines also proved to be incredibly fruitful in other contexts and went on to be “revolutionary for the field of ecology,” write Jeremy Jackson (an emeritus professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Jennifer Jacquet (an environmental studies professor at New York University). The notion was later introduced to the public by filmmaker Randy Olsen in a 2002 LA Times piece and has since become a subject of much popular discussion. So what are shifting baselines? Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience. And so it goes, each new generation shifting the baseline downward. By the end, the fishers are operating in a radically degraded ecosystem, but it does not seem that way to them, because their baselines were set at an already low level. Over time, the fish goes extinct — an enormous, tragic loss — but no fisher experiences the full transition from abundance to desolation. No generation experiences the totality of the loss. It is doled out in portions, over time, no portion quite large enough to spur preventative action. By the time the fish go extinct, the fishers barely notice, because they no longer valued the fish anyway. “An animal that is very abundant, before it gets extinct, it becomes rare,” says Pauly in his much-watched TED talk on shifting baselines. “So you don’t lose abundant animals. You always lose rare animals. And therefore, they’re not perceived as a big loss.” The same phenomenon is sometimes called “generational amnesia,” the tendency of each generation to disregard what has come before and benchmark its own experience of nature as normal. A 2009 study from researchers at the Imperial College London examined a series of case studies, from “hunters’ perceptions of change in prey species populations in two villages in central Gabon” to “perceptions of bird population trends of 50 participants in a rural village in Yorkshire, UK.” Sure enough, they found evidence of generational amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs because younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions.” It’s easy to see the same thing happening on a larger scale with climate change. Few people are aware, in a conscious way, of how many hot summer days were normal for their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Recent research shows that “extremely hot summers” are 200 times more likely than they were 50 years ago. Did you know that? Do you feel it? It’s not just intergenerationally that we forget, either. The Imperial College researchers also demonstrated the existence of another form of shifting baselines syndrome: personal amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience.” Just as generations forget about ecological loss, so do individuals It turns out that, over the course of their lives, individuals do just what generations do — periodically reset and readjust to new baselines. “There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He cites the London Blitz (during World War II, when bombs were falling on London for months on end) and the intifada (the Palestinian terror campaign in Israel), during which people slowly adjusted to unthinkable circumstances. “Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant,” he says, “You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.” He notes that big events, or “teachable moments,” can momentarily shock us into willingness to make big changes, but “a teachable moment is only a moment,” he says. “Once the fear is gone, the willingness to take measures is also gone.” Even those big personal moments fade quickly. One of the most robust findings in modern psychology — made famous by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert — is that we have an incredibly robust “psychological immune system.” We tend to dramatically overestimate the effect that large events, good or bad, will have on our happiness. We think the death of a family member will make us enduringly less happy, or winning the lottery will make us enduringly happier. In fact, what psychologists find again and again is that we quickly return to our personal happiness equilibrium. A soldier who loses a leg and a soldier who returns home safe to a new baby will generally, a year or two later, be roughly as happy as they were before those events. It’s called “hedonic adaptation.” Just as we adjust emotionally, we adjust cognitively. We forget what came before; we simply don’t think about it. For the most part, only our recent experience is salient in defining our baselines, our sense of normal. XKCD XKCD on shifting baselines. The process of forgetting, of resetting, is almost possible to resist, even for those acutely aware of it. In 2013, author JB McKinnon released a book called The Once and Future World, about the extinction crisis and the abundant natural world that Americans are barely aware is draining away. “Even though I spent several years writing a book about things disappearing from the natural world,” McKinnon says, “I can’t hold it in my head. I have to go back and reread it in order to refresh my eyes so that when I go out into the natural world, I think, ‘there are things missing here’. Otherwise, I’m just gonna go, ‘What a beautiful day’.” “I mean, who remembers what the price of coffee was 10 years ago?” he asks. Humans view the world through the lens of recent experience UC-Davis environmental economist Frances Moore