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The most influential work of political philosophy in the last 50 years, briefly explained
Philosopher John Rawls on a trip to Paris in 1987. | Frederic Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images Why John Rawls and A Theory of Justice still matter today. A philosopher once described European philosophy as essentially “a series of footnotes to Plato”; it would be no exaggeration to describe the history of political philosophy over the past half-century as a series of footnotes and responses to John Rawls. The Harvard philosopher looms over contemporary political thought, particularly on the left, in a way rivaled by no other scholar. When he died in 2002, one remembrance noted that over 3,000 articles specifically about Rawls had been published during his lifetime. A Theory of Justice, his most famous work, has been cited nearly 60,000 times by one metric. This year marks its 50th anniversary, with conferences on the occasion at University of Virginia Law School and Notre Dame. The decades after the book’s publication were dominated by responses to Rawls and responses to responses to Rawls. Robert Nozick offered a libertarian rejoinder that nonetheless spoke Rawls’s language; Susan Moller Okin critiqued Rawls’s neglect of the family and gender inequality. Charles Mills argued Rawls’s theory could not take white supremacy seriously as a political system. Tommie Shelby argued that it could. Tim Scanlon brought Rawlsian concepts to bear on individual ethics. Frank Michelman brought Rawls into the law. And so on, for thousands of books and articles. That literature, in turn, has had profound influence on the wider world (Scanlon’s work even inspired a sitcom, of all things). But Rawls’s importance extends far beyond seminar walls and philosophy departments. His language and ideas have penetrated into political life, especially in the UK and US, because of their particular power in analyzing the deep economic inequalities that have grown in developed countries over the last few decades. Fifty years on, Rawls’s most enduring legacy has been helping the generations that came after him make sense of what is unjust about a world characterized by both widespread destitution and outrageous wealth. The veil of ignorance Rawls’s key contribution was reviving the idea of a social contract, as detailed by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau centuries before. The principles of justice that should undergird a society and government, Rawls argued, are those set out in the social contract that members of society would hypothetically agree to behind a “veil of ignorance,” which prevents them from knowing what place in that society they would occupy. The veil is key, because without it a straight white male aristocrat, safe in the knowledge that he would remain an aristocrat in the society he’s designing, would support a social contract with firm hierarchies, where he could continue to lord over his social lessers. But if forced to consider the possibility that he might, instead, be a woman, or Black, or gay, or poor, he (and everyone else) would agree to different, fairer principles. For Rawls, those principles were, in order, that 1) all people should be guaranteed equal basic liberties (to free speech, assembly, religion, etc.); and that 2) economic and social inequalities can exist, but only 2a) when compatible with equality of opportunity and 2b) when those inequalities help the least advantaged in society. The difference principle 2b), better known as the “difference principle,” has become the dominant legacy of Rawls’s work, especially outside philosophy. It tries to avoid a more rigid egalitarianism, in which everyone’s economic outcomes must be equal, by allowing that some variation in resources can be just. If the inventors of the Pfizer vaccine become billionaires in the context of helping the poorest people (in this instance, by helping save their lives), then that inequality can be justified. But if someone becomes a billionaire through rampant insider trading that has no benefit to the worst off, that cannot be justified. As a matter of intellectual history, I think the prominence of the difference principle is slightly odd. Rawls himself argued that both basic liberties and equality of opportunity should take precedence over the difference principle, a point critics like Richard Arneson seized upon; if an aspect of society satisfied the difference principle but denied people equality of opportunity, that aspect of society was unjust, per Rawls. The difference principle plays a much less pronounced role in his theory than in its public reception. But I think the difference principle’s endurance says something important about why Rawls has mattered. Rawls and the New Gilded Age A Theory of Justice was published just as the postwar liberal order in the US and UK was showing signs of strain. The efforts of leaders like Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and (across the pond) Attlee and Wilson to build and sustain inequality-reducing welfare states were beginning to flounder. The war in Vietnam had discredited Great Society liberalism among the young left, and, after Rawls’s book, the gas crisis and inflation would deal it a death blow and usher in Reagan and Thatcher. Many have situated Rawls as an attempt to codify, with only light amendments, this kind of big-government, anticommunist postwar liberalism. Katrina Forrester’s book In the Shadow of Justice is the most nuanced version of this story I’ve seen; Forrester notes that Rawls “gave philosophers a distinctive structure of egalitarian thinking to defend against the libertarian threats to their right and to diffuse the promise of alternatives to their left.” Aaron Wildavsky, a right-leaning political scientist at Berkeley, was harsher, writing of Rawls and LBJ’s Great Society, “After the deed comes the rationalization.” But as much as Rawls was looking back and refining the form of government that characterized the America and Britain where he had spent his adult life, he also, accidentally, wound up looking forward. He provided a language the left could use to describe what was wrong with the subsequent explosion of inequality in wealthy countries. Relevantly, given that he did most of his work during the Cold War, Rawls’s language was non-Marxist. He did not write about class struggle or the power of the working class, much to the consternation of some of his colleagues. But the difference principle provided a distinct way to argue against growing inequality in liberal, non-Marxist language. The problem wasn’t wealth and the existence of a capitalist class, per se. The problem was that this growing inequality provided no benefit, and indeed inflicted harm, on society’s least fortunate. That has proven incredibly important as the wealth gap persists. It’s no accident that Bill Clinton honored Rawls at the White House, telling the audience, “when Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions moved by a remarkable book he wrote, A Theory of Justice.” Barack Obama echoed him subtly but unmistakably in his speeches on income inequality and political tolerance. I don’t want to credit too much of recent center-left politics to Rawls personally; there are probably a few campaign consultants with more influence. But as Marx before him demonstrated, giving people the language to understand what’s wrong with their society can be powerful. Fifty years after Marx first published Das Kapital, the first Marxist state came into existence. Now, 50 years after A Theory of Justice, the book (and the backlash to its influence) stands ascendant as an animating intellectual force behind modern politics. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!
A TikTok food star on why gas stoves are overrated
Jon Kung prefers his portable induction stove to the gas stove in his home kitchen. | Michelle Gerard and Jenna Belevender/Courtesy of Jon Kung As the natural gas industry tries to defend its turf, chefs are touting the benefits of induction cooking. The American stovetop is increasingly a battleground in a war over the fate of the 70 million buildings powered by natural gas. On one side of the stove wars is the natural gas utility industry, which has tried to thwart cities considering phasing out gas in buildings. One of its PR strategies has been to hire influencers to tout what they love about cooking with gas to generate public opposition to city efforts. On the other side are climate and public health advocates who point to years of mounting scientific evidence on what combusting methane in a kitchen does to one’s health. Even the relatively small amount of gas burned by the stove has an outsized effect on indoor health because it releases nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, two pollutants known to increase risks of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Dozens of cities in California have passed stronger building codes that encourage new construction to be powered by electricity instead of natural gas pipelines. New York City and Eugene, Oregon, may be the next cities to adopt these ordinances. As more cities move to electricity, what will replace gas stoves? Instead of the electric coiled stoves Americans have learned to hate, there is a newer technology that many chefs prefer: induction. One of the foodie influencers weighing in is the rising TikTok star Jon Kung, a Detroit-based chef who adopted induction years ago because it keeps his kitchen cool and his air cleaner. Kung, who grew up in Toronto and Hong Kong, learned to love induction while training in China, where induction is more common than in the US. He considers the climate benefits of a stove powered by an increasingly clean grid an added bonus. Kung’s home kitchen has a gas stove. But he almost always uses a portable induction cooktop — for private dinners and pop-up events he’s hosted around Detroit and, more recently, for his short, playful cooking tutorials on TikTok, where he’s amassed 1.5 million followers. Climate advocates have sought to elevate Kung and other chefs with their own education campaign on induction. In March, the group Mothers Out Front hired Kung for a paid promotion on why he prefers induction to gas. I called up Kung to learn more about why the health and working conditions of kitchens are less safe than most people realize, and the role chefs can play in advocating for environmental and worker health. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Rebecca Leber Let’s start with the basics. What is induction? Jon Kung Essentially, induction stoves use a magnetic field to heat the pan itself from within. [Only certain kinds of pans work with induction.] With gas, the flame heats underneath to get the pan hot. You’ll hear a fan go off to keep the induction burner cool itself, but you’re literally pressing a button and turning it on. Rebecca Leber What do you see as the environmental benefits of induction? Jon Kung Gas stoves produce a lot of indoor air pollution, there’s a lot of exhaust and fumes. After a certain period of time, your gas stove will burn less and less cleanly. With induction, the pollution is limited to what you generate to make that electricity. In an electric grid that uses hydroelectric, solar, or wind power, you’re actually using cleaner sources of power to cook with. It just depends what your grid is like. So, for example, I am building a home that is all induction and will be installing solar power on the roof at that home. Most of my energy for home-use cooking will be generated through clean energy. Rebecca Leber What was your introduction to induction cooking? Jon Kung I’ve had the pleasure of working in both large kitchens that use gas and large kitchens that use induction. [The latter] was over seven years ago, I was working at this 24-hour restaurant in Macau in China. All of the facilities that I was using were all 100 percent induction. There were woks the size of me to boil water for pasta and noodles. Rebecca Leber And lately you’ve been using induction for doing pop-up dinners and cooking at home, right? Jon Kung In my own home kitchen I’m doing as much induction as I possibly can, just for the sake of my own comfort and issues like indoor air pollution. It’s just a much more efficient way of cooking in the sense that any of the heat you need to do your job is concentrated at what you’re trying to cook, not just displaced into the room and your body. Rebecca Leber Interesting you say you used induction out of necessity. What made it a necessity? Jon Kung Lack of ventilation was the biggest thing because I lived in a super-old building in Detroit, and even though there was a gas range in there, there was no ventilation that was helpful. It predated any kind of safety and health regulations. Because of that, I started using induction ranges. I was also doing pop-ups in places like museums where it was really important I didn’t have a lot of exhaust in these rooms. So induction does seem like the natural way to go because it provided me with the power I need, with portability and cleanliness, and lack of fumes that requires me to have a fan. Whenever I tried to cook at my home [with gas] in the same way that I cook in that restaurant, I set off the fire alarm because there wasn’t enough ventilation. The fans just weren’t strong enough to take in all of the smoke and gas. Rebecca Leber You’ve worked in professional kitchens in restaurants, too. What’s it like in a restaurant kitchen that is relying on gas? Jon Kung The heat is uncomfortable. It’s almost like disregard for the comfort of workers the way that kitchen life here is just accepted. You’re supposed to suffer for your art and for your craft here, and the open flame cooking is just one of the components of that. If we ever got a break at all, I would run downstairs just to change a T-shirt because one of them was so soaked that you literally could wring through it. We would get that sweaty depending on how much the restaurant cares to put in the appropriate ventilation. We’d go to the walk-in coolers and freezers and we’d be steaming off of our skin simply because we’re so hot. Rebecca Leber What about air quality? Jon Kung Because of workplace regulations, the ventilation for professional kitchens has to be so much stronger than what people have at home. It all depends on the [restaurant] owner; how much money the owner is willing to spend could determine what kind of air quality you have. If you did all induction, that just takes that factor completely out of it — all you need is ventilation that will get steam and some heat out of there. But you won’t need to force fumes into one specific direction to prevent it from going into your lungs. Gas burners, if they ever burn clean in a professional setting, would probably only be that way for the first month. Those things are, by and large, so dirty and get so clogged and become so inefficient over time. Very few kitchens operate at 100 percent efficiency and 100 percent cleanliness, simply because manpower isn’t there to maintain restaurants in that way. There’s no way that being around any of that is good for you. Especially if that is your job, being there 12 to 14 hours a day. Over time it creates a very unsafe environment for our workers’ long-term health and well-being. Rebecca Leber I’m not sure home cooks always think about ventilation either. Most gas stovetops, like your apartment kitchen, aren’t even equipped with a hood that vents to the air outside. At best, they have a fan that recirculates polluted air. What’s ventilation like in a restaurant kitchen versus at home? Jon Kung Having working ventilation is part of the health code to make sure your restaurant is approved to run. And it’s usually really powerful to the point that you have these fans going and it’s really hard to hear people right next to you because they’re just so loud. These ventilation systems are not in everyone’s home. Even though the gas burners may not be quite as strong, I don’t see how these little microwave-over-the-range things are doing enough to mitigate the pollution caused by these burners. Obviously, even when you’re using induction, you’re gonna want ventilation for things like offsetting steam, for when you’re boiling water or when you’re frying food. But ventilation is mainly there to take in the fumes of your gas burner. You don’t really need strong ventilation if you were just using electric burners, but because most people use gas they need one that is stronger. Rebecca Leber What would it take for more restaurants to adopt induction burners? Jon Kung There are no financial incentives to get people to adopt this new technology. Especially in the restaurant industry where margins are so small people are terrified to try anything new because what is new might be something that doesn’t work. Certainly high-end restaurants have the budgets to do this. [Dan Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants in New York use both kinds of stoves.] It seems like when you have a lot of money, that’s when you’re able to budget a damn to give for the quality of life for your workers because restaurants at that caliber have a high interest in retaining workers. Therefore, every little bit helps, including maintaining comfort, health, and safety for those workers. But when you’re trying to talk about people on the ground level, people that are operating at a loss in their restaurant and restaurant groups, then that becomes a little less of a priority. Rebecca Leber What is your advice for the readers who are mulling over a kitchen renovation or are eyeing a plug-in induction stovetop? Jon Kung There are simple plug-in burners that people can use that cost $200. [There are other models for under $100.] The quality will vary based on how much money you’re willing to spend. At the same time, the cost of adopting this just to try is relatively low, and people might appreciate the fact that they can actually use this burner anywhere in their kitchen and can maximize use of counter space or whatnot. Rebecca Leber Is there much of a learning curve to induction? Jon Kung As with any kind of tactile skill and everything that is different or new, it takes a little bit of time to get used to. Honestly, if people just give it a shot, they’ll realize it’s a lot more like gas cooking than people give it credit for. The trade-off of adopting induction is learning a new kind of timing for your cooking. Also: Make sure that your pans are compatible. If a magnet will stick to your pan, it should work. Cast iron works beautifully with it as well — if you have a saucepan or dutch oven. Rebecca Leber There’s a lot of myth-building around gas cooking and its place in the food and restaurant industry. What do you think is the biggest myth? Jon Kung Any argument or reluctance to adopt induction seems to come from a refusal to change and possibly an old toxic masculine perspective, where it’s, “Oh, I want to cook with fire, fire is part of our job.” I’ve never heard any argument for gas that really makes sense from a professional standpoint except maybe for initial investment and cost. But otherwise, any kind of romance of cooking doesn’t come from a place of logic. It comes from a place of nostalgia, which is not really how to run a business. Rebecca Leber What is the role of chefs like you doing this kind of advocacy? Jon Kung If we normalize induction in the restaurant it becomes something desirable to people at home because they want to be able to do everything the pros do. And it’s funny because the best of the best have already adopted this technology. I just don’t think anyone’s really vocal about it yet, for whatever reason. But chefs will do it for one of a few reasons. One might be for the environment, one might be workers’ safety and comfort. Either way, both of those things apply to your home.