thought of a clever way to test this phenomenon of short-term salience in the context of weather. How many times must unusual temperatures be repeated before they cease to be experienced by individuals as unusual? How fast do unusual temperatures become unremarkable? To find out, Moore and colleagues turned to Twitter. In a study published last year, they analyzed Twitter’s massive US database to correlate unusual heat or cold events with chatter about the weather. In this way, they tried to track the “remarkability” of temperature anomalies. “Something crazy happens, and then the same crazy thing happens the next year, and people are able to realize, ‘Oh, it’s two crazy things’,” Moore says. “Then it starts happening again, and people start to think, ‘I guess this isn’t so notable anymore.” Accordingly, tweets about the weather decline. How quickly does the effect take hold? “The reference point for normal conditions appears to be based on weather experienced between 2 and 8 years ago,” the study concluded. “It’s a powerful phenomenon, this normalization or reference-dependent utility,” Moore says. “It’s not super-rational behavior.” The study’s conclusion about what this portends for climate change is unsettling: “This rapidly shifting normal baseline means warming noticed by the general public may not be clearly distinguishable from zero over the 21st century.” Let that sink in. Even though atmospheric temperatures are, on a geological time scale, changing at a headlong pace, on a human time scale, they are still changing too slowly to be perceptually or emotionally salient. Put more bluntly: The public may never notice that it’s getting warmer. Research based on social media in a single country has obvious limitations, and Moore is reticent to speculate about how long the window of salience might be for other kinds of weather, or in other places. But it stands to reason that something like the same window applies to other natural or even social phenomena. It may be just as likely that the public never notices the increasing intensity of storms or frequency of flooding or regularity of crop failures. However rapidly those phenomena might change, they rarely change fast enough to be dramatically different from conditions two to eight years ago. The window of experience that humans find emotionally and cognitively salient is simply too narrow to take in long-term changes in ecological systems. What was unthinkable to previous generations — say, regular nuisance flooding in southern Florida — is normal now. What seems unthinkable to us now — say, stay-at-home orders in large swathes of the US Southwest for several weeks a year due to dangerous heat — will be, by the time it rolls around, not that much worse than what came just before it. We adjust; we can’t help it. If we wait for ecological change to thrust itself into the consciousness of ordinary Americans, we may be waiting forever. Joe Raedle/Getty Images Walking through a daylight flood in Miami Beach, Florida, on September 29, 2015. Shifting baselines apply to several other social problems Once you start thinking in terms of shifting baselines, you start seeing them everywhere, not just in ecology. What is the unending debate over the “normalization” of Trump but a debate over shifting baselines? President Trump has degraded and discarded longstanding norms of presidential behavior with astonishing speed and recklessness, but it has proven incredibly difficult for the press and the public to assess his record based on pre-Trump baselines. This is why people are always asking, “What if Obama did this?” They are trying to ask, “Why have we shifted our moral and political baselines so quickly?” Similarly, the US is busy normalizing the grim reality that college graduates will enter a world of high debt, expensive housing, and parlous job prospects. The post-war expectation of a middle-class life with a family-supporting job and a reliable pension might as well be ancient history. Shifting baselines are evident in the steady erosion of unions, the militarization of police, and the infusion of US politics with dark money. They are even evident, as we’ll discuss in a moment, in our experience with Covid-19. For the generation of Americans coming of age today, Trump, gridlocked politics, and a rapidly warming planet are normal. How can they be convinced that they should expect, and demand, something better? How to fight shifting baselines and personal amnesia The human propensity to rapidly adapt is part of our evolved cognitive and emotional machinery. But our ability to heed and remember the past is also shaped by culture. “I looked at Native Hawaiian culture,” McKinnon says. “They had individuals within communities who were assigned to have a social relationship with species that were never even given names in English.” North America’s indigenous cultures still carry an enormous amount of accumulated knowledge that can help reveal what’s been lost. That kind of historical consciousness — a day-to-day awareness of the obligations that come with being a good ancestor — has faded. And modern consumer capitalism might as well be designed to erase it, to lock everyone into an eternal present wherein satisfying the next material desire is the only horizon. One answer is for journalism and the arts to pull the lens back and try to recenter a richer historical perspective. One ambitious effort