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Facebook still won’t give up Instagram for Kids
Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testifying at a Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. | Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Even under serious political pressure, the company insists its products aren’t inherently harmful for young users. Following damaging internal leaks that showed Instagram can negatively impact teens’ mental health, Instagram said it would halt its plan to build a version of its app for kids. But on Wednesday, the company revealed it hasn’t ruled out making an “Instagram for Kids” one day. At a Senate hearing on Instagram’s impact on children and teens on Wednesday, when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri if he would commit to permanently stopping development of Instagram for Kids, Mosseri responded: What I can commit to you today is that no child between the ages of 10 to 12 — should we ever manage to build Instagram for 10- to 12-year-olds — will have access to that without explicit parental consent. In other words, Mosseri was saying that Instagram may still build a product for kids, despite facing months of heavy public outrage and political pressure to abandon those plans. The exchange reveals a deeper takeaway from the hearing: Instagram — and its parent company Meta (formerly Facebook) — do not seem to believe their product is harmful enough to children and teens that it needs radical change. That’s in spite of internal company research leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, which showed that one in three teenage girls who felt bad about their bodies said Instagram made them feel worse. The research also showed that 13 percent of British teenage users and 6 percent of American teenage users who had suicidal thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram. While Mosseri struck a thoughtful and serious tone at the hearing when discussing topics like teen suicide, he minimized his company’s own research that showed Instagram can contribute to teenage depression and denied that Instagram is addictive. His answers seemed to do little to reassure the remarkably bipartisan group of US lawmakers at the hearing, who say they believe Instagram is damaging teenagers’ mental health. These lawmakers say they are committed to passing legislation that could force Facebook and other tech companies to change their businesses to better protect children. Instagram’s impact on teenage mental health has become a lightning rod in larger conversations about regulating social media, at a time when a growing proportion of the US public is increasingly distrustful of major tech companies. But Facebook and Instagram continue to downplay this harm. When Blumenthal asked Mosseri if he supports legislation to outlaw social media apps that are designed to be addictive for certain users, Mosseri replied, “Senator, respectfully, I don’t believe the research suggests that our products are addictive. Research actually shows that on 11 of 12 difficult issues that teens face, teens who are struggling said that Instagram helps more than harms.” “We can debate the meaning of the word ‘addicted,’ but the fact is that teens who go to the platform find it difficult and maybe sometimes impossible to stop,” said Blumenthal. Another illustrative moment in the two-and-a-half-hour hearing was a back-and-forth between Mosseri and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). While Cruz has used past hearings about social media to promote partisan concerns about alleged conservative censorship, this time, the legislator stayed focused on the issue of children’s mental health. When Cruz pressed Mosseri about the internal research about Instagram’s harm to teenagers with body image issues and suicidal thoughts, Mosseri again argued that on the whole, Instagram made life better for teens. “If we’re going to have a conversation about the research, I think we need to be clear about what it actually says. It actually showed that one out of three girls who suffer from body image issues find that Instagram makes things worse, and that came from a slide with 23 other statistics where more teens found that Instagram makes things better,” said Mosseri. In a later exchange, Mosseri said that social media platforms like Instagram have “helped important movements like body positivity to flourish. … It has helped diversify the definitions of beauty, and that’s something that we think is incredibly important.” These defenses didn’t seem to soften lawmakers’ stances. “I’m a mom; I’m a grandma. ... I have a 12- and 13-year-old grandson. I’m talking to parents all the time,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) at a press conference after the hearing. “And we know that [in] the vast number of stories that we are hearing, so many of the parents mentioned the adverse impact” of social media. Blackburn called Mosseri’s assertion that Instagram does more good than harm to teen users “astounding,” and said that “really sounded removed from the situation.” This all makes it clear that Facebook has lost significant trust with lawmakers. Whatever goodwill the company might have had on Capitol Hill a decade ago, when Facebook was still in its infancy and thought of by many as a universal social good, has been drastically diminished after years of controversy over the company’s struggles with privacy, hate speech, and other harmful content on its platforms. “Big Tech loves to use grand, eloquent phrases about bringing people together, but the simple reality and why so many Americans distrust Big Tech is: You make money,” said Cruz. It’s still too soon to say if Congress will actually pass legislation to force Facebook and other social media companies to fundamentally change their businesses to better protect teens and other users. Right now, there are several bills out to create stronger privacy laws, to establish penalties for Facebook if it allows damaging content to surface, and to mandate that Facebook must share more data with outside researchers to assess the harms of its products. So far, none of these bills have passed or are even close to passing. But this hearing reaffirmed how Democrats and Republicans are in increasing lockstep that something must be done on the topic of how social media can harm teens. Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO and founder of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which promotes safe technology and media for children and families, has long advocated for Congress to pass legislation that would better protect children on the platform by safeguarding their privacy and other measures. He said that even though Congress hasn’t moved quickly enough, he thinks Wednesday’s hearing is a sign that momentum is building for real legislation. “We’ve seen this movie way too many times before when it comes to Facebook and Instagram — and it’s time for action by Congress on a bipartisan basis period, full stop,” he said. “But I do think it’s going to happen now.”
Wait, is Russia going to invade Ukraine?
A Ukrainian soldier walks under a camouflage net in a trench on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on December 3. | Andriy Dubchak/AP A Russian troop buildup at Ukraine’s border threatens to intensify a long-running conflict. A troubling buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border has Kyiv, Washington, and pretty much everyone else asking if Russia is about to invade Ukraine — again. The US and its allies, including Ukraine, are trying to forestall that scenario, most recently in a two-hour video call Tuesday between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the call, Biden told Putin the “US and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures” if Russia pursued military escalation, according to the White House, and called for a return to diplomacy. To be clear, a military option is not among the “other measures,” as Biden said Wednesday sending US troops unilaterally was “not in the cards right now.” The Kremlin’s readout largely blamed Ukraine for the crisis, and NATO, for cooperating with Kyiv. It wanted guarantees against NATO’s eastward expansion, something the US, and NATO, will never give. The call is far from a resolution, but the hope is that it will at least delay any dramatic action. Ahead of the meeting between the two leaders, US intelligence officials warned that Russia was planning a major military offensive into Ukraine, launching as many as 175,000 troops into the country as soon as early next year. Russia had already been amassing troops and equipment along parts of Ukraine’s border, placing about 70,000 troops there, according to a recent US estimate. Ukrainian officials put the number higher, at more than 90,000. These troop buildups had intensified fears that Russia would invadeUkraine, throwing the region into conflict and the European continent into deep crisis. In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, and aided a rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where pro-Russia separatists now control breakaway parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. A peace process in 2014 and 2015, known as the Minsk agreement, was never fully implemented, and hostilities turned into this simmering conflict that still has, in seven years, killed more than 14,000 people. This tenuous status quo has prevailed for years, and though a terrible result, especially for those in and near the fighting, it maybe wasn’t the worst outcome possible. Russia could keep Ukraine on edge because of constant unrest in eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine could get aid and attention from Western countries because of Russia’s aggression. “That was, to a large extent, the conventional wisdom,” said Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia with the International Crisis Group. “When Russia poured troops into the neighborhood, it led to this realization of, ‘Oh, maybe they’re not so happy with the situation as it is.’” Troops are definitely in the neighborhood, though Putin has denied any intention of launching an attack. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said last month that Moscow “never planned, never did, and is never going to do it unless we’re provoked by Ukraine, or by somebody else.” That may also depend on what Russia interprets as a provocation. Putin sees Ukraine’s closer cooperation with the West, specifically NATO, as leading toward an unacceptable outcome for Moscow: Ukraine’s potential membership in the alliance. Preventing Ukraine’s incorporation into Western organizations like NATO, but also the European Union, was part of the motivation for Russia’s incursions into Ukraine in 2014, said Sarah Pagung, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But what we’ve actually seen over the last years is Ukraine, as a consequence of the Crimean annexation, more intensively pursued the path of Western integration,” she said. None of these dynamics are entirely new, though experts said there are a few factors that might explain why Ukraine-Russia tensions are spiraling right now, including Russia’s dissatisfaction with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s continued orientation toward NATO, and a sense that the West is preoccupied. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits troops in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on December 6. War isn’t inevitable, and it would come with significant costs to Russia, too. But there are also tactics short of a full-on war that could still cause havoc for Ukraine. But what happens next, and the possible outcomes, remain uncertain. “The problem is we don’t know what Putin wants, and this is really the bottom line,” said Alexander Motyl, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at Rutgers University-Newark. “Is he testing? Is he invading? Is he teaching the Ukrainians a lesson? We don’t know. And so it’s hard to do anything, because we don’t know what [Putin] wants, and we don’t know how far he’s willing to go.” What has changed that Russia is building up troops on the Ukrainian border? The current Ukraine-Russia crisis is a continuation of 2014, which itself was linked to a deep-rooted historical narrative in Russia held byPutin and many Russian elites. “Their No. 1 objective is to reestablish as much of the old empire as it could — Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “I think this is part of the legacy that President Putin sees for [himself].” Ukraine is central to this vision. Culturally and economically, Putin sees Ukraine as tied to Russia. Putin used his hot vax summer to publish an article about how Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” according to an English translation posted on the Kremlin’s website. For him, the ex-Soviet Republic is not really a sovereign state, but belongs to Russia, or at least would if not for the meddling from outside forces (read: the West) that have created a “wall” between the two. “Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia,” Putin wrote. This issue of Ukraine being a “springboard” for military actionagainst Russia is also unacceptable to Putin. He wants to recreate a “sphere of influence” for Moscow, and Ukraine is the buffer between it and NATO. As Ukraine moves closer to the West, that buffer crumbles. “The reason there’s a war in Ukraine has a lot to do with Russia’s perception of the post-Cold War order in Europe, this notion that Western states have been moving closer and closer to Russia’s borders, and indeed, gobbling up its natural sphere of influence,” Oliker said. “Ukraine’s the front line on that.” Andriy Dubchak/AP Ukrainian soldiers walk at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on December 7. But recent political developments within Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and Russia help explain why tensions are flaring at this moment. Among those developments are the 2019 election of Ukrainian president Zelensky. In addition to the other thing you might remember Zelensky for, he promised during his campaign he would seek a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He said that would include dealing with Putin directly to resolve the conflict. Russia, too, likely thought it could get something out of this: a potentially malleable Zelensky who might be more open to Russia’s point of view. That includes Russia’s desire to have Ukraine reincorporate separatist regions back into the country and hold elections, as outlined in the Minsk agreement. That sounds like something Ukraine would want until you recognize Russia has since effectively taken over those breakaway regions, and so it would really be, as one expert said, a “Trojan horse” for Moscow to wield influence and control Ukraine. Such a concession would be politically untenable for Zelensky based on the current situation on the ground, which forced Zelensky to take a tougher line on Russia and turn to the West for help. Beyond partnerships with NATO, Zelensky has even talked openly about joining NATO. For Putin, pining for his estranged brothers, this confirmed his worst fears. “In getting to the point [where] Zelensky was calling for outright membership in NATO and crossing what Russia has long viewed as one of their red lines — I think that does help to explain why Russians felt an impetus to threaten far greater and new use of direct military force,” said Zachary Witlin, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group. Just because Zelensky is asking when Kyiv gets itself into NATO does not actually mean Ukrainian membership is a realistic possibility. NATO and member-states within NATO like the US and Great Britain are cooperating with Ukraine on security, they’re helping in training and reforms, and providing (or selling) military equipment. But a close partnership is not the same as membership, as it doesn’t come with the obligation of mutual defense, and the NATO countries don’t exactly want to sign themselves up for a potential war with Russia. Of course, NATO will never say Ukrainian membership is off the table because this is what Putin wants. Putin asked President Biden for legal guarantees that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward or put weapons systems in Ukraine during their call Tuesday; US officials said they would never make such assurances. Still, Ukraine’s closer cooperation with NATO is undeniable, said Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Politics Institute. “Putin and Kremlin understand that Ukraine will not be a part of NATO,” Bortnik said. “But Ukraine became an informal member of NATO without a formal decision.” That may have left Russia feeling as though it had exhausted all of its political and diplomatic tools to bring Ukraine back into the fold. “Moscow security elites feel that they have to act now because if they don’t, military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine will become even more intense and even more sophisticated,” Pagung, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said. This is also not the first time Putin has signaled that he is prepared to ramp up pressure on Ukraine. In the spring of 2021, Russia began gathering forces and equipment near parts of the Ukrainian border under the guise of “readiness exercises.” AP People adjust a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin attached to a balloon during an anniversary celebration of the 2014 Crimean annexation in Sevastopol, Crimea, on March 18. Experts said this current buildup is a continuation of that, though Putin’s troop buildup also looked very much like a signal to the new administration in Washington, with a specific message to the White House that it should not underestimate, or forget about, Moscow’s ability to cause mayhem. Putin more or less got his wish, in the form of a summit in Geneva with the new US president. Not long after plans for the get-together were announced, Putin began drawing down some of the troops on the Ukrainian border. But Putin’s own perspective on the US has also shifted, experts said, with things like the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal (which Moscow would know something about) and the US’s own domestic turmoil revealing signs of fragility. “Instead of being fear-driven by the fear that America is strong and will come after them, now they’re opportunity-driven: they think that America is weak, and maybe in the spring we have just missed the chance,” said Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. All of this may make Russia feel a bit opportunistic. The United States is distracted by its domestic agenda and wants to focus on China. Europe is dealing with its own internal crises, like a rebellious Poland, tensions with Belarus, a hangover from Brexit, and a surging coronavirus wave. Germany has a new chancellor; France has elections soon. Those distractions, combined with Ukraine’s resistance and affinity for NATO, may embolden Putin. Some experts noted Putin has his own domestic pressures to deal with, including the coronavirus and a struggling economy, and he may think such an adventure will boost his standing at home, just like it did in 2014. “There may be a sense of now or never,” Motyl said. “We recapture this place, which shouldn’t have been independent in the first place. Perhaps they made a mistake, and we need to rectify that.” So what happens now? Biden and Putin didn’t come to a real resolution over Ukraine during their Tuesday meeting. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said Wednesday that the two leaders did agree to talks to discuss this “complex, confrontational situation.” The White House readout said that the two sides would follow up, and the US “would do so in close cooperation with its allies.” Biden spoke to US allies after the Putin call, and is speaking Thursday to Zelensky. Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with President Joe Biden via videoconference in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, on December 7. US and NATO officials have repeatedly indicated they’re not interested in a head-to-head military conflict with Russia over Ukraine, which means the US and its allies are most likely looking at some sort of economic pressure on Russia.Some reporting suggests that any Russian provocation would effectively kill Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany that’s not yet up and running. Biden had waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2 in the spring, a concession, in part, to its ally Germany, but something Russia also saw as a win. Experts said there are other sanction options that could put pressure on Russia, such as cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the international payments system. “I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. But tens of thousands of Russian troops are still at Ukraine’s borders, an undeniable threat. “The problem with these concentrations of troops is that this can come also as an embarrassment for Putin if he does not get anything of the sort out of it,” said Andreas Umland, a Kyiv-based analyst for the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies. And that something is not necessarily all-out war. Russia has already invaded Ukraine and is supporting separatists in Donbas (though it denies it). The heightened tensions mean Ukraine is also on high alert, and its military may be stretched as it tries to fend off a possible attack. Russia could take advantage and try to expand the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “The fact is, Putin can try to destabilize the Ukrainians by inflicting more casualties and trying to escalate. And from there, I can see, ‘Okay, can I go further? Or will the West react?’” Gressel said. This may even be the more likely scenario, and experts in the US, Europe, and Ukraine that I spoke to do not think war is inevitable, though it is undeniably a very dangerous situation. Putin’s ultimate goal is to get Ukraine to do what he wants, and what he wants is Ukraine to come back under its influence and control. But even a large-scale evasion might not achieve that, and it would come with extreme costs for Russia. Russia could ultimately outmatch Ukraine’s military, but it would not be a bloodless fight. Russian soldiers would die — despite Putin’s propaganda that suggests Ukraine would welcome Russia as its liberator. A war with Ukraine could lead to an occupation, an insurgency, and the destruction of the country. No rational leader would attempt that, Motyl said. “And the answer to that is: But is Putin rational?”
The Supreme Court appears really eager to force taxpayers to fund religious education
Reproductive rights and anti-abortion protesters rally outside the US Supreme Court before the start of oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on December 1, 2021. | Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Carson v. Makin appears likely to end in another transformative victory for the religious right. At an oral argument held Wednesday morning, all six members of the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared likely to blow a significant new hole in the wall separating church and state. The case is Carson v. Makin; the question is whether the state of Maine is required to subsidize religious education; and the majority’s answer appears, at least under certain circumstances, to be yes. Under current law, as Justice Elena Kagan noted during Wednesday’s argument, the question of whether to fund religious education is typically left up to elected officials. Maine’s legislators decided not to do so when they drafted the state’s unusual tuition voucher program that’s at issue in Carson, and is meant to ensure that children in sparsely populated areas still receive a free education. The overwhelming majority of Maine schoolchildren attend a school designated by their local school district. But a small minority — fewer than 5,000 students, according to the state — live in rural areas where it is not cost-effective for the state to either operate its own public school or contract with a nearby school to educate local students. In these areas, students are provided a subsidy, which helps them pay tuition at the private school of their family’s choice. The issue in Carson is that only “nonsectarian” schools are eligible for this subsidy. Families may still send their children to religious schools, but the state will not pay for children to attend schools that seek to inculcate their students into a religious faith. All six of the Court’s Republican appointees appeared to think that this exclusion for religious schools is unconstitutional — meaning that Maine would be required to pay for tuition at pervasively religious schools. Notably, that could include schools that espouse hateful worldviews. According to the state, one of the plaintiff families in Carson wants the state to pay for a school that requires teachers to sign a contract stating that “the Bible says that ‘God recognize[s] homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’” and that “[s]uch deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’” In the likely event that these plaintiffs’ families prevail, that will mark a significant escalation in the Court’s decisions benefiting the religious right — even if the Court limits the decision narrowly to Maine’s situation.Shortly after Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation gave Republicans a 6-3 supermajority on the Supreme Court, the Court handed down a revolutionary decision holding that people of faith may seek broad exemptions from the laws that apply to anyone else. But the Court has historically been more reluctant to require the government to tax its citizens and spend that money on religion. That reluctance may very well be gone. The Court’s conservative majority wants to redefine what constitutes religious “discrimination” The purpose of Maine’s exclusion for sectarian schools, according to Christopher Taub, the lawyer given the unfortunate task of defending that exclusion against a hostile Supreme Court, is to ensure that the state remains “neutral and silent” on questions of religion. For many years, the Constitution was understood to require this kind of neutrality. As the Court held in Everson v. Board of Education(1947), “no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.” Everson was effectively abandoned by the Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which a 5-4 Court upheld a pilot program in Ohio that provided tuition vouchers funding private education — including at religious schools. But Zelman, as Kagan pointed out today, merely held that states “could” fund religious education if they chose to do so. Nothing in that decision prevents states from adopting the same neutral posture toward religion that was once required by cases like Everson. On Wednesday, however, several members of the Court’s Republican-appointed majority questioned whether religious neutrality is even possible, and suggested that Maine’s efforts to remain neutral on questions of religion are themselves a form of discrimination against people of faith. Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, proposed a hypothetical involving two private schools. One of these schools teaches its religious beliefs openly and explicitly, and it also teaches a particular set of religious values in the process. The other school might eschew explicit references to God or to a holy text, but it teaches a different value system that is motivated by religious beliefs. If the state funds the latter school but not the former one, Roberts asked, why is it not drawing “distinctions based on doctrine”? Justice Samuel Alito, meanwhile, offered the Fox News version of Roberts’s argument. Maine’s law, Alito noted, does not contain explicit exemptions for private schools that teach white supremacy or critical race theory, but it does explicitly exempt religious schools from its tuition program. The implication was that Maine is discriminating against religion and in favor of critical race theory. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, meanwhile, offered the most direct version of this argument that neutrality toward religion is the same thing as discrimination. “Discriminating against all religions” is still unlawful discrimination, Kavanaugh told Taub — a position that is difficult to square with the text of the First Amendment, which prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” It should be noted that Roberts and Kavanaugh are, while both very conservative, the most moderate members of the Court’s six-justice conservative bloc. So if both of these justices vote against Maine, it’s hard to imagine how the state finds five votes to sustain its law. That said, there is an off chance that the Court will dismiss this case. Early in the oral argument, Justice Clarence Thomas pointed to the fact that his Court may not have jurisdiction to hear the Carson case. Under Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife(1992), federal courts may not hear a lawsuit unless the injury alleged by the plaintiffs can be “redressed by a favorable decision.” But, according to Maine, both of the plaintiff families want to send their children to schools that might refuse state funds even if such funds are offered to them — because Maine forbids all entities that receive state subsidies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Even if the Court were to order Maine to provide tuition subsidies to religious schools, in other words, the plaintiffs in Carson might wind up with nothing, because their preferred schools could choose to keep their anti-LGBTQ policies intact instead of receiving state subsidies. Nevertheless, even if the Court does ultimately decide to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, that will only delay a reckoning over public funding for religious institutions. Eventually, some lawyer will find a school that is willing to accept state funding. And when that happens, there will likely be at least five votes on the Supreme Court to hand that lawyer a victory. The justices are likely to place some limits on its decision in Carson, but it’s not yet clear how they will justify those limits Although the six conservative justices showed little sympathy for Maine’s position — or for existing law — on Wednesday, some of them did suggest that there should be some limits on a decision forcing states to fund religion. Roberts, for example, suggested that he might strike down a program that gave money directly to religious institutions in order to fund religious programs, rather than providing tuition grants to parents who then turn that money over to a religious school. Suppose that a state has a program that funds building construction at private schools, Roberts suggested at one point, but that also provides that the money cannot be used to build a chapel. He appeared to be suggesting that such an exclusion for chapel construction is permissible. Similarly, Kavanaugh asked Michael Bindas, the lawyer challenging Maine’s program, whether religious families are entitled to tuition vouchers merely because their state funds ordinary public schools. Bindas denied that tuition vouchers are required under these circumstances, pointing to a line in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) stating that “a State need not subsidize private education.” But it’s hard to draw a principled line between a Court decision requiring Maine to fund religious education as part of its existing private school tuition program and a decision requiring all states with a public school system to fund religious education. In his brief, Bindas argues that policies that require religious families to “choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit” are unconstitutional. But if the Constitution does not permit states to force families to choose between receiving a free education and a religious one, then then it’s unclear why this rule wouldn’t threaten any public school system. Traditional public education, where students attend a government-run school for free, is a government benefit. All families who send their children to private, religious schools choose to forgo this government benefit. So, under the rule articulated in Bindas’s brief, every state may be required to pay for private tuition at religious schools. In any event, the Court has previously drawn unprincipled lines that are difficult to square with legal texts and existing doctrines. So if five justices are bothered by the possibility that ordinary public school districts may be required to fund religious education, they could simply declare that such a thing is not required and leave it at that. Proponents of a wall of separation between church and state can take some minor comfort in that fact. At the very least, however, the Court appears likely to hand down a transformative decision rethinking much of its approach to religion — and to force at least some states to fund religious education in the process.
What’s up with the debt ceiling?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber at the US Capitol on December 7. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images The Senate has come up with a unique solution to avoid default. The Senate is finally doing away with the filibuster — for one vote. In order to address an impasse over the debt ceiling, Democratic and Republican leaders have agreed to a measure that raises the debt limit with just 51 votes, instead of the 60 that are required if a bill is filibustered. The House already passed the measure on Tuesday night, and the Senate is set to consider it later this week. Stopping a minority of senators from blocking the bill’s passage is an interesting resolution to a longstanding disagreement the two parties have had regarding how to deal with the debt ceiling (a legal cap to how much the US can borrow). Every year to two years, lawmakers have to either raise or suspend the debt ceiling to make sure that the US is able to cover its spending, a vote Republicans are currently using as a messaging opportunity. For months, Republicans have tried to push Democrats into raising the debt ceiling on their own in order to paint Democrats as big spenders. Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that this vote should be bipartisan, because both parties are responsible for the accrued debt. Additionally, Democrats have shied away from raising the debt limit unilaterally via budget reconciliation — a process that allows a measure to pass the Senate with a simple majority — because of how arduous and time-consuming that approach would likely be. The contours of this argument have stayed consistent since October. But a rapidly approaching debt ceiling deadline of December 15 (per estimates from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen), and fears regarding the fallout from a potential default, have led Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to find a joint solution this time around. Though each leader wanted to force the other party into submission, neither wanted to risk the potentially catastrophic economic effects that going past this deadline could have. The two leaders have both backed a deal that involves passing a bill allowing Senate Democrats to approve a debt ceiling increase with 51 votes. This move would enable Democrats to address the debt ceiling on their own, while avoiding the use of budget reconciliation to do so. Additionally, it requires Democrats to list a specific number that the debt ceiling will be increased by, a provision Republicans have wanted so they can use this figure to frame the party as a group of reckless spenders. Essentially, it’s a one-time suspension of the filibuster, which requires legislation to have 60 Senate votes to pass if it gets blocked. Republicans opted to go this circuitous route because they’ve long wanted to claim that they didn’t vote in favor of a debt ceiling increase. However, failing to increase the debt limit was not seen as an option by leadership, due to the negative economic consequences that would have. This put Republicans in a bind, particularly because certain members could have filibustered a debt ceiling increase again, as they did in October. That would have forced members of the conference to vote in favor of overcoming the blockade, much as some had to do previously. In this case, they are technically voting to approve another bill that allows Democrats to pass the debt ceiling increase unilaterally, and can now say that they did not vote in favor of the increase. “We want a simple majority without a convoluted, risky, lengthy process and it looks like Republicans will help facilitate that,” Schumer said in a press conference Tuesday. Schumer and McConnell both announced their support for the proposal on Tuesday. To make it through the Senate, it will need the support of 10 Republicans to overcome any potential attempts to filibuster it, votes which GOP leaders said they’re confident they’ll have. Once it’s approved by both chambers, Democrats will effectively be able to advance the suspension of the debt ceiling without needing to worry about the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster. Previously, lawmakers had discussed pairing a debt limit increase with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual bill that lays out plans for military funding, in order to garner GOP support. They’ve since dropped that approach, however, due to bipartisan pushback. After weeks on negotiation on that bill, congressional leaders announced a compromise version on Tuesday; that, too, cleared the House this week and is expected to pass the Senate before the end of this year. Separating the debt limit and NDAA, and creating a one-time filibuster carve-out is a solution that allows both parties to claim some sort of victory. Republicans are able to say that they made Democrats raise the debt limit and to get them on the record for a specific amount (which could be as high as $2.5 trillion, according to the New York Times). Democrats, meanwhile, are able to avoid using budget reconciliation, giving them more time to focus on passing another piece of legislation they’ve struggled to vote into law: the Build Back Better Act, a massive social and climate spending package. The deal, too, probably ensures that the US won’t default on its debts. Why Congress has been fighting over the debt limit Raising or suspending the debt limit, something lawmakers have to do to ensure the country has enough money to cover its past spending, has long been politicized. In the past, both parties have used votes to raise or suspend it as opportunities to accuse the other party of irresponsible spending, with Republicans doing so more frequently in recent years. In reality, additions to the debt — including the most recent ones — have taken place under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And during the Trump administration, debt limit increases received bipartisan backing: In that period, $8 trillion was added to the national debt, and lawmakers voted to suspend the debt limit three times. This year, however, Republicans have been particularly eager to use the debt limit to send a political message, as midterm elections loom in 2022. Because Democrats are attempting to pass a $1.85 trillion social and climate spending bill on their own via budget reconciliation, Republican leaders have argued that they should figure out how to raise the debt ceiling on their own, too. Republicans hope to use a Democratic party-line debt limit vote in campaigns to accuse the other party of adding to the debt. They’re implying that Democrats’ spending bills necessitated the debt limit increase, even though the spending covered by the increase has already happened, with much of it taking place under Trump. The parties have already had this fight this year. The debt default date was originally in October, and Republicans initially refused to help raise the debt limit. They ultimately caved as the default deadline approached. At that time, lawmakers raised it by $480 billion, enough to push the limit date back a few months, and bringing the national debt to roughly $29 trillion. The latest agreement should end this fight, at least temporarily. It would raise the debt limit by enough to cover expenses until roughly next fall, at which point, this battle will be repeated. Since raising or suspending the debt ceiling is must-pass legislation, it should be a routine issue that Congress checks off, not a controversial one. Because it has to pass, however, it’s often been used as an opportunity for the minority party to extract policy concessions or make a political point (for example, that their opposition spends too freely). The fallout from a default would likely be disastrous While there has been significant resistance to a filibuster carve-out in the past — be it for voting rights or for immigration — leaders in both parties were willing to make an exception to the rules this time because neither actually want to default on the debt. (To establish a similar exception for other policies in this way, Democrats would also need 10 Republican votes.) Although it is hard to say for sure what would happen, since the US has never actually defaulted, many economists believe a default would lead to massive economic fallout. “We frequently have drama associated with this decision. But I can assure you the country will never default,” McConnell has said. Were the US to default, it effectively would be unable to pay its bills, forcing the government to delay payments it typically makes, including Social Security payments and federal employee salaries. And because of how interconnected global financial markets are, and because so many countries and institutions are reliant on payments from the US, it could spur a domestic and global financial crisis. Moody’s Analytics has previously estimated that a default would lead to the loss of 6 million jobs and sharp dips in stock prices. Those stakes are even higher given the hits the economy has taken due to widespread shutdowns during the pandemic, and because the US has had the highest unemployment rates it’s seen in years. “America must pay its bills on time and in full,” Yellen has previously said. “If we do not, we will eviscerate our current recovery.” Due to the agreement that’s been reached, Congress is on track to increase the debt ceiling soon, cutting it pretty close with the December 15 deadline Yellen has laid out. If lawmakers keep their plans to extend this ceiling through the midterms, they’ll face another fight over the debt ceiling again next fall.