to do that is journalist John Sutter’s Baseline 2020 project. He and his team have picked four locations around the world that are particularly vulnerable to climate change — Alaska, Utah, Puerto Rico, and the Marshall Islands — and will visit them every five years until 2050, documenting the changes facing the people who live there. (It is modeled on director Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, which check in on the same group of Brits every seven years.) “Change is invisible in any one moment,” Sutter says. He notes that scientists often do studies that last for years or decades, but “that longitudinal approach just doesn’t happen in journalism.” Taking the long view is one way to make changing conditions salient and emotionally impactful. In a similar spirit, artist Jonathon Keats has designed a special camera to take a 1,000-year exposure of Lake Tahoe. He calls it a “sort of cognitive prosthesis, a mechanism for us to be able to see ourselves from that far-future perspective.” The Long Now Foundation, established by Stewart Brand in 1996, has been hosting seminars to spur long-term thinking for decades. “Culture will hang on to knowledge of things that are changing or gone longer,” McKinnon says, “if those things are the kinds of things that they pay attention to.” It’s not just about documenting decline, either. There have been long-term victories, too — reductions in poverty, increases in the number of educated young girls, declines in air pollution, and so forth. These also happen incrementally, often beneath our notice. We adjust our baselines upward and do not register what, over time, can be substantial victories. Making those victories more visible can help show that decline is not inevitable. There is no substitute for leadership and responsive governance It can not ultimately fall to ordinary people to hold baselines stable. On these matters, as on much else, they take their cues from their leaders. Studying and understanding the long arc of history, considering the experience of previous generations and the welfare of coming generations, making decisions with the long view — those are things leaders are supposed to do. The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics. They can’t be held steady through acts of collective will. They have to be hardwired into social infrastructure. Unfortunately, US politics has become almost completely unresponsive, which reinforces rather than ameliorates our slipping baselines. One crucial part of registering a crisis as a crisis is a sense of agency, and Americans increasingly feel that they have no ability to shape national policy. Negative changes “are normalized more quickly if you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Moore. “That might be what’s going on with the coronavirus — people don’t feel like they have agency on a collective level, because the government is not doing anything, so their response is to say, ‘well, I gotta live my life’.” On top of that, it’s just tiring to feel anxious for so long. “The combination of adaptation and fatigue is absolutely deadly in terms of our ability to respond to the virus at this point,” says Loewenstein. "White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking."— David Roberts (@drvox) July 6, 2020 What if Americans simply accommodate themselves to thousands of coronavirus deaths a day? As writer Charlie Warzel noted in a recent column, it’s not that different from the numbness they now feel in the face of gun violence. “Unsure how — or perhaps unable — to process tragedy at scale,” he writes, “we get used to it.” Biodiversity loss, deforestation, and climate change may make pandemics more common. It is not difficult to imagine Americans forgetting a time when mingling freely was taken for granted. When being in public did not mean constant low-level exposure anxiety. When there weren’t regular waves of infection and death. “If we keep getting zoonotic disease pandemics, then we’ll just say, ‘well, here comes the winter one, catch you on Zoom until June’,” says McKinnon. “Our baseline could shift to the point that we don’t remember there was a time when people went most of their lives without hearing the word pandemic.” Our extraordinary ability to adapt, to get on with it, to not dwell in the past, was enormously useful in our evolutionary history. But it is making it difficult for us to keep our attention focused on how much is being lost — and thus difficult for us to rally around efforts to stem those losses. And so, little by little, a hotter, more chaotic, and more dangerous world is becoming normal to us, as we sleepwalk toward more tragedies. 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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Plus, the uncanny world of “boyfriend TikTok.” Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here. I’ve spent lots of time on “aesthetic TikTok,” the part of the app where people put together what are essentially slideshows of Pinterest boards devoted to a certain feeling or mood. You don’t need a psychology degree to understand why — it’s a pleasant escape from looking at anything else on my phone, most of which is bad news. For a while, my For You page was just Italian coastlines and Roman statues set to the music of Call Me By Your Name; though somehow the algorithm must have known I was planning a trip to Italy, it did not predict that it, along with everyone else’s vacations in 2020, would eventually be cancelled. There are lots of aesthetic videos on TikTok — ironic ones laying out the criteria of, say, Karencore (think the Kate Gosselin haircut plus “mommy’s go-go juice” T-shirts) or ones that show examples of historical literary and artistic movements like retrofuturism. Perhaps the most famous of these aesthetics is “cottagecore,” where people display a dreamy life of domesticity and homemade rosewater and chicken ownership. @rissahdude not all of these are super underground like dark academia but they’re aesthetics i like that need more love >:( #aesthetics #rareaesthetic ♬ crimewave by crystal castles - kermishy And then there is “Dark Academia,” in which the viewer imagines life as a New England Ivy League or English boarding school student studying Greek literature and wearing lots of tweed. In a recent piece, the New York Times categorizes it as a “more approachable” version of cottagecore. The argument is that not all of us can access the actual trappings that cottagecore requires — a house in the country, excess time to devote to twee crafts, a calm and quiet home life — but the simple act of putting on a blazer and reading Dostoevsky is far more doable. I don’t think that’s the full extent of their similarities, though. Both take historical aesthetics that evoke conservative values and gender roles (Eurocentrism and heteronormativity, respectively), which modern-day fans often reject. Cottagecore is particularly popular among lesbians on TikTok, and as one Dark Academia TikToker told the Times, “It’s a very open community, even though it’s about classics. It’s also about breaking stereotypes regardless of gender or sexuality.” The same goes for the web of offshoots of Dark Academia and cottagecore — there’s goblincore or crowcore (collections of weird shiny trinkets), meadowcore (pretty pictures of meadows), fairycore (meadowcore but with mushrooms and magic), and Light Academia (Dark Academia, but girlier and in the summer). These cute little slideshows aren’t just an escape from the Bad Internet, they’re a reminder that another kind of life is possible. TikTok is (rightfully) in the news for its political importance right now, but whenever a post from aesthetic TikTok pops up on my feed, I’ll always stop and watch. TikTok in the news Three police officers in Tacoma, Washington are under investigation for their TikTok posts. One officer poked fun at a police abolition protest that requested police presence; another voiced support for the “thin blue line” flag. The third, however, posted a video saying that she felt the flag was divisive and should be removed from all police vehicles. All three have been told to “cease the unauthorized use of city equipment, uniforms or vehicles in any personal communications.” More than 200 million Indians are being urged to delete their TikTok accounts after the government banned it along with dozens of other China-owned apps. At Bloomberg Opinion, Mihir Sharma writes how the decision will be a detriment to India’s thriving internet culture. “Much more than Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, TikTok in India had an equalizing effect. It was the online home of small-town Indians with outsized dreams and, if you looked, unforgettable stories.” There isn’t a single social media platform that hasn’t been infiltrated by white supremacists, and TikTok is, unfortunately, no different. The Guardian covered how easily it is to find videos from the Boogaloo Bois on TikTok, where people show off their guns and extensive combat clothing. This, on an app that was once for tweenage lip-synchers. 22-year-old Harvard student Claira Janover lost her internship at Deloitte after posting an anti-”all lives matter” TikTok (she used the analogy that “all lives matter” is sort of like if she stabbed you and then she got a paper cut and said “all cuts matter.”) One Twitter user posted the video and claimed that Janover was threatening to stab people, and conservatives like Ann Coulter and Charlie Kirk piled on, eventually reaching Deloitte. “During the hiring process, Deloitte continually pushed this message of ‘We want to support you. We want to include you. We want diversity,’” Janover told Insider. At so many companies, however, “diversity” can be little more than a corporate buzzword. A Subway sandwich artist filmed a video of how to make the chain’s tuna salad and it’s precisely as nauseating as you expect. As commenters pointed out, it’s probably not very different from any other pre-packaged tuna salad, but the video is part of a larger segment of TikTok where staffers at massive chains reveal behind-the-scenes footage and little known quirks of their corporate employers. This, of course, can get complicated. Meme watch There’s this one TikToker who’s constantly showing up on my feed, but I’ve hardly ever been able to make it through a full video because I simply cannot bear to. Nearly all of his most popular videos go like this: Schmaltzy music plays as we stare at a close-up of his face, while he lip-syncs to us as though we are desperately in love. Often, he is weeping. On TikTok, he is a running joke, but he is also very popular. His name is Devin Caherly, and his POV videos are why 2.4 million people follow him and so many other accounts of teenagers making videos pretending to be the viewer’s