The books that made us think and act differently this year
These book recommendations from the Vox staff will make you laugh, cry, and really think. The events of the last two years have left a lot in their wake, including despair and loss. Those feelings can cause a tunnel vision that’s hard to snap out of, but reading can help us find a way to escape. We can engage with new ideas, ones that cultivate hope, calm us, and help us to imagine the possibility of a different world. As 2021 draws to a close, we’ve asked members of the Vox staff to share the books that made us think or act differently this year. We hope these books carry you into the new year with a refreshed sense of purpose and peace. —Melinda Fakuade, associate editor, culture and features More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin Harper Perennial More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin Early on in More Home Cooking, the novelist and Gourmet columnist Laurie Colwin confides that she loves to read cookbooks. “I’m very interested in people’s domestic lives,” she explains. “I used to think I was frittering away my time, but the fact is, what is more interesting than how people live? I personally can’t think of anything. Maybe war, or death or something, but not to me. I like to know how they serve food, what they do with it, how it looks.” Colwin, who died in 1992, was celebrated in her lifetime as a quietly elegant novelist of quirky bohemian love stories. But since her death, a cult has developed around her food writing, the columns she wrote for Gourmet magazine in which she celebrated her own domestic life: washing dishes in the bathtub of her tiny East Village apartment, nursing a hangover with veal medallions and watercress, feasting on a roasted turkey neck she kept back for herself after Thanksgiving “without a trace of guilt, because I did all the work.” Colwin’s food writing is built on a commitment to good, simple food, cooked very well; what she describes in one of her novels as a sort of domestic sensuality. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking have both been reissued this year as part of Harper Perennial and Vintage’s Year of Laurie Colwin. Both are excellent, but if you must choose one, go for More Home Cooking. That’s the one that offers up Colwin’s philosophy, her reason for “frittering away her time” on simple domestic concerns like what people eat and the way they eat it. Because what could be more interesting than how people live? —Constance Grady, book critic Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical by Amir Alexander I have felt a lot of things about the layout of the streets of Washington, DC: anger, frustration, general incredulousness that such a nonintuitive mess is allowed to exist. I didn’t think I’d ever feel wonder, or even appreciation. But when I picked up Amir Alexander’s book, Proof!, he took me on a tour of Euclidian geometry, French gardens, and absolute monarchies, which culminated, eventually, in an explanation for why the map of DC is the way it is. Proof! was another reminder to me that everything in the world — even the things that seem the most absurd — is the product of a cultural and social history. Street maps are political arguments. Gardens are essays about power. You just have to dig around a bit (or read Alexander’s work) to understand what is being said. —Byrd Pinkerton, podcast producer Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich I picked up Secondhand Time in early 2021, around the anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdowns. That anniversary coincided with America’s expanded vaccination campaign, and it came with this sense that, finally, this might all be over. Secondhand Time was a reminder that endings are rarely so simple. Alexievich’s book documents the collapse of the Soviet Union through the oral histories of the people who lived it — the soldiers, former party leaders, factory workers. Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, lets her subjects talk. What you get are these intimate portraits of daily life framed against the turmoil of the breakup of the USSR. Together, the oral histories reveal a collective disillusionment with the end of communism, and the gangster capitalism and corruption that replaces it. With that comes nostalgia for Soviet rule, even as people tell harrowing stories of life under it. The past gets reframed in the chaos of the present. This made me think of how we will remember this time — the pandemic, but also the social, political, and economic upheaval that accompanied it. Vox’s Anna North and I put together an oral history of the pandemic from the view of a New York City block, but Secondhand Time made me wonder what people might say in another year, or five, or 10. Alexievich’s work shows memory is as much about what we experienced then as now. Almost two years into a pandemic, we don’t really know where the present is taking us, so we are still making and remaking our collective past. —Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter Grand Central Publishing We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth I adore a point-of-view shift. When a book is written in something other than first-person singular or third-person singular, please place it in my hands immediately. Some readers find this sort of gambit incredibly gimmicky, but not me. The storytelling conventions we follow to explain the world and the people in it very often don’t explain the world or the people in it. That affinity for this sort of device may explain why We Are Watching Eliza Bright might be the book I most fervently devoured this year. Author A.E. Osworth builds this story of a young woman working in the video game industry, who is harassed almost into oblivion by a faceless online mob, in such a way that it makes the most sense in first-person plural. The mob is narrating this book, which means the reader is immediately plunged into “we” statements (like the title!) over and over again. Osworth is canny enough not to leave readers trapped in the POV of a misogynistic mob for their whole book. They find ways to pull out specific subsets of that mob, particularly the queer voices within it, who feel marginalized by the actions of the mob, even as these queer people are, too, “watching Eliza Bright.” You can watch someone online because you’re stalking them, or you can watch them because you want to help them, but the feeling of being watched is still what your target most perceives. Osworth and their novel understand that in a way too much writing about Our Online Life doesn’t. —Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet The history of humanity might best be summed up with, “I told you so.” Really, though, who wants to hear that? I know we’re living through a climate crisis of our own making; I just want a novel to read under the covers, hiding from the burning world. But if we’re going to continue stumbling toward catastrophe — and perhaps try very, very late to do something about that — we could do worse than to have A Children’s Bible at hand. It’s a rare book that can make “I told you so” surprising, horrifying, and screamingly funny. There is still plenty in this tale that author Lydia Millet leaves ambiguous, but the battle lines are clearly drawn from the start: It’s the kids versus the parents who failed the world. The setup is a small-scale disaster. Several well-to-do families are staying at a vacation house by a lake, and everyone is barely keeping it together. Millet wisely uses the opening to make us dislike both camps equally (hard to wring sympathy from neglectful parents or casually cruel rich kids who envy even richer kids). But when push comes to shove, we learn a lot more about where their loyalties lie. Millet is both sensitive and ruthless in probing these dynamics, with too many great lines: He kept a private journal in which his feelings were recorded, possibly. The possibility was widely mocked. The brutal war these characters enter doesn’t allow for much more than grasping for the next lifeline. I kept rooting for them to make it — for their bubble of privilege to extend to the world, rather than be swiftly punctured. There is no straight line connecting art to action. But this book left me ready to join the absurd fight, too. —Tim Williams, deputy style and standards editor Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke I’m slowly but surely recovering the ability to read after many, many months spent unable to look a novel in the eye. Part of what’s helped me get back into my usual cadence is listening to audiobooks, and Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing was such a delight that I finished the whole thing in one sitting. It’s a novel told entirely via Slack messages, with a fully acted voice cast, and features at its center a guy whose consciousness has been somehow trapped inside the app itself. From there, it twines outward, giving glimpses of the mundane and thrilling conversations that hum underneath the activity of most white-collar workplaces. The novel could not have been more prescient given our remote-work-inclined reality at the moment. Kasulke’s writing is clever and coy, and frequently captures the precise turns of phrase that I, a Slack-happy millennial middle manager, found so instantly recognizable as to be embarrassing. What the experience of reading (or, you know, hearing) the book did most for me, though, was remind me of all the ways there are to tell a story — even using the distinctly unglamorous tools with which so many of us organize our professional lives. If you are someone who’s at all interested in how narratives are shaped, this novel is well worth checking out, in whatever form your addled little brain can handle. —Alanna Okun, senior editor of The Goods We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America by Jennifer Silva If you want to understand why white working-class voters are so attracted to Donald Trump and Trumpism, you shouldn’t go into a diner and talk to the first white people you find. You need to do what Jennifer Silva does here: spend years developing deep personal relationships with residents of a Pennsylvania coal town, and talking through their values, hopes, and fears. Silva did not set out to write a book about the 2016 election, and that remains only part of the work she did write. She spends much of the book getting to know the town’s large and growing Black and Puerto Rican populations, and recounting the prejudice and discrimination that have met them as they moved to the region. But she wrote the book as the 2016 election raged, and her analysis is some of the most insightful I’ve seen on the complex interplay of views regarding class, race, and cultural identity that fueled Trump’s victory. Silva describes a community where trust in government has collapsed among people of all races, and where citizens have largely abandoned politics in favor of a focus on self-help and personal growth. It’s a harrowing and unflinching account of how we got to now. —Dylan Matthews, senior correspondent How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell Melville House Publishing How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell It would be too simplistic to say Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is a manifesto against social media. We have plenty of those already. Instead, it is a corrective to the supposed virtues of productivity, of “engagement,” of being connected in that superficial sense in which social media platforms claim to connect us. Doing nothing, in Odell’s view, doesn’t mean literally sitting in your house, staring at the wall, not doing anything at all. Instead, she urges us to seek meaningful interactions — and while, yes, those can sometimes be found online, they are more likely to be outside your front door, out in the street, or in the park. She asks us to do something that feels almost radical: to value our time and attention. To take seriously the opportunity cost of scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, hunting one more “Like” or retweet, as those companies have tried to train our brains to do. That is what I have tried to take away from Odell’s book since I read it 18 months ago. The changes it spurred in my life have been small but they are consequential. I don’t have the Twitter app on my phone anymore. I am more likely to leave my phone on the other side of the room if I am hanging out with my family or friends. It gave me a framework within which I have tried to be more present. I don’t always succeed. But I am trying. And that alone is an improvement. —Dylan Scott, senior correspondent Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh I stumbled onto Allie Brosh years ago at a moment in my life that was a bit of a disaster. I’d gone through a breakup, moved to a new city, and was out of a job. Her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, for whatever reason, helped. I made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to read it in public because I’d laugh so much — at a time when it was not always easy to laugh. After that, I’d always sort of wondered what happened to Brosh, when she’d write more. Finally, at the end of 2020, she released Solutions and Other Problems. The humor and brilliance of her writing and drawing are as incredible as ever. (I still can’t read it in public.) But the book is also a gutting portrait of real life and the personal tragedies, like death and divorce, that have befallen Brosh, as they do others. “Sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you wind up somewhere that makes sense,” she concludes at the end of a chapter that she warns readers is “the serious part” of the book. It’s a reminder that sometimes the only thing you can do is just be. —Emily Stewart, senior reporter White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea by Tyler Stovall White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea is one of those really challenging books that I couldn’t speed read through. Through a chronological examination of the concept of “freedom,” Tyler Stovall explains how the idea itself — from the birth of the country to the present day — has always been exclusionary because it’s based on white ideals. In fact, the idea of “liberty for all” was a thought that was happening in tandem with the trans-Atlantic trade. One of the most jarring revelations the author shares is how the Statue of Liberty is “the world’s greatest representation of white freedom.” Rather than equating the symbol with this end-all “I made it” feeling of liberty for those immigrating to the US, the author contextualizes the statue’s origins — US independence and the ending of slavery — as a counter to US treatment of nonwhite persons, particularly Black people. Before reading this book I’d never heard of “white freedom.” It’s definitely a read that racked my brain and challenged my own views about how I interpret what social justice and liberty mean for different groups of people and movements. —Kaylah Jackson, associate editor, optimization Art Is Everything by Yxta Maya Murray Art Is Everything is the story of Amanda Ruiz, a Los Angeles artist who falls apart and puts herself back together again by posting unsolicited critical essays on the websites of various prominent art museums and other institutions. That makes it sound sort of dry, but the book is anything but — it’s just that talking about art is how Amanda processes the heartbreak of a failed relationship, the grief of losing her father, the sudden realignment of priorities that comes with becoming a parent herself, and the constant frustration of trying to make a life and a living as a queer Chicana artist in America. This novel woke up my brain and heart in a bunch of different ways. It introduced me to artists from Scarlet Tunkl to Mickalene Thomas, and it changed how I think about others, like Agnes Martin. It gave voice to the conflicts I sometimes feel about being a writer and a mom. Most importantly, it shook up my ideas of how art becomes political. There’s sometimes an idea that for art to carry political weight, it has to sacrifice beauty, nuance, or feeling. But Ruiz thinks about her own work and the work she cares about — much of it by women of color and queer people — in a way that’s at once deeply political, intellectually complex, and grounded in care and love. Her voice showed me new ways to create and appreciate art while living in and railing against our terrible world. I’m grateful. —Anna North, senior correspondent Simon & Schuster Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Anna Sale Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Anna Sale Anna Sale hosts a podcast and I listen. When she told me she would be writing a book similar to her show — Death, Sex & Money — I was thrilled for her, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d need to read it. I’m a listener, after all! But then she sent me a copy, and I read it because my friend had just written a gosh darn book, and now I’m evangelizing because it’s really good. Let’s Talk About Hard Things is like Death, Sex & Money in that Anna centers difficult conversations about the things we struggle to talk about, but it’s different in some key ways. For starters, these are tons of fresh stories from tons of people just like you and me. Anna puts her reporting shoes on and finds subjects who are struggling to talk about Trump, dealing with death, questioning their identity. The stories they tell will break your heart, redeem your faith, and maybe even help you heal. The book is chock full of tools to approach conversations with the people who matter most in your lives, but it feels more like a work of journalism than self-help. Let’s Talk About Hard Things refuses to be left on a shelf once you finish it. It demands to be passed on to someone who might also benefit from the manifold lessons between its front and back covers. I shared my copy with my dad. Hope he reads it. —Sean Rameswaram, host, Today Explained
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What Google’s trending searches say about America in 2021
Pete Davidson and GameStop both topped Google’s trending searches this year. | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images Wolf haircuts and Wall Street: What Americans googled this year. Each year, Google puts out lists of top trending searches in the United States, giving readers a tantalizing view into America’s collective id. Rather than simply show what people searched for the most, these lists highlight the words and phrases people are searching for this year that they weren’t the year before. In effect, these searches speak to our latest fears, desires, and questions — the things we were too embarrassed to ask anyone but Google. As Google data editor Simon Rogers put it to me last year, “You’re never as honest as you are with your search engine. You get a sense of what people genuinely care about and genuinely want to know — and not just how they’re presenting themselves to the rest of the world.” The lists are, naturally, all over the place, but a few common themes rose to the top, offering a glimpse of what it was really like to be an American in 2021. This year, our search histories spoke to our interest in alternative assets like cryptocurrencies and NFTs, as well as persistent economic insecurity, evidenced by our questions about when we’d get our stimulus checks and if we’d qualify for student loan forgiveness. The cultural rift between millennials and Gen Z cropped up in queries about what type of hair parts and jeans were in style, as did other social media trends that seemingly appealed to everyone, like how to make TikTok pasta or Squid Game cookies. And finally, in the year when Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, many Americans turned to the search engine to figure out how to be a normal person again, as people once again attended in-person events and had to figure out what pants people wear that aren’t sweatpants. Economic interest — and insecurity Depending on your vantage point, 2021 was either the year that cryptocurrency grew up into a viable financial asset, was shown to be a scam, or simply when it became mainstream. It was certainly popular on Google. Dogecoin was the top trending topic in both the “how to pronounce” and “where to buy” categories (people were, however, more interested in where to buy it than how to say it). The price of ethereum was a top news search. Meme stocks like AMC and GameStop were also newly popular searches in 2021. They were also, incomprehensibly, well-performing on the stock market this year. Perhaps undergirding this newfound interest in the stock market — and alternative assets as a way to get rich quick — is the persistent economic uncertainty in the US. Trending searches for Mega Millions lottery and stimulus checks suggest regular revenue streams weren’t quite panning out. Trending searches about careers included notably tenuous but flexible jobs, like Amazon sellers and Doordash drivers. Despite postponing student loan repayments and interest through January 2022, it was common for Americans to ask about student loan forgiveness and cancellation this year. Rising student loan debt has presented a major economic roadblock for many younger Americans, causing everything from delayed homeownership to wealth inequality. None of the trending searches around finance feel particularly stable, probably because contributing to your 401k is less sexy than the blockchain (but it’s also probably a better financial bet). Sites like TikTok are full of financial advice, but it might be smarter to use them for figuring out what to wear instead of how to build wealth. Generational divides and TikTok trends This year, a largely overblown war between millennials and Gen Z played out on social media and in search. The younger group made fun of millennials for doing millennial things like wearing side parts and skinny jeans — and also for not having houses. Some millennials took the criticism way too seriously and didn’t get the joke. Others simply googled whether skinny jeans or bell bottom jeans were in style (both were trending searches). Rather than reflect anything substantive about millennial style, the melée instead illustrated a rising self-consciousness among millennials who, once the signpost for every boomer complaint, are perhaps losing cultural relevance. The internet was also full of trends that seemingly spanned generations. Numerous food trends (TikTok pasta), style trends (dark academia), and celebrity trends (Pete Davidson) popped up in Google searches, though it’s unclear how much staying power they have since every day it seems as though something new comes down the TikTok or cultural pipeline. As Vox’s senior culture correspondent Rebecca Jennings recently told me, virality has become even more ephemeral as the rise and fall of trends is happening faster than ever before. So even though searches for cottagecore, wolf haircuts, and hamantaschen are trending, it’s probably not necessary to figure out what they are. How to move forward This was the year that Americans not only acquired a working understanding of vaccines but also a voiced preference in the pharmaceutical companies offering them. “Pfizer or Moderna” was a breakout search, as people stated their allegiance for #TeamPfizer or #TeamModerna with social media posts and even merchandise. These searches held a sense of relief at their core. In addition to searching for where to get vaccinated, searches for nearby bars, bowling, brunch, and buffets topped the trending “near me” list. These were activities that were virtually unthinkable last year, when the trending searches included finding nearby toilet paper and protests. People also newly Googled what to wear at concerts, bridal showers, and graduations — again, events that were largely nonexistent last year. These trending searches are indicators that we’re trying to remember how to be normal again after living so strangely. Perhaps the most poignant of the trending search categories to me were searches that started with “how to be.” It was led by how to be eligible for stimulus checks but beyond that, it pointed to a fundamental insecurity that many of us are facing after nearly two years in relative isolation: “How to be more attractive,” “How to be happy alone,” “How to be happy with yourself,” and “How to be a good kisser” all made the list. These lists are a fun snapshot of what it’s like to be an American in 2021: awkward, hopeful, and financially and socially uncertain. They’re also a good reminder that many things about how to live can’t be figured out online. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!
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Germany’s new government has big plans. It might be a shock after Merkel.