boyfriend. Back in November, Sarah Manavis wrote about the phenomenon for the New Statesman, where young men shoot TikToks where they pretend to comfort you after a breakup or take you out to dinner in the 1920s, the gist of all of them being that the creator is earnestly suggesting he is the platonic ideal of a partner. There is something both charmingly naive and very icky about this, but they are teenage boys on the internet, and there are obviously worse things they could be doing. Whenever Devin shows up on my feed, it’s a reminder that TikTok will never really escape its deeply cringey roots. Somehow that’s comforting! One Last Thing Here is an example of someone making fun of the aforementioned genre of video. I have watched it 100 times. @themichaelspencer i recreate this guy’s videos every day pt. 1 #duet with @bradrad #foryou #fyp ♬ SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK - Joji 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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The CARES Act, the massive economic rescue legislation which sent stimulus checks to people whose jobs were lost because of the coronavirus pandemic, was passed by the House and Senate on March 27. | Win McNamee/Getty Images The CARES Act was vital, historic legislation that is expiring before its time. The CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic rescue legislation signed by President Trump on March 27 and scheduled to end on July 31, was perhaps the most pleasant legislative surprise I’ve seen in my decade of covering American politics. The bill authorized hundreds of billions in spending on expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks to support the millions of workers who lost their jobs once pandemic lockdowns began. The result was that the poorest Americans barely saw their spending fall once federal support kicked in. Despite the crisis, poverty did not increase, and might even have fallen. The legislation passed at the end of a decade that was marked by congressional stalemate and ineptitude. My basic model of federal politics going into the Covid-19 calamity was that presidents typically get two years to try to implement their agenda, which the opposition tries to block at every turn; once the opposition wins back Congress in the midterms, the bulk of domestic affairs is handled in a series of bare-knuckle budget fights for the rest of the president’s term or terms in office. That model fit the Obama administration and early Trump administration well — but the passage of the CARES Act blew it to pieces. It is a transformative piece of social legislation passed during the fourth year of a presidency, by a divided Congress. It is a massive expansion of the safety net that passed by voice vote in the House and unanimously in the Senate. It is a bipartisan measure that emerged not out of years of careful coalition building (like so many bipartisan efforts at immigration reform) or heated and bitter negotiations (like so many bipartisan deficit-reduction deals) but out of a couple weeks of frenzied bill-writing with minimal conflict. The individual provisions of the CARES Act are widely known, but it’s worth dwelling a bit on the bill itself, its historic importance, and what it means that Congress was able to pass it. “Congress has increasingly stalemated on most of the big public problems of the day: immigration reform, global warming, future of entitlements, pensions, and so on,” said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on Congress. “And in that context, your surprise about CARES Act seems quite reasonable. How did a polarized and divided Congress — that can’t solve most public problems — manage to legislate nearly $3 trillion (plus more before and after CARES) in a mere few weeks?” “Honestly, it was just what I needed, maybe even better,” Sarah Gordon, a musician and actor in New York City who has relied on the federal $600 unemployment benefit boost since losing her job in fitness, told me. She said it took weeks to get through to the New York State unemployment agency on the phone, but once she did, the money kept her afloat. “After NYC rent (mine is a little below average for living by myself) plus bills and other expenses, it put me just even.” However, Congress has left town and does not appear ready to pass any legislation at all to extend the $600 bonus unemployment payments — or any other aspect of the CARES Act. Now Gordon and millions like her are facing a sudden collapse in support from the federal government even as unemployment remains at its highest point since the Great Depression. “It would be great if it would continue, but even better for those who have additional expenses, like house payments, car payments, or even another mouth to feed,” Gordon said. The CARES Act is a bigger fiscal stimulus than the New Deal or the 2008-09 packages The Covid-19 crisis is the biggest economic disaster, at least in terms of measured unemployment, since the Great Depression, so it’s perhaps appropriate that the main measure enacted to fight it was historically enormous too. But its scale has been, if anything, underappreciated. I asked Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), to determine how the CARES Act and accompanying legislation compared to the bills passed in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession. Goldwein and his team have been documenting Covid-19 economic relief spending through their COVID Money Tracker. CRFB’s analysis found that the Covid-19 response has to date totaled $2.5 trillion, or about 2.3 percent of GDP over the next five years. The Great Recession Response cost $1.8 trillion over five years, or 2.4 percent of five-year GDP. The two are, as a share of the economy, roughly equivalent, despite the Great Recession measures being gradually passed from February 2008 to December 2010. Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget Jason Furman, an economics professor at Harvard and former top adviser to President Obama who was involved in crafting the 2009/2010 stimulus policies, has put together his own similar estimates that even further underline the magnitude of the Covid-19 response. The two measures total to about the same amount of spending, he finds, but the Covid-19 response was condensed into just one year. As a result, the biggest year for fiscal stimulus during the Great Recession (2010) saw stimulus only amount to 4.7 percent of GDP. In 2020 so far, stimulus has amounted to 11.4 percent of GDP. Not only was the Covid-19 response larger than the stimulus policies enacted in 2008-2010, it was larger than the New Deal, at least from a fiscal perspective. The 1930s era New Deal was much more than just a fiscal stimulus initiative. It included far-reaching labor law reforms, the creation of Social Security, and a variety of new regulations of the housing and securities industries (and new agencies to govern them). But it also entailed new deficit spending and fiscal measures meant to boost employment through programs like the Civil Works Administration, Public Works Administration, and Works Progress Administration. In a 2015 paper, economists Price Fishback and Valentina Kachanovskaya tallied the fiscal stimulus undertaken between 1930 and 1940 (the vast majority of which was initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt after taking office in 1933) at $41.7 billion, or about $653 billion in 2009 dollars — less than the $840 billion cost of the 2009 stimulus bill, as the St. Louis Fed’s Bill Dupor notes. Dupor also finds that, between 1931 and 1939, the federal debt grew by 30.3 percent of the economy; between 2008 and 2011, it grew by 32 percent of the economy. Again, the Great Recession response was larger. Since the CARES Act is, at least relative to one year, larger than the 2008-2010 stimulus measure, this data suggests that it is bigger than the New Deal as a purely fiscal matter as well. CARES has been a huge humanitarian boon The importance of CARES is perhaps better seen in the actual outcomes among the American people during an unprecedented lockdown. Perhaps most notable is the $600 per-week increase to unemployment insurance (UI) benefits it included. That produced a strong, positive incentive for people to leave work if it was deleterious to their health, even as they kept their heads above water financially. This aspect of the legislation was criticized by some Republicans in Congress for deterring work, but deterring work in this circumstance was a feature, not a bug. A recent paper by economists Peter Ganong, Pascal Noel, and Joseph Vavra found that the average UI recipient is getting 134 percent of their previous salary; “two-thirds of UI eligible workers can receive benefits which exceed lost earnings and one-fifth can receive benefits at least double lost earnings.” The program, which is set to expire at the end of July, seems to have had a tremendous impact. In April, personal income (defined as the money Americans receive from wages, government benefits, investments, and so on) grew by 10.5 percent, by far the highest monthly growth rate in the metric’s 60-year history, even as unemployment shot up from 4.4 percent to 14.7 percent that same month. That’s largely attributable to the $600 UI boost and the one-off stimulus checks upping unemployed people’s incomes even as jobs disappeared. You can see this as well in real-time economic data collected by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, and other economists at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights research group. The research group is able to see what effect the stimulus checks specifically had because data from Earnin, a private company that tracks wages and offers payday loan-like products, indicates that the large majority of people (over 70 percent) got their $1,200 from the IRS on April 15, exactly; a small minority got theirs on April 14. That allowed the researchers to test how the stimulus affected households by comparing spending on April 13 to April 15 and the days immediately after. This is a variant on what’s called a “regression discontinuity” approach in social sciences, and it’s one of the higher-quality tools we have for testing what effects a policy actually caused as opposed to what happened around the same time. Sure enough, spending jumped modestly for high-income households (by 9 percentage points; the green line below) and enormously for low-income households (by 26 percentage points; the blue line below) over the two days that the stimulus package was implemented: Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team, 2020 By the beginning of June, spending by the poorest Americans had almost entirely returned to its pre-crisis state. Two research groups have also put some hard numbers on CARES’s