Olaf Scholz, center, is the new chancellor of Germany, leading a coalition of three parties: his German Social Democrats, the German Free Democrats, and the Greens. He’s shown here during the nomination of incoming SPD federal ministers on December 6 in Berlin, Germany. | Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images Olaf Scholz takes over as the new chancellor. What to know about the “traffic light” coalition he leads. The Angela Merkel era is officially over. Germany’s new coalition government takes power Wednesday, a break with 16 years of conservative-led rule under Merkel. Maybe not too dramatic a break. German politics are built on stability and consensus-building. This new government, a three-party coalition forged through compromise, is a prime example of that. But the new chancellor Olaf Scholz, a center-left Social Democrat (SPD), will lead a coalition government of the SPD, Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats that has a more modern vision and set of policy priorities. It looks as if it will replace Merkel’s piecemeal approach to governing — pulling the country along slowly, slowly, to avoid any controversy — with a government that is a bit more progressive and a bit more future-oriented. “After 16 years of very little progress, I think Germany is in for a bit of a modernization shock,” said Christian Odendahl, the Berlin-based chief economist for the Centre for European Reform. The coalition is embracing policies like lowering the voting age to 16, expanding citizenship rights, investing in affordable housing, legalizing marijuana, and accelerating some of the country’s climate commitments. This isn’t a revolution. But modest change is still change — if the coalition can deliver on its proposals. This is still an odd political marriage, and the compromise that brought the government to power will be tested early on. Scholz will take over as Germany is facing a dangerous coronavirus wave, and how this government handles it may hint at how cohesive, effective, and stable it really is. And stability, maybe more than anything else, may be the measure of political success. Scholz has already pulled off a victory by getting the coalition together Olaf Scholz and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowly won the September federal 2021 elections. He previously served as the vice chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s government, and the campaign framed him as a competent and stable leader — the next best thing to the still very popular Merkel. It worked, just enough. The SPD didn’t win enough seats in the Bundestag (the German parliament)to govern on its own, but neither did any other party, which meant some combination of parties would need to get together to form a governing coalition. This is the norm in German politics. Neither of the two big parties, the SPD or the Christian Democratic Union, wanted to form a grand coalition (which had existed for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor), which meant three parties would need to join up, a pretty rare phenomenon at the federal level that hasn’t happened since 1949. But the vote was close enough that the pro-business Free Democrats and the left-leaning, pro-environment Greens could choose who they wanted to work with, the SPD or the CDU. That gave them a lot of leverage, as they could basically anoint the next chancellor. Ultimately, the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democrats agreed to go into talks. It was still a bit awkward. This “traffic light” coalition — named for the respective party colors of red (SPD), yellow (FDP), and green (well, Greens) — isn’t exactly a natural ideological fit. The SPD and the Greens exist on the left side of the political spectrum, so they’re more in sync. But the Free Democrats are very pro-free market, and supports lower tax, which doesn’t always mix well with an ambitious social agenda. Given these gaps, it seemed Merkel would be caretaker chancellor for many months more. Tense, long-drawn out negotiations, potentially lasting into 2022, were predicted. Instead, the negotiations happened with little public squabbling and few leaks. The three parties finalized a coalition deal in just about two months, outlined in a fairly detailed 177-page document. The consensus meant Merkel would come a few weeks shy of the record for longest-serving chancellor. The coalition found ways to fit together everyone’s big priorities. Each got some, if not all, of what they wanted, which allowed them to sell this agreement to their respective bases. The SPD, of course, gets the chancellery, along with important ministries like interior (think homeland security), which will allow them to beef up their security credentials, and housing and labor, core to their constituencies and reflective of the party’s platform on wages and housing. The Greens scored the foreign ministry, to be led by party co-leader Annalena Baerbock, who has embraced a more human rights-centric foreign policy, especially when it comes to Russia and China, which is reflected to a degree in the document outlining the coalition’s vision. The Greens co-leader Robert Habeck will also lead a new economy and climate ministry, which will give the Greens the chance to work with Germany’s all-important industrial sector as it transitions to more climate-friendly policies. The Free Democrats, for their part, won the very coveted finance ministry, to be headed by party leader Christian Lindner. This will give them power of the purse strings, potentially keeping any too-ambitious spending plans in check. The coalition agreement right now uses some interesting accounting, but has broadly agreed not to increase taxes to pay for programs on its agenda. As far as compromises go, it’s not too bad. Bernd Von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images From left, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the Greens, and SPD leader Saskia Esken sign the coalition agreement of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP to form a federal government in Berlin on December 7. Behind them are Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SPD, and Christian Lindner, FDP leader. But how stable this government will be once it takes over is the big question. Evenbefore the coalition government was formally announced, the SPD, FDP, and the Greens started finding ways to work together. In November, the three partiesworked together on possible new Covid-19 measures, and are planning to introduce new vaccine mandates. At the same time, the Bundestag let federal emergency orders expire in November, which Merkel’s government had used to help coordinate the country’s pandemic response over the past year. The FDP was largely opposed to those orders. Compromise, in action. It’s just one data point, but there are some other hopeful signs. Sudha David-Wilp, a Berlin-based senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said this coalition was really a choice — the parties wanted to do this, and work it out, and all had something to gain from doing it. It wasn’t, as in the past, a government of last resort. As Scholz himself said, negotiations happened in a “friendly but intense atmosphere, an atmosphere full of trust.” If anything, self-interest could help keep the coalition intact. “All three parties agree that they are running this coalition with an eye on the 2025 election,” Odendahl said. “They want to make sure that this is not just a one-off, but that all three parties can gain from this and do reasonably and equally well in the next election.” And despite the differences, the three parties are unified around some big things. All three are fairly socially progressive, for example, on things like LGBT rights, and the coalition has proposed an agenda including greater protections for trans people and ending restrictions on blood donations from gay men. The parties, too, may have different ideas of what progress means, but they are coalescing around the idea that Germany has to move a bit forward, and faster, to tackle challenges like climate change. Scholz called the coalition “united by the will to make this country better.” Baerbock called it “a new start for more progress.” Lindner said: “It is our remit to modernize this country together.” Supporters of both the Greens and the Free Democrats are some of Germany’s youngest voters, and so this orientation made sense — especially, again, if this is as much about holding power now as it is about holding power four years from now. The coalition wants to lower the voting age in Germany to 16. It wants to legalize weed, an issue Merkel never really got behind. Climate change was a big issue among all parties during the 2021 elections, and this agreement speeds up the timeline for Germany to abandon coal, from 2038 to 2030. The plan also calls for social investments, like building 400,000 affordable housing units and raising the minimum wage to 12 euro an hour. As big as some of these ambitions are, it’s worth remembering that the chancellor himself, Scholz, is still a 60-something guy who served as Merkel’s finance minister and ran with the campaign slogan “Kompetenz.” “Olaf Scholz, who has the disposition, has the temperament, has even some of the affections of the outgoing chancellor who is admittedly rather legendary, so they’re getting almost more of the same in terms of the type of leadership,” said Eric Langenbacher, an expert on German and European politics and a professor at Georgetown University. “But on the other hand,” Langenbacher added, “when you actually look at the details, this [coalition] document has the potential to be an incredibly progressive document.” Big changes might come in domestic politics, but Germany may have a little different foreign policy too From the outside, Merkel’s absence from the world stage feels like the major transformation. Merkel asserted Germany’s role globally, and as she did so, her own profile grew, which also elevated the importance of Germany. “It was a hand-in-hand phenomenon,” David-Wilp said. “When she first entered office in 2005, it’s not like she thought that one day we were going to call her leader of the free world.” Merkel leaves this legacy to the next German government. And on paper, at least, the major contours of German foreign policy remain intact. “It’s more about continuity than change,” said Markus Kaim, international security senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Kaim said the coalition agreement repeats a lot of the same themes as past coalition deals, including the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship and the importance of the European Union. Still, there are some shifts, especially when it comes to relations with China. There are specific mentions of issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang, and human rights violations, among others. The tone of the rhetoric in the coalition agreement is much more hawkish, which experts said has a lot to do with the Chinese government’s actions, and Germany’s perception of those policies, in the last four years. “It’s not just vague rhetoric, there’s actual mention of change,” said Tyson Barker, head of the technology and global affairs program for the German Council on Foreign Relations. This may also tie into a subtler shift to a more values-driven foreign policy. The Greens, especially, have pushed to confront Russia and China on human rights abuses, and to elevate those concerns over financial ties with those powers. Merkel also espoused these values, she was also a pragmatist when it came to international politics. Of course, no one is exactly sure what this might look like in practice, or if it is practiced at all. Merkel centralized foreign policy in the chancellery; she dealt with Europe, and China, and Russia, and the United States. Most experts believed the chancellery, and Scholz, would continue to define and guide foreign and EU policy, but his worldview is not really well understood. Another big question is how much influence the Greens will have, and whether any power will devolve back to the foreign ministry, giving Baerbock a larger international profile. At the very least, experts said, it will likely help elevate climate change as an international issue even more. “When Baerbock goes into a meeting with another foreign minister, be it from Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, whereas in the old talking points or order of issues, climate change might have been sixth, or tenth, it’s going to be two or three,” Barker said. Foreign policy or EU policy didn’t really factor very much into the election, but Scholz may quickly be tested on diplomatic skills, especially with the brewing crisis in Ukraine. At the same time, the new German government likely wants to focus much closer to home, especially on the pandemic, the recovery, and its social and economic policy agenda. “Most people, I think, recognize that there needs to be this kind of greater domestic focus, and that will also renew, and perhaps empower Germany, so that it can continue this global role abroad,” Langenbacher said.
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Why adoption isn’t a replacement for abortion rights
Demonstrators gather in front of the US Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on December1 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images From the dangers of pregnancy to the trauma of adoption, there’s a lot the Supreme Court didn’t acknowledge last week as Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. Americans don’t need abortion because adoption exists. That, at least, was the implication of comments made by Justice Amy Coney Barrett last week, as the Supreme Court appeared to edge closer than ever to overturning the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade and stripping Americans of the right to an abortion before viability. During oral arguments December 1 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which concerns Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Barrett noted that all 50 states have safe haven laws, allowing a baby to be surrendered for adoption shortly after birth without criminal consequences for the parent. If abortion rights advocates are worried about the burdens of forced parenthood, she asked, “Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?” The idea that adoption is a panacea for unplanned pregnancy and a substitute for abortion is far from new. Anti-abortion activists “have been making this argument for decades,” says Marcela Howell, president of the nonprofit partnership In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. According to researchers and people who work with parents and adoptees, it’s always been wrong. The argument that adoption can effectively replace abortion assumes that people who choose the former are able to simply sidestep all the challenges associated with parenthood. But people who choose adoption still become parents — they just don’t raise their children. They often experience significant grief and loss, for which they struggle to get support in a culture that views adoption through rose-colored glasses. Barrett seemed to be “assuming that people who terminate their rights are moving quickly past this termination,” says Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a group at the University of California San Francisco. But “that is not something that I have ever seen in my research.” Thinking of adoption as a stand-in for abortion also ignores the very real dangers people face when they carry any pregnancy to term. Maternal mortality has been rising in the US for 20 years, and the most recent data places the country a dismal 55th in the world when it comes to the safety of childbirth. All of this, reproductive justice and adoptee advocates say, makes the argument that adoption can replace abortion at best a distraction, and at worst a willful misrepresentation of the facts. “As an adoptee, it’s infuriating,” says Joanne Bagshaw, a psychology professor at Montgomery College in Maryland who also works as a therapist with other adoptees. Adoption is often difficult and traumatic for birth parents Promoting adoption has long been a mainstay of the anti-abortion movement, with conservative groups like Focus on the Family providing resources on adoption and anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” sometimes steering pregnant people toward the practice. It’s not just conservatives, however, who support adoption as a good alternative to abortion — “adoption has been understood as this common ground in the abortion debate by both parties for a very long time,” Sisson said. Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced the view that even if they can’t agree on whether abortion should be legal, they can agree that more people should choose adoption instead. There are multiple problems with thinking of adoption as a substitute for abortion, however, researchers and advocates say. In order to choose adoption for a child, someone still has to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth. Both are risky propositions in America, which ranked 10th out of 10 comparable countries in a 2018 study of maternal deaths. Black people are at especially high risk, dying in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white patients. “For Black women, carrying pregnancies to term is very dangerous in this country,” Howell said. Beyond the medical risks, there are social consequences to consider, from fielding unwanted questions to potential abuse from family members or partners who find out about the pregnancy. Homicide is a leading cause of death for pregnant people, with Black women and women and girls under 25 at the highest risk, according to a study published last month by researchers at Tulane University. Though pregnancy discrimination is illegal, it also remains widespread — “many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women,” Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg wrote in a 2018 New York Times investigation. Then there’s “the emotional toll that goes on if someone is forced to carry a pregnancy to term that they didn’t want in the first place,” Howell said. “I felt as if I were carrying my son for them, for everyone else,” Merritt Tierce wrote in the New York Times Magazine of her unplanned pregnancy when she was 19 years old. “I was afraid, and I was estranged from myself, and I felt an unbearable load of guilt for being the mother my son had to have. He didn’t get to choose, either.” Barrett did seem to acknowledge some of the burdens of unwanted pregnancy last week, calling it “an infringement on bodily autonomy, for which we have another context like vaccines” (never mind that the side effects of vaccines, for most people, last a mere few hours). She did not acknowledge, however, that any sort of burden might continue after a person gives birth. Just give up the baby for adoption, her questions seemed to suggest, and everything will be fine. That’s far from the case, many experts and advocates say. Surrendering a baby for adoption can be traumatic, Sisson says. “A lot of birth mothers feel pretty intense grief and mourning right after their adoption.” As the years go by, that initial grief can be compounded by a sense of alienation. On the one hand, “there’s a lot of politicized and religious messaging around adoption that tells birth mothers that they have made a very courageous, brave, and loving decision,” Sisson says. But those messages don’t come with support for birth parents when it comes to negotiating and managing contact with their biological children (increasingly common as open adoptions become the norm), or in understanding and dealing with their ongoing sense of loss. Many birth parents “feel very alone,” Sisson said. Pregnant people often anticipate some of this, which is why adoption is a relatively rare choice in America. They may know, too, that their child may not find a home quickly — there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the US, and the average child spends nearly two years in the system. In one study of people who wanted an abortion but were turned away, just 9 percent chose to place the baby for adoption, Sisson and her team found. The other 91 percent chose to parent the child. “There were a lot of women who said, ‘If I couldn’t have an abortion, I was going to parent; there was no way I was going to give up my child,’” Sisson said. In general, “Women are not often choosing between abortion and adoption,” Sisson said. “Adoption is always the second choice to either parenting or abortion.” It’s not a panacea for children, either In addition to grief and loss for birth parents, adoption has an impact on children as well. “Relinquishment is traumatic for adoptees, even for adoptees who had a good adoption experience,” Bagshaw said. Adoptee clients who come to her often deal with “lifelong issues of feeling abandoned,” as well as “a lifelong search for identity.” And the question of whether and when a child is adopted at all is influenced by systemic racism. Research shows that Black children take longer to be adopted than white children, and dark-skinned Black children take longer than children with lighter skin, Howell said. Choosing adoption, then, is no guarantee that a child will soon find a permanent home. There will likely always be a need for adoption, advocates say. They argue that what’s needed is not a blanket promotion of adoption over abortion but reforms to make adoption itself more just. That would include a requirement that adoptees be able to access their original birth certificate and information about family history for medical and other purposes. “All information about an adoptee’s identity should always be available,” Bagshaw says. “This is a human rights issue.” (Safe haven laws, which allow people to relinquish a baby anonymously, can make it harder for adoptees to access this information.) Beyond that, what’s needed is “transparency about how a person gets in a situation where they’re deciding adoption,” Bagshaw said. “Why are we not assisting that person to keep their baby if they can and want to?” These are complicated questions that will require a hard look at America’s social safety net and the politics and economics of adoption. But Dobbs v. Jackson isn’t about any of those things. It’s about abortion, and whether a state has the right to ban it prior to viability, usually dated at about 24 weeks. According to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, all signs currently suggest that next year, when the Court hands down a decision in Dobbs, it will rule that a state does have that right, at least in certain circumstances. Shortly thereafter, it’s likely that states across the South and Midwest, armed with the decision, will so heavily restrict abortion access that their residents will no longer be able to get a legal abortion unless they have the money and time to travel out of state, perhaps thousands of miles, to a place where abortion is still allowed. Many abortion opponents argue — and Barrett, with her questioning, has implied — that it won’t really matter because anyone who doesn’t want to have a child can simply give that child up. To many reproductive justice advocates and people who study adoption, that argument is a red herring. It ignores, they say, a simple truth: that carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term irrevocably alters the course of a person’s life. Banning abortion will take some of the power to determine that course away from pregnant people and give it to the state, and the availability of adoption does nothing to change that.