humanitarian impact by measuring how it affected poverty rates Zachary Parolin, Megan A. Curran, and Christopher Wimer of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, based at Columbia, found that poverty rose an almost imperceptible amount, from 12.5 percent of the population to 12.7 percent, between 2019 and 2020. But without CARES, it would have risen to 16.3 percent, resulting in almost 12 million more people being in poverty. The reductions were concentrated disproportionately among Hispanic and Black households. The second group, longtime poverty research duo Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of Notre Dame, collaborating with UChicago scholar Jeehoon Han, found that in April and May, the estimated poverty rate covering the previous 12 months was 8.6 percent compared to 10.9 percent in January and February, suggesting that poverty actually fellafter the Covid-19 pandemic hit, almost certainly due to the overwhelming federal response. The two studies use slightly different methodologies. The Columbia researchers use monthly survey data for April from the census and project the annual poverty rate for 2020 based on that one month; they also model how poverty would look under different policy schemes. Han, Meyer, and Sullivan use both April and May survey results, specifically a rarely used question about annual family income that’s asked in the monthly census surveys. To assess the cumulative impact of the coronavirus and CARES Act, they compare January and February data to April and May data. The two studies also emphasize different aspects of the recovery package in explaining the CARES Act’s effect on poverty. The Columbia study in particular highlights the role of the $600-a-week boost to unemployment benefits. Among individuals who lost their jobs and did not receive UI benefits, the other measures in the CARES Act (principally the $1,200 checks) reduced poverty from 35.1 percent to 30.2 percent, the paper finds. But among jobless individuals who did get UI benefits, the CARES Act reduced the poverty rate from 19.5 percent to 6.4 percent, less than the rate among employed individuals. (The higher pre-CARES poverty rate in the former group reflects that many of those not eligible for UI benefits were undocumented immigrants, who are poorer in general.) The Han, Meyer, and Sullivan paper finds that both stimulus checks and UI benefits were important, and is slightly more positive on the former. If you exclude the $1,200 checks, the poverty rate in May is 1.3 points higher, they find, while if you exclude UI benefits, it’s only 0.7 points higher. Overall, though, they’re similar papers with similar conclusions: The stimulus checks and UI benefits helped tremendously in keeping low-income people afloat during the pandemic. This is not to say that the CARES Act was perfect. No economic research I’m aware of has found positive results from the $500 billion the bill included in bailout money for large corporations. Chetty et al. found that the Paycheck Protection Program offering forgivable loans to small businesses produced no real effects on employment. But it’s unreasonable to expect every single provision of a bill this large to be effective. The stimulus checks and UI payments appear to have worked extraordinarily well at preventing a humanitarian calamity, and that’s a strong endorsement for any legislation. What made its passage possible So how could a bill this sweeping, and this helpful to poor people, pass during divided government? Frances Lee, a professor of political science at Princeton who studies congressional conflict, notes that in some ways the bipartisan passage of the bill should be unsurprising: It’s easier for legislation supported by bipartisan majorities to make it through in general, even outside of emergencies. “There’s very little legislation that passes on party-line votes,” Lee explains. “All of the rise in congressional polarization is on other types of votes than enactments: amendments, procedural votes, message bills. But when measures actually succeed in getting through the legislative process, large majorities are the overwhelming norm.” This is true of both routine legislation like post office renamings and major bills. The Children’s Health Insurance Program was enacted by a large bipartisan majority in 1997. More recently, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a bill expanding the EPA’s ability to regulate chemicals, passed nearly unanimously in 2016, despite Republican control of Congress and a Democratic presidency and despite historically unprecedented levels of inter-party conflict (there’s a whole book on how this happened). But the scale of CARES is still notable. Lee argues that you have to understand it by analogy to war measures, perhaps even going back to World War II as the closest historical analogue. “The government is effectively putting a lot of people out of work. It’s putting whole sectors of the economy out of business [by imposing lockdowns]. So it’s easier ideologically to accept the idea that some compensation would be acceptable even to hardliners,” Lee says. “Clearly, the behavior of the Federal Reserve and federal government after the pandemic is comparable to war. All of that is comparable to policymaking in wartime more than anything else.” Lee adds that the sheer speed with which the bill was passed helped enable its bipartisan