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How much control should Apple have over your iPhone?
Amanda Northrop/Vox Some say Apple’s App Store is a monopoly. Apple says it’s just giving customers what they want. This story is part of a Recode series about Big Tech and antitrust. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover what’s happening with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. We love our mobile apps. It’s hard to think of something that at least one of the nearly 12 million apps out there can’t do. Order a taxi, buy clothes, get directions, play games, message friends, store vaccine cards, control hearing aids, eat, pray, love … the list goes on. You might be using an app to read this very article. And if you’re reading it on an iPhone, then you got that app through the App Store, the Apple-owned and -operated gateway for apps on its phones. But a lot of people want that to change. Apple is facing growing scrutiny for the tight control it has over so much of the mobile-first, app-centric world it created. The iPhone, which was released in 2007, and the App Store, which came along a year later, helped make Apple one of the most valuable companies on the planet, as well as one of the most powerful. Now, lawmakers, regulators, developers, and consumers are questioning the extent and effects of that power — including if and how it should be reined in. Efforts in the United States and abroad could significantly loosen Apple’s grip over one of its most important lines of business and fundamentally change how iPhone and iPad users get and pay for their apps. It could make many more apps available. It could make them less safe. And it could make them cheaper. The iPhone maker isn’t the only company under the antitrust microscope. Once lauded as shining beacons of innovation and ingenuity that would guide the world into the 21st century, Apple is just one of several Big Tech companies now accused of amassing too much power over parts of the economy that have become as essential as steel, oil, and the telephone were in centuries past. These companies have a great deal of control over what we can do on our phones, the items we buy online and how they get to our homes, our personal data, the internet ecosystem, even our online identities. Some believe the best way to deal with Big Tech now is the way we dealt with steel, oil, and telephone monopolies decades ago: by using antitrust laws to place restrictions on them or even break them up. And if our existing laws can’t do it, legislators want to introduce new laws that target the digital marketplace. In her book Monopolies Suck, antitrust expert Sally Hubbard described Appleas a “warm and fuzzy monopolist” when compared to Facebook, Google, and Amazon, the other three companies in the so-called Big Four that have been accused of being too big. It doesn’t quite have the negative public perception that its three peers have, and the effects of its exclusive control over mobile apps on its consumers aren’t as obvious. For many people, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are unavoidable realities of life on the internet these days, while Apple makes products they choose to buy. But more than half of the smartphones in the United States are iPhones, and as those phones become integrated into more facets of our daily lives, Apple’s exclusive control over what we can do with those phones and which apps we can use becomes more problematic. It’s also an outlier; rival mobile operating system Android allows pretty much any app, though app stores may have their own restrictions. Apple makes the phones. But should Apple set the rules over everything we can do with them? And what are iPhone users missing out on when one company controls so much of their experience on them? Apple’s vertical integration model was fine until it wasn’t Many of the problems Apple faces now come from a principle of its business model: Maintain as much control as possible over as many aspects of its products as possible. This is unusual for a computer manufacturer. You can buy a computer with a Microsoft operating system from a variety of manufacturers, and nearly 1,300 brands sell devices with Google’s Android operating system. But Apple’s operating systems — macOS, iOS, iPadOS, and watchOS — are only on Apple’s devices. Apple has said it does this to ensure that its products are easy to use, private, and secure. It’s a selling point for the company and a reason some customers are willing to pay a premium for Apple devices. Apple doubled down on that vertical integration strategy when it came to mobile apps, only allowing customers to get them through the App Store it owns and operates. Outside developers have to follow Apple’s approval process and abide by its rules to get into the App Store. Apple has a lot of content restrictions for apps that the company says are intended to keep users safe from, for instance, “upsetting or offensive content.” Apple says in its developer guidelines, “If you’re looking to shock and offend people, the App Store isn’t the right place for your app.” But that means Apple mobile devices — more than 1 billion of them worldwide — aren’t the right place for your app, either. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images The Apple App Store icon. Developers whose apps do make it into the App Store may also find themselves paying Apple a hefty chunk of their income. Apple takes a commission from purchases of the apps themselves as well as purchases made within the apps. That commission is up to 30 percent and has been dubbed the App Store tax. There’s no way for apps to get around the commission for app purchases, and users have to pay for goods and services outside of the app to get around the in-app payment system’s commission. Some of those developers are also competing with Apple when it comes to making certain kinds of apps. Developers have accused Apple of “Sherlocking” their apps — that’s when Apple makes an app that’s strikingly similar to a successful third-party app and promotes it in the App Store or integrates it into device software in ways that outside developers can’t. One famous example of this is how, after countless flashlight apps that used the iPhone’s camera flash became popular in the App Store, Apple built its own flashlight tool and integrated it into iOS in 2013. Suddenly, those third-party apps weren’t necessary. Apple has also been accused of abusing its control to give it an advantage over streaming services. Spotify has complained for years that Apple has given an unfair competitive advantage to its Apple Music service, which came along a few years after Spotify. After all, Apple doesn’t have to pay an App Store tax for its own Music app, which comes pre-installed on iPhones and iPads, or the streaming service, which Apple can and does promote on its devices. (Apple points out that it only has 60 of its own apps, so clearly it’s not competing with every single third-party app in its store, or even the vast majority of them.) “What Apple realized is that if they could control the App Store, they really control the rest of the game,” Daniel Hanley, senior legal analyst at Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly advocacy group, told Recode. “They don’t just control the hardware, now they control the software. They control how apps get on — it’s unilateral.” This has all been a big moneymaker for Apple. Apple won’t say how big, but an expert said he believes the App Store alone made $22 billion in 2020, about 80 percent of which was profit. That profit margin estimate suggests that the mandatory commissions Apple takes from those apps far exceed the company’s costs for maintaining the App Store. Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images Because Apple refuses to allow alternate app stores or in-app payment systems, there’s no competition that might motivate it to lower those commissions — which could, in turn, allow developers to charge less for apps and in-app purchases. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust’s report from the Democratic majority cited numerous examples of developers claiming that they had to raise their own prices to consumers to compensate for Apple’s commission. Apple disputes some of these numbers but, again, refuses to give its own. Its financial statements lump the App Store in with other “services,” including iCloud and Apple’s TV, Music, and Pay. Even so, there’s little doubt that the App Store’s success has helped, if not driven, Apple’s transition from being primarily a hardware company to a goods and services provider. “It’s a nice, fat [revenue] stream where they don’t have to do a ton of R&D,” Brian Merchant, technology journalist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, told Recode. “All they have to do is protect their walled garden.” The case for only one App Store (Apple’s) Apple says the security and privacy features its customers expect are impossible to provide without having this control over the apps on its phone. The company calls this a “trusted ecosystem.” Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, recently said that allowing Apple users to get apps through third-party app stores or by downloading them directly from the open internet (a practice known as sideloading) would open them up to a “Pandora’s box” of malware, though iPhones aren’t exactly immune to spyware. Similarly, Apple says its in-app payment systems are secure and private, which it can’t guarantee of anyone else’s. These arguments aren’t necessarily wrong — there are plenty of malicious apps out there — but they don’t account for the fact that Apple doesn’t seem to have any problem with its Mac computers getting their apps from third-party app stores or through sideloading. As for those commissions, Apple is quick to point out that the vast majority of apps, which are free, don’t pay Apple anything at all and still get all of the App Store’s benefits. Many apps are funded by selling ads and user data, which they don’t have to share with Apple, though Apple has recently tried to make this outside revenue stream less lucrative for developers by introducing anti-tracking features into iOS. Those measures, which Apple says are designed to improve user privacy, could ultimately force developers to charge users for apps (more money for Apple!). So when Apple decided to stop much of that data flow, it upended an entire ecosystem worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year — Facebook was even reportedly considering filing an antitrust lawsuit over it. That’s how much control Apple has over its devices and, by extension, a considerable part of the global economy. Christoph Dernbach/picture alliance via Getty Images A privacy notice on an iPhone allows the user to decide whether to permit cross-app tracking. The App Store tax is also in line with what other app stores charge, per an independent report that Apple commissioned last year. Apple, the app store pioneer, was the one that set that 30 percent app store commission rate in the first place. And Apple does allow for ways to get around some of its App Store taxes. People can purchase subscriptions and certain in-app services outside of apps if they have an account with the developer, which means no App Store tax to either raise prices or cut into the developer’s profit margin. Going to the developer’s website to pay also takes several more steps and more time on the part of the customer to do it. But in the US, Apple’s best defense against accusations that its App Store is an illegal monopoly may be to simply point to existing antitrust laws, or at least how courts interpret them. Apple does have a monopoly on app stores on Apple devices, but there’s nothing necessarily illegal about that. Monopolies are only illegal if they operate in anti-competitive ways, and the bar to proving even that is pretty high. For the last four decades, courts have interpreted the law as protecting competition (and, by extension, the consumers who supposedly benefit from it), not competitors. “Our law is very, very conservative,” Eleanor M. Fox, a professor of antitrust law and competition policy at New York University, told Recode. “Companies — even monopoly companies — do not have a duty to deal, and they don’t have a duty to deal fairly.” We’ve seen this precedent at work in the Epic Games v. Apple case. In August 2020, Epic Games, the developer behind the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple over its refusal to allow alternate app stores and payment systems, as well as its anti-steering policy that forbids developers from linking out to alternate ways to pay for app services or even telling users that other payment methods are possible. Apple kicked Fortnite out of its App Store when Epic tried to flout its rules. A federal judge ruled in September that Apple was well within its rights to do so. The judge noted that the App Store had “procompetitive justifications.” Even though she found that Apple had a large part of the mobile gaming transactions market and that the App Store’s profit margins were “extraordinarily high,” she didn’t think it created a barrier to entry for developers, nor that it was harming innovation. (Epic has appealed this ruling.) “Success is not illegal,” the judge wrote. Epic’s only victory was that the judge ordered Apple to allow developers to link out to and inform users about other ways to pay for app services. Apple has appealed that particular ruling, and according to a court filing, the company may even try to charge commissions on purchases made through the alternate payment systems if it’s forced to let developers link out to them. Even when Apple loses, it tries to find a way to win. Philip Pacheco/Getty Images Legal staff representing Epic Games carry documents for trial at the United States District Court in Oakland, California, in May. Apple’s attempts to avoid antitrust actions While Apple insists that it isn’t doing anything wrong, the company appears to be concerned that its control over its devices faces some real threats. Apple historically refuses to give up ground on just about everything, yet it’s already made notable adjustments to some of its more controversial policies that could make some apps or services cheaper, or at least easier for the user to find cheaper ways to pay for them. Some of these changes were mandatory, yes, but others appear to be an effort to ward off harsher regulations or judgments. For instance, Apple loosened its notoriously tight grip on repairs to its devices, allowing more independent shops and, very recently, individual consumers, to have access to the parts and instructions necessary to make certain fixes. This comes in the midst of a push for “right to repair” laws and pressure from the Biden administration and the Federal Trade Commission. But Apple still requires that its own parts be used for these repairs and sets the prices for them. The stickiness and required usage of Apple’s native apps has long been a gripe from many iPhone users and a bad look for the company from an antitrust perspective. So this year, Apple started allowing users to select their own default apps for web browsing and mail; previously, Apple’s Safari and Mail apps were the mandatory default. Users have been able to delete most of the Apple apps that come pre-installed on their phones since 2018. Apple has also given some developers a break on the App Store tax and anti-steering policies, which could reduce prices for consumers. Developers who make less than $1 million a year now only have to pay a 15 percent App Store tax. This came about as part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit, but Apple has presented it as a “Small Business Program” that’s “designed to accelerate innovation” (a phrase that could be read as implying that the 30 percent commission decelerated innovation). Apple is also going to let developers contact customers outside of the app to let them know about alternate payment methods. As part of an agreement with the Japan Fair Trade Commission, Apple will soon let “reader” apps (that is, apps like Netflix and Spotify that offer media for purchase or subscription) link out to their own websites to make it easier for users to purchase subscriptions outside of Apple’s in-app payment system. In 2016, Apple also cut its commission to 15 percent for subscription apps after the first year. Of course, this change was revealed at the same time as Apple’s announcement that it would sell search ads in its App Store, giving itself yet another exclusive source of revenue (and giving users a bunch of ads when they search the App Store). But these concessions do nothing for the source of the vast majority of the App Store’s commissions: games from developers that make more than $1 million a year. And Apple hasn’t wavered on the practices that have drawn the bulk of the accusations that Apple’s practices — including the company not allowing alternate App Stores or sideloading, and not allowing alternate payment systems — are anti-competitive, increase prices for consumers, and reduce their choice. It seems unlikely that Apple will give way any time soon. Unless, of course, it has to. How does Apple’s walled garden grow — or die? There are plenty of reasons why Apple might have to change its ways. The company may have won most of the Epic Games lawsuit (pending Epic’s appeal), but it still faces antitrust action on several fronts that will play out over the coming years. Francisco Seco/AFP via Getty Images Margrethe Vestager, European commissioner for competition, speaks during an online news conference on the Apple antitrust case at EU headquarters in Brussels, in April. A growing number of countries have introduced or proposed laws that specifically target certain App Store practices, or are investigating Apple for potential violations of their competition rules. These include but are not limited to the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Those could result in fines, which Apple, a $2 trillion company, probably isn’t too worried about. It also wouldn’t be the first time Apple has paid a considerable sum over antitrust violations. Another outcome — one that would be a much more troubling prospect for Apple — would be if the company were forced to change its business practices in order to keep operating in those countries. But in the United States, courts haven’t seemed too bothered by Apple’s App Store rules. A federal judge recently threw out a class action lawsuit from developers that said Apple was abusing its monopoly power by refusing to allow their apps in the App Store. As the Epic Games ruling indicates, American antitrust laws (and most courts’ interpretation of them) haven’t done much to change or force change on Big Tech companies. If you’re a lawmaker who is concerned about Big Tech’s considerable power, that’s a green light to propose laws that will. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), for example, said the ruling showed that “much more must be done” about the “serious competition concerns” app stores raise. As chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, as well as a member of the Commerce Committee, she’s in a pretty good position to push through bills that do just that. Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Open App Markets Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would do most of what Epic Games wanted. The legislation would force Apple to allow third-party app stores and the sideloading of third-party apps, require that app stores allow alternate payment systems, and forbid anti-steering policies. It would also ban app stores from giving their own apps special treatment or using non-public data from third-party apps to develop their own, competing apps. Patrick Semansky/Getty Images Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) confer at a Senate hearing in September. They, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), have sponsored the Open App Markets Act. The Open App Markets Act isn’t the only bill that could drastically change how Apple runs its App Store. Several more are currently making their way through both houses of Congress as part of its package of antitrust bills that target Big Tech. If passed, they’d also force Apple to include other app stores on its devices and forbid it from giving its own apps special treatment. One bill, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, would even force Apple to break up its App Store and app development units into separate businesses. All of these bills are bipartisan, but it’s far from certain that any of them will become law. If they do, and in something close to their current form, they could benefit consumers by giving them more choice of apps on their phone, and it could make those apps cheaper. It may also subject iPhone users to additional safety and security threats, as Apple alleges, while prices stay largely unchanged. Apple says it supports updates to laws and regulations that benefit consumers, like privacy legislation — which the current bills on the table don’t do much to directly address. The Department of Justice, which has been investigating Apple since 2019, is reportedly preparing a lawsuit concerning the App Store. It and the FTC enforce America’s antitrust laws. Both agencies are headed up by people who have accused Apple of anti-competitive actions or worked for firms that have. Lina Khan, a Big Tech critic who helped write the House’s report, is now the chair of the FTC, and Jonathan Kanter, who advised Spotify when it lobbied Congress to take action against Apple, leads the DOJ’s antitrust division. Both agencies may get a major, needed funding boost if the Build Back Better Act and a bill that increases merger fees for large companies pass. With all of this said, Apple, “the warm and fuzzy monopolist,” is probably in a better position with its ongoing antitrust problems than its fellow Big Tech titans are with theirs. It has, so far, faced relatively less criticism in general, and many of the proposed bills and regulations don’t threaten its business model as much as they do that of the other companies. If Apple were forced to allow other app stores on its devices tomorrow, it would still have plenty of very healthy revenue streams. Those may still include the App Store. It’s not clear that many of Apple’s users would even use or want another app store. The fact that they use an iPhone and not an Android speaks to this. They could prefer or trust the security and privacy protections in the App Store over those of, say, a Facebook app store. Then again, if those other app stores took a lower commission from developers, allowing them to charge less than the Apple App Store does, Apple’s customers may well vote with their wallets, and developers might only offer their apps in stores that give them a better margin. In which case, Apple might just find itself finally having to compete for apps and customers — and maybe even lowering the App Store tax to do it. Apple wouldn’t be thrilled, but it would be just fine.
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The case against Big Tech
Mark Wilson/Getty Images Will Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google survive the antitrust onslaught? And will Microsoft face it at all? Big Tech has become Too Big. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are facing very real threats to their considerable power over our everyday lives from all sides: lawsuits, federal and state legislation, international action, and a public that is increasingly distrustful of these companies and eager for more regulation and enforcement. Over the last several years, these companies have become bigger and more powerful, and their business decisions have had more impact on our daily lives and society, from the things we buy and where we buy them to the news and opinions we see on social media. What were once considered exciting and innovative products that improved our lives have become, for some, a necessary evil with few competitors. For others, these companies provide a service they use and enjoy. For most, it’s probably a mixture of both. Now we’re seeing a bipartisan movement to check these four companies by testing and expanding antitrust laws and the enforcers of them. Lawmakers have introduced a slew of bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate. Republican and Democratic state attorneys general have signed onto lawsuits accusing them of anti-competitive practices and calling for monetary and structural remedies. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, both now led by outspoken Big Tech foes, are set to aggressively enforce antitrust laws: They have Big Tech in their sights. We haven’t seen this kind of test of the tech sector since the United States sued Microsoft for antitrust violations in 1998 — a lawsuit that led to the rise of the very companies that are being scrutinized today. Microsoft, meanwhile, has managed to avoid the spotlight this time around despite being more valuable than all of them except Apple (depending on the day). And while these five companies touch all of our lives in some way — sometimes in ways we aren’t even aware of, perhaps buried in the infrastructure of the internet that we use all the time — many people don’t quite understand what they’re being accused of, what antitrust laws are or what they do, and why it’s not as simple as “break up Big Tech” or “let the market decide.” In this five-part series, we’ll break down the arguments for and against these companies, the challenges they face, and how their — and our lives — could change if those efforts succeed. How much control should Apple have over your iPhone? Soumyabrata Roy/NurPhoto via Getty Images Apple is the king of premium phones, tablets, laptops, and watches. It’s also the king of vertical integration: It owns the iPhone, the operating system, and the App Store, which is the only way outside developers can get their apps on iPhones. Apple even makes some apps of its own. Now, the company is accused of abusing its control over its mobile devices to harm competition, stifle innovation, and inflate prices. Apple says it’s just giving its customers what they want and expect. by Sara Morrison Amazon (coming soon) Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images Amazon dominates the e-commerce world and has a very profitable cloud computing arm, but some say that dominance has come at a price, paid by businesses that rely on its Marketplace platform or sell directly to Amazon, warehouse and delivery workers, and consumers. Now, the company is facing antitrust lawsuits and complaints in the US and abroad, and the threat of laws that would forbid it from preferencing its own products. by Sara Morrison Google (coming soon) Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images Google is so interwoven into the fabric of the internet that it’s literally synonymous with internet searches. It dominates the world’s smartphone operating systems, web browsers, email providers, search engines, and the digital ad market. Allegedly abusing this dominance has led to billions of dollars in fines for antitrust violations abroad and antitrust lawsuits from almost every state attorney general in the United States as well as the Department of Justice. by Sara Morrison and Shirin Ghaffary Facebook (coming soon) Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images Facebook, now known as Meta, is the social media giant. It makes billions off of targeted ads based on our data and is accused of spending some of those billions to acquire potential competitors, either to kill them off or use them to secure their dominance. Regulators now want to break Meta up into separate companies, but it won’t be easy. by Shirin Ghaffary and Sara Morrison Microsoft (coming soon) Jeenah Moon/Getty Images Microsoft is one of the most valuable public companies in the world. Its Windows operating system is by far the most dominant. It’s made some huge acquisitions. It’s certainly a Big Tech company. Yet it’s largely been left out of the Big Tech reckoning, perhaps because it had its own version two decades ago. Microsoft’s past could be a preview of the Big Tech Four’s future. by Sara Morrison CREDITS Reporters: Sara Morrison, Shirin Ghaffary Editors: Adam Clark Estes, Samantha OltmanPhoto editor: Bita HonarvarGraphics: Amanda NorthropManaging editor: Nisha ChittalCopy editors: Elizabeth Crane, Tim WilliamsEngagement: Shira Tarlo
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Let Succession be ambiguous
Logan and Kendall meet for a last supper of sorts. | Graeme Hunter/HBO The final shot of the latest Succession episode, explained and also not explained. After I finished watching a screener of “Chiantishire,” the penultimate episode of Succession’s third season, I figured the day-after chatter about the episode would be about how Roman Roy had accidentally sent a photo of his penis to his father. He meant to send it to Waystar-Royco interim CEO Gerri Kelman (with whom Roman has a longstanding will-they/won’t-they), but mistakenly messaged his father instead. That moment was so memorable and so perfectly on point in regards to the series’ unique blend of dark comedy and corporate skullduggery that I figured it would be all any of us could talk about. (And the implications that Gerri could be the one to see her downfall due to Roman’s impropriety might offer a whole additional way to talk about the show’s sad, realistic depiction of workplace misogyny.) I was sort of right. Roman’s mis-text was a topic of much delight and amusement on Twitter Dot Com and other social media sites the day after the episode aired. For instance, consider my favorite tweet on the matter and this absolutely perfect sloppy Photoshop, both of which capture Roman’s emotional journey throughout the scene.— nicholas “jospeh” tofani (@nickeldoodle) December 6, 2021 But Succession stans were way more animated about a very different topic once the episode ended: Did the final shot of “Chiantishire” prove that a certain character was dead? Spoilers follow! Why that final shot might suggest somebody’s dead Okay, but seriously, if you don’t want to be spoiled on the final shot of “Chiantishire,” please exit the premises now, because I’m about to just show you that final shot. HBO Kendall lets a bottle of beer float to the bottom of the pool. So this is Kendall Roy, once the family golden boy and now the punching bag. He’s having a beer in the pool, floating in the Italian sun. His kids have excused themselves from sitting poolside, and Kendall is … not having a great time of it. Director Mark Mylod cuts to a shot of this moment that shoots up from the bottom of the pool. Kendall sticks his face in the water, releasing the beer bottle so it floats down toward the camera, but upside down, giving everything a curious, weightless feel. Soon, we see bubbles streaming from Kendall’s nose, as the camera slowly rotates around him in a counter-clockwise direction. Cut to black. So, uh, Kendall’s dead, right? He just drowned himself? There’s at least somewhat compelling evidence throughout the run of the show. Kendall very frequently submerges himself in water across the first three seasons, and the first episode of season three features Kendall, fully clothed, getting into an empty bathtub when he needs to decompress for a few minutes. Succession loves its foreshadowing, and all of that water imagery might have been leading to this very moment. Even more vital to this argument, however, is that in the season one finale, Kendall crashed a car he was driving into a pond while high on ketamine. He escaped, but the young waiter in the car with him drowned. Logan helped cover up Kendall’s involvement in the accident, thereby drawing Kendall further into his clutches. Kendall, distraught about this, has spent most of the subsequent two seasons trying to find a way to escape that dark and terrible moment, first through utter despair (most of season two), then through trying in vain to topple his father while keeping his father’s empire for himself (most of season three). The death of the waiter comes up in “Chiantishire” as well. It’s first invoked by publicist Comfry, who tells Kendall he has an invitation to go on a podcast that is digging into the many Roy scandals, including the waiter’s death. It’s later invoked by Logan in a scene where he and Kendall have a last supper of sorts. Kendall is trying to escape his family and the family business for good, offering Logan a deal that will essentially allow Kendall to become “a ghost” (his own words!). Logan rejects this deal and taunts Kendall with the fact that the waiter’s death will forever mean Kendall is bound, at least somewhat, to him. “How long was that kid alive before he started sucking in water?” Logan says. Maybe the episode’s final shot depicts Kendall testing his father’s theory once and for all, in a way that will scar his children. If Logan won’t let Kendall go, then Kendall might do something terrible and drastic in order to achieve that end. Finally, Kendall is an addict, but for most of seasons two and three, the series has depicted him as someone who is at least trying to stay sober. He has relapsed (especially when his girlfriend Naomi is around), but he has mostly stayed away from drugs. And yet here he is drinking a beer, in what could be a subtle indication of a fall off the wagon. Whether Kendall is using this season has been a topic of discussion in the Succession fan spaces I’m in, but that beer bottle (which calls back to other scenes of him drinking throughout the season) feels like a subtle tip of the hat to the idea that, yeah, Kendall hasn’t been sober for at least a bit now. Finally, in terms of “this sure seems like the kind of thing that publicists place in the New Yorker shortly before a character in a show has a memorable sendoff,” a massive profile of actor Jeremy Strong (who plays Kendall) appeared in the New Yorker just hours before “Chiantishire” aired. What’s more, that profile made Strong seem… uh, very intense and maybe not the most fun to work with? Actors have been kicked off of TV shows for less. So that’s proof, right? That profile? All that foreshadowing? All those invocations of the waiter’s death? That spinning shot of a man sticking his face into the water and exhaling his final breath? That descending beer bottle? Well … Why that final shot might not suggest somebody’s dead Graeme Hunter/HBO Kendall looks so happy to be at his mother’s wedding, don’t you think? The most obvious argument that Kendall is still alive is that somebody found a few stray shots of him in a “coming up on Succession” trailer from a few weeks ago. These shots could be decoys utilized by HBO to throw fans off the scent of Kendall’s death, but that feels like a very elaborate way to try to fool a handful of people who might go back and piece through trailers released a few weeks ago. So is this proof positive of Kendall’s survival? Not necessarily. Stuff gets cut from TV shows all the time. You just never know! The other main argument against Kendall’s death is that, well, it’s really, really hard to drown yourself, especially when you’re laying on a pool float like Kendall is and especially if you’re an adult (like Kendall is). Yeah, if he deliberately tries to inhale water, he’ll probably accomplish something, but his body is very quickly going to turn against him, because your body doesn’t like to inhale water. The most likely outcome is that Kendall would play at drowning himself, only to wind up coughing out liquid. Now, the most likely way to die by drowning in a pool is to overdose on some sort of substance, and if Kendall is using again, maybe that’s what’s happening here. Maybe we’re looking at a BoJack Horseman kinda situation. (BoJack, for the record, lived. It’s really hard to die by drowning, even when you’ve overdosed!) But as I’ve argued repeatedly, Succession is not really a show that does reveals. If something is important to the story, the show depicts it, and the handful of mysteries the show keeps from viewers (especially in regards to Logan’s dead sister Rose) are also mysteries kept from most of the characters. Kendall is one of the show’s main point-of-view characters. If he were using again, it would cut against the show’s M.O. to keep that hidden from the audience. What’s more, you can use the idea that Kendall is testing just how it felt for that waiter to drown as a sign that he’s prepared to do at least one more deed on this planet: Go on the aforementioned Roy scandals podcast to tell the true story of what happened to the waiter. The final moment of “Chiantishire,” then, is a depiction of a decisive moment where he decides to take himself out of the headspace of a Roy and put himself in the headspace of the waiter. It’s a symbolic gesture of faulty redemption, which is something Kendall does… all the time. Succession always has an eye on what’s funny about its characters, except in a couple of circumstances. Its depiction of familial abuse is treated with grave seriousness, as I’ve argued. But its depiction of Kendall’s mental health is also treated with a stark realism that doesn’t sugarcoat the times when the character is either incredibly manic or deeply depressive. So having Kendall die by suicide in a manner that is incredibly difficult to pull off, while perhaps poetically apt, would also cut against the show’s usual M.O. You can make an argument that Kendall will die this season (aka in the finale) but hasn’t just yet. It’s an argument I’m sympathetic to, given just how powerful the foreshadowing of Kendall being trapped in some way has been all season. But I’m also not going to make any predic — (Kendall gives an interview to the podcast team that reveals he was there when the waiter drowned, then implicates his father in the cover-up. He then dies by suicide at a wedding that is heavily attended by the paparazzi, who will surely make it into an even greater spectacle. Season four is all about the Roy family trying to suppress the podcast, a very real textual expression of the subtextual idea that the one thing that the Roys can’t stop is the inevitability of their business model’s death at the hands of the decentralized information-gathering tools of the internet.) — tions. So that’s it, right? You can’t argue with shots of Kendall from an episode that hasn’t aired yet! He’s going to be back, and it would be really weird if the series suddenly turned into Six Feet Under or Dexter and had a Kendall ghost lurking around to haunt everyone. We did it! We proved Kendall is alive! Or … Is Kendall alive or dead? The answer is: He can be both. I won’t pretend that Succession (or at least the HBO marketing team) isn’t trying to tease the “is he or isn’t he?” nature of that final shot. The speculation by fans of the show isn’t being discouraged by the show’s PR team, at the very least. The “next week on Succession” preview that aired after “Chiantishire” doesn’t feature Kendall at all, which is a pretty classic way to preserve suspense as to whether a character is alive or dead. The HBO PR team, at least, knew we were going to be talking about that moment. I think that goosing this particular discussion is a mistake on the part of those marketers, honestly. This is a binary question, and we’ll quickly know, next week, whether Kendall lived or died. What’s more, as with so many binary questions on TV shows that air week to week, lines will be drawn and viewers who were very much convinced Kendall was dead will probably end up disappointed if he’s alive and vice versa, simply because it’s natural to want to be right. Turning a marvelous, ambiguous shot into a guessing game cheapens the shot. But look beyond the marketing, and what’s happening here is what always happens with Succession when it does anything a little ambiguous (and when it does anything completely unambiguous, to be honest): People are freaking out about what the answer in the shot is, instead of what the meaning of the shot is. We’re so het up about whether Kendall is alive or dead that we miss that within the shot, he’s kind of both. Think about it. This shot depicts yet another absolute nadir for this man whose family treats him like a rock they drop into a deep pit to see how long it takes him to hit bottom. He is alive, but he might as well be dead. He tried the whole resurrection thing when he went against his dad, but he lost pretty conclusively. Now, lying on this pool float in the Italian sun, all he wants is for everything to just … stop. That read of the shot is true regardless of whether Kendall is alive or dead. When we see him, he is both physically alive and spiritually dead. How he navigates the vast gulf between those two states of being will be the work of the rest of his life, whether that’s a few more minutes or several more decades. “Physically alive but spiritually dead” also describes an HBO character in a famously ambiguous final shot that may or may not depict the moment of that character’s death: Tony Soprano in The Sopranos’ series finale. The point of that show was always that Tony and his families (professional and personal) were forever bound by their self-centered, narcissistic choices and the psychological baggage they refused to unpack. We watched the entire show waiting for Tony to realize any of the ways he had screwed himself up, even a little bit, and the series finale was a long explanation of why he couldn’t change and never would. It doesn’t matter if he dies in the series’ final shot, because he’s incapable of change and therefore already spiritually dead. But Kendall isn’t Tony Soprano. He has many other paths he could take. He’s realized just how deep his father’s rot goes, and he’s realized that he can’t defeat him just by trying to have a better PR and/or legal strategy. The solution might be to own up to what he’s done and seek redemption, or it might be to just slink off and live a life of luxury, slowly sliding into obsolescence. And, yes, if he physically dies, all of that will be impossible to do. But if he confronts his utter despair head on, if he confronts his family’s role in whatever mental health issues he faces, if he accepts the harm that he has done in the world and tries to atone for it, then he might figure out a way to carve out a meaningful life for himself. Unlike The Sopranos, which was steeped in Catholic dread, Succession is not a particularly religious show. But submersion and emergence from water is a potent symbol of rebirth in a lot of different religious traditions. (You might know it as “baptism” within the Christian tradition.) Don’t think of “Chiantishire’s” final shot as a simple binary between life and death; think of it, instead, as a character on the precipice of a moment when everything might change.