support, as there was no time for a countermobilization. Binder, the professor of political science at George Washington University, notes that individual political self-interest helps explain the bill’s success, a point Lee concurs on. “I think we have a notion that in times of crisis, lawmakers and their leaders put aside partisan differences and ‘rise to the occasion,’” Binder wrote in an email. “But I think that idea of bipartisanship in a crisis misses the broader electoral dynamic that often motivates Congress to act: A crisis can motivate action, not so much because it’s the ‘right thing to do’ but because neither party wants to be blamed for failing to act. When the consequences of stalemate are too steep for both parties (an economy in a coma, millions already filing for unemployment, tens of thousands dying), we shouldn’t be surprised to see them go to the bargaining table and reach a deal.” Binder also notes that the bill had a little something for each party: Republicans got large-scale support for major businesses, Democrats got a big UI expansion, Trump got checks he could put his signature on. “The CARES Act wasn’t a zero-sum game of legislating. It’s more like a positive-sum game,” Binder wrote. “To a large extent, the parties have secured their most preferred outcomes and ceded a bit to the other party. … In that sense, the parties aren’t seeking out the ideological sweet spot between the parties (there might not be one ...) and then agreeing to a least-common-denominator deal; instead, they’re each getting what they want the most. That’s often the case in polarized times, I would wager.” Lee notes that this dynamic changes if Joe Biden enters the White House. Much as then-minority leader Mitch McConnell found it advantageous to try to sink the Obama administration’s stimulus measure in early 2009, both due to Republican ideological opposition to expanded spending and because it was not in his self-interest to hand Obama a legislative win, McConnell and his allies could find themselves blocking similar measures under Biden should he beat Trump in November. “As a minority party, it should be easier for [Republicans] to resist,” Lee says. “It might inaugurate more austerity.” Not extending the CARES Act could mean calamity The CARES Act’s passage was a huge achievement that kept millions of people out of destitution during this crisis. But as big as the bill is, it’s not, on its own, equal to the task in front of us right now. The expanded UI benefits are set to expire at the end of July. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged not to renew the program in its present form. Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans are more sympathetic to extending it in a modified form, but the July congressional recess greatly limits the time Congress has to put together a replacement. The Trump administration has voiced more openness to additional stimulus checks than to extending UI, but as of now the $1,200 per adult, $500 per child payments that landed on April 15 are the only unrestricted cash payments the administration has authorized. There are any number of measures that could effectively extend the benefits of the CARES Act. The House-passed HEROES Act would extend the $600 per week UI benefit through the end of January 2021, at least, and execute another round of $1,200 per adult stimulus checks (this time with $1,200 per child on top, not just $500). It would also include $500 billion in state aid and $375 billion for local governments, both of which are facing severe budget crunches. You could go further than HEROES, of course. Groups like the Economic Security Project, backed by congressional leaders like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have pushed for regular cash payments of $2,000 per month to all Americans for the duration of the crisis. Another relief bill could include automatic stabilizer provisions so that benefits like the UI boost and stimulus measures continue indefinitely until some objective threshold (like unemployment falling below 5 percent) is reached. The UI provision could be converted into a “job losers’ allowance” that recipients are allowed to keep when they go back to work, as a way to encourage people to take jobs when the economy “reopens.” Gordon, the NYC actor and musician, manages a Facebook group for other New Yorkers dealing with unemployment, and she says many are wrestling now with whether to try to return to work during the pandemic or wait it out. The UI money expiring could force their hands. But it’s not clear there’s even work available for those who want to return. “I have hope that I will have a job once we are called back,” Gordon said. “But I have also seen four people called back for a week and then laid off.” As of now, the Trump administration and its allies in Congress appear set to follow up one of the most ambitious measures adopted in American history with absolutely nothing. The result of that will likely be that all the progress in terms of poverty and recovered spending among the poor enabled by the CARES Act will be undone. That will be a calamity, both for the American people and — ironically — for Republicans’ chances of holding on to the White House and the Senate. 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. 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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