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Why the Belarus migrant crisis is different
And what it tells us about the EU. A crisis has been escalating along the border that divides Belarus and the European Union. For several weeks, thousands of migrants looking to reach the EU were trapped between Poland and Belarus, living in freezing camps with no humanitarian aid. Today, the migrants have been moved to warehouses for shelter, but this crisis isn’t over. Since 2015, Europe has experienced several migration waves, but this one was different: This one was manufactured. Belarus lured migrants to the border to pressure the EU to lift sanctions. And while this particular crisis has started to die down, the problem isn’t going away. It’s the result of a complex EU migration policy that has opened the door to the exploitation of migrants, and until that policy is fixed, Belarus or other bordering nations could create a crisis all over again. To understand how Belarus manufactured this crisis and the geopolitical context that allowed it to happen, watch the video above. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.
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The hyperspecific gift guides of TikTok
Have a “fuccboi little brother”? There’s a TikTok gift guide for that. Your 11-year-old gamer girl niece. Your 32-year-old hypebeast son. Your friend with extremely expensive taste. These are all people who, for most of the year, you love and cherish, but come December fall into the bothersome category of “people who are difficult to shop for.” Practically everyone has at least one person in their lives who fits this description, and despite the thousands of articles that come up when I Google “hard to shop for gift guide,” somehow it does not make finding a suitable present for an adult man that is not “whiskey stones” any easier. For Nolan White, a 20-year-old college student and content creator in Ontario, that “difficult to shop for” person is, typically, himself. Nolan is stylish with a specific flavor of cool guy taste; he is the kind of person who decks out their bedroom in ambient lighting and knows how to care for vintage wristwatches. He started making TikToks in January as a way to experiment with outfit styling away from the prying eyes of sites like Instagram where people who know you in real life can watch your every move, and before long, commenters began asking for recommendations and how-tos. For the past few weeks, he’s been making TikTok gift guides, where he recommends products for people like him, “the sort of guy who buys everything that he wants for himself the second he thinks of it.” Nolan is one of the many, many creators on TikTok who, for the past few years, have been publishing their own wish lists and gift guides in video form, less as a sneaky method of informing their loved ones what they want and more as a way to offer ideas for struggling shoppers. There’s one called “gift guide for granola girls” that includes things like Patagonia fanny packs and washable toilet paper, one for older sisters, an under-$50 list for the “extra” girl and the cool girl and the “That Girl.” There are entire accounts devoted to hyperspecific gift guides like @LeahsGiftGuide, which has more than half a million followers. Do you have a “fucc boi little brother?” There’s a TikTok gift guide for that. @nolandanielwhite holiday szn #greenscreen #giftguide #HolidayYourWay #menswear #fashion ♬ Tous les garcons et les filles - Françoise Hardy TikTok’s audience skews young, so naturally there are lots more gift ideas for the teens-and-20-something demographic than others, but there are also plenty for kids, categorized by age and cost (such as fancy kids’ gifts under $250”), for moms who say they “don’t need anything,” for in-laws, and for non-tech-savvy grandparents. Nolan, for instance, has recently been interviewing his own mom in preparation to make a parent-focused gift guide. “My philosophy overall is to try and find items that almost anybody could enjoy but very few people would buy for themselves,” he says. Another philosophy: Don’t pretend you know more about someone else’s hobby than they do. He uses his roommate who’s really into vinyl records as an example. “It’s hard as someone who’s not a record collector, being like, ‘How am I supposed to know which edition this is, or whether they already have it?’” The solution? “I look for something that incorporates a bit of that interest but still sticking with what I know,” he says. “There’s this company called Vinylize that makes sunglasses out of old vinyls, so maybe I find them a cool frame that includes something they would also be interested in and kind of touched by, because I’m not going to be able to find something that they wouldn’t be able to better buy for themselves.” The idea of gift guides, in recent years, has become something of a lingering question within media, particularly surrounding whether publications should be encouraging readers to consume ever more physical stuff when consuming physical stuff relies heavily on labor exploitation and is slowly destroying the planet. The UK-based site gal-dem, which covers stories related to people of color and marginalized gender communities, published an anti-consumerist gift guide in 2019 that included ideas for art or cooking projects to give loved ones; Vice published a similar list the year before. Though gift guides are still hugely popular (and profitable) for media companies and influencers, more widespread awareness of the failures of capitalism and consumerism have made it more difficult for some shoppers to click “place order” without feeling a pang of ethical queasiness. @diybabygirl Reply to @sterre_somers dont forget the hugs #fyp #brothergifts #holidaygiftguide2021 #giftsforbrother #ASOSChaoticToCalm #boygiftideas ♬ Own Brand Freestyle - FelixThe1st & Dreya Mac Yet I don’t think the joy of putting together a gift guide for strangers comes solely out of a desire to score commissions on affiliate links, despite the fact that this is almost certainly the reason so many publications and popular influencers keep tossing out product recommendations year after year. A cynical take might be that as more of the attention economy is spent watching professional influencers and online creators do their jobs, the more we’ve subconsciously adopted their rituals and mannerisms (“link in bio!” “like and subscribe!” “use my code for discount!”). Perhaps as social media has forced us all to become one-person media empires, product recommendations are the internet’s answer to magazine ads or commercial breaks, creating an endless loop of products to see, buy, and recommend again to one’s own followers. But I think the reason there are so many gift guides on TikTok is because of a far simpler, if perhaps more unfortunate, reality: That it is extremely fun to shop. For the average TikToker who earns zero or very few dollars doing so, gift guides are simply a hobby. “It’s fun,” says Nolan, “I have people asking for a $500 or $1,000 gift guide, and that’s when you can find some really out-there stuff.” In other words, curating gift guides feels like shopping with money you don’t actually have to spend; they let you imagine a perfectly designed person whose every problem can be solved by customized water bottles or fancy bakeware. I don’t know how to solve the problem of too much stuff, nor the problem of hard-to-shop-for people. I don’t know why I enjoy watching teenagers I’ll never meet tell me what they want for Christmas. I don’t know why so many of us are willing to shill for the richest man in the world, for no money, all while believing we’re doing someone else a favor. But it’s the holidays, so here we are, watching free advertisements for terrible companies, watching stylish TikTokers talk to us about things they like, buying more stuff with the best intentions and presenting them to each other in the universal language of consumption. For the record, to anyone reading this in order to drum up gift ideas for me, I’d like a Dyson Airwrap. This column was 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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The hideous legal obstacles facing DOJ’s new anti-gerrymandering lawsuit in Texas
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court as it hears a case on possible partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures on October 3, 2017. | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call The Biden administration makes a persuasive case that Texas violated the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court hates the Voting Rights Act. On Monday, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Texas’s new state house and congressional district maps violate the Voting Rights Act, which forbids gerrymanders that have the purpose or effect of abridging “the right to vote on account of race, color, or language minority status.” The Justice Department’s complaint in United States v. Texas is a fine, workmanlike legal document that makes a strong case that Texas drew its maps in order to maximize white power within the state and minimize the impact of Black and Latino voters. It’s the sort of lawsuit that would have a good shot at prevailing — if the Supreme Court hadn’t spent the past decade dismantling nearly all of the Voting Rights Act. As the complaint notes, between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, “Texas grew by nearly 4 million residents, and the minority population represents 95% of that growth.” Because of this population growth, Texas’s US House delegation expanded from 36 seats to 38 seats in the decennial redistricting process. Yet Texas drew its new maps so that both of the new districts will have white majorities, and it also allegedly redrew a third district to prevent Latinos from electing their preferred candidate. The result is that white voters will gain the ability to elect two additional congressional representatives, even though Texas owes its two new seats almost entirely to Black, Asian, and Latino voters. The Justice Department also alleges that both the new congressional maps and the new state house maps drastically underrepresent voters of color. If Latinos controlled seats proportional to their population, the complaint claims, they would control “11 Congressional seats and 45 Texas House seats.” Black voters, meanwhile, would control “5 Congressional seats and 20 Texas House seats.” Instead, under the new maps, “Latino voters have the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates in 7 Congressional seats and 29 Texas House seats,” and “Black voters have the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates in roughly 3 Congressional seats and 13 Texas House seats.” (There is one additional congressional seat and five additional state house seats that might elect candidates preferred by a coalition of Black, Latino, and other nonwhite voters.) Yet it’s uncertain whether the Justice Department is capable of prevailing in this lawsuit, no matter what evidence it presents at trial. That’s how hostile the Supreme Court’s Republican appointees are toward the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissenting opinion in Brnovich v. DNC (2021), the Court “has treated no statute worse” than the Voting Rights Act. The Court has also shielded states from federal lawsuits alleging partisan gerrymandering — a decision that potentially gives Texas a powerful weapon it can use against the Justice Department’s allegation that its new maps are an unlawful racial gerrymander. The Supreme Court has made it nearly impossible to prove that maps were enacted with racist intent In Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), the Supreme Court held that federal courts may not hear lawsuits alleging that a state’s legislative maps are an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander — meaning that the lines were drawn to benefit one party at the expense of another. The Court’s precedents, however, do permit lawsuits challenging racial gerrymanders — meaning that the lines were drawn to diminish the power of one or more racial groups. In practice, however, Rucho creates a potentially serious problem for anyone alleging racial gerrymandering. Recall that the Voting Rights Act prohibits election laws enacted for the purpose of limiting a racial group’s voting power, or that have the effect of doing so. Suppose that the Justice Department leans into the first of these two prongs: the prohibition on laws that are enacted with racist intent. In that case, Texas is likely to argue, as it has in previous cases accusing it of racial gerrymandering, that its new maps weren’t drawn in order to reduce the power of Black and Latino voters. It will most likely argue that the maps were drawn for the purpose of reducing the power of Democratic voters. Such an argument might even be superficially plausible. As the Justice Department argues in its complaint, “voting in Texas continues to be racially polarized throughout much of the State” — meaning that white voters tend to vote for Republicans and Black and Latino voters tend to vote for Democrats. So it’s fairly difficult to prove conclusively that the new maps were drawn with racist intent. A set of maps drawn to maximize the power of white Texans, and a set of maps drawn to maximize the power of Texas Republicans, are likely to closely resemble each other because race is a good proxy for partisan affiliation in Texas — as it is in much of the United States. Of course, this argument that partisan gerrymandering is distinct from racial gerrymandering could fail — and, in a fair court, it probably would fail. If state lawmakers intentionally minimized the influence of Black and Latino voters because they knew those voters were likely to be Democrats, that’s still intentional race discrimination. But if the Justice Department wants to show that Texas’s new maps were drawn with invidious racial intent, it still must overcome another of the Court’s decisions: Abbott v. Perez (2018). Perez held that lawmakers enjoy a high presumption of racial innocence when they are accused of drawing racially gerrymandered maps. In that case, the Court considered legislative maps that Texas’s Republican legislature drew in 2011, and then altered in 2013. The 2011 maps never took effect because of litigation alleging that they were an unlawful racial gerrymander. Yet in 2012, while this litigation was ongoing, a federal court drew interim maps that closely resembled the racially gerrymandered 2011 maps, so that Texas had something it could use to hold an election in 2012. The purpose of these stopgap maps wasn’t to declare any portion of the 2011 maps legally valid. It was just to ensure that the 2012 election could still move forward in Texas. Then, in 2013, the Texas legislature adopted these stopgap maps as its own — including several districts that were still being challenged as unlawful racial gerrymanders. In upholding these 2013 maps, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Perez emphasizes that “whenever a challenger claims that a state law was enacted with discriminatory intent, the burden of proof lies with the challenger, not the State.” Alito then explained that this burden is quite high. He deemed the 2013 maps legitimate because, he claimed, the evidence showed that Texas enacted them because it “wanted to bring the litigation about the State’s districting plans to an end as expeditiously as possible.” Alito’s argument, in other words, was that the 2013 maps weren’t enacted to preserve a racial gerrymander; they were enacted to shut down litigation challenging a racial gerrymander. And this distinction was sufficient to absolve the state legislature of any allegation of racism. Needless to say, the sort of Court that would rely on such a meaningless distinction is unlikely to be sympathetic to DOJ’s new lawsuit against Texas — and the Court has grown significantly more conservative since Perez was decided. Perez will also shape lower court decisions applying the Voting Rights Act, because lower courts are obligated to follow Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court does not care about what the Voting Rights Act actually says Alternatively, the Justice Department can argue that Texas’s maps are illegal because they have the effect of diminishing minority voting power, even if they were not enacted with racist intent. The Voting Rights Act does not simply bar intentional discrimination, it also prohibits any election law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right ... to vote on account of race or color.” But in Brnovich, the Court imposed a number of novel and completely atextual limits on this provision of the Voting Rights Act. Among other things, Brnovich held that there is a strong presumption that voting restrictions that were commonplace in 1982 are valid — even though the text of the law says nothing about the year 1982. Brnovich also applied a similar presumption to laws that purport to combat fraud at the polls — even though there’s nothing in the law’s text supporting this presumption either. One of the few silver linings of the Brnovich decision is that its holding is limited to only certain kinds of cases. The Court distinguished between cases alleging “vote-dilution” — and gerrymandering cases are considered vote-dilution cases — and cases challenging laws regulating the “time, place, or manner” in which elections are conducted. The specific extratextual limits on the Voting Rights Act that were fabricated by the Brnovich opinion do not apply to vote-dilution cases. But the Justice Department should take no comfort in that fact. Brnovich is a troubling case not only because it imposes novel and entirely made-up new limits on certain Voting Rights Act cases. It is also troubling because of what it says about the Court’s overarching approach to the Voting Rights Act. Simply put, if the Court is willing to make up new limits on a federal statute that appear nowhere in the text of the law, and apply those limits in “time, place, or manner” lawsuits, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t invent similarly atextual limits and impose them on vote-dilution cases. As Justice Kagan wrote in her Brnovich dissent, “the majority’s opinion mostly inhabits a law-free zone.” Once a court enters that zone, there are no longer any constraints on its judges. Brnovich doesn’t necessarily mean that the Court will never rule in favor of a voting rights plaintiff — in this case, the Justice Department. But it does suggest that the Court will do whatever the hell it wants in voting rights cases, regardless of what the law actually says.
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