Aggregating and archiving news from both sides of the aisle.

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FBI, US Marshals and police fugitive team are searching for Ethan Crumbley's parents, who are supposed to be arraigned on involuntary manslaughter charges today

Preview: • 'No discipline was warranted' against accused shooter whose parents met with school before rampage, superintendent says

Suspect's parents did not flee, their attorneys say

Preview: [Breaking news update, published at 12:36 p.m. ET]

Hear texts sent by suspect's mom days prior to the shooting

Preview: Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald shares timeline that led her to charge the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley with four counts of involuntary manslaughter following the Oxford High School shooting in Oakland County, Michigan.

Victim's brother: 'My life has been broken just like that'

Preview: Friends, family and an entire Michigan high school are grieving the loss of four students after a 15-year-old sophomore allegedly opened fire during the school day, killing four peers and shooting seven others on campus.

Teachers: How are you coping with threats, school violence, the pandemic and more?

Preview: Teachers have long been more than the people who are educating the next generation of students.

Researchers find evidence people more easily reinfected with Omicron variant than with other variants

Preview: • Omicron outbreak at Norway Christmas party is biggest outside South Africa, authorities say • Opinion: Why travel restrictions are a bad idea

Why Ron DeSantis wants to be president of Florida

Preview: • DeSantis proposes a new civilian military force • Trump's doctor faces fresh scrutiny over Covid test timeline • Judge expresses skepticism of 3 House Republicans' challenge of mask fines

US Capitol rioter 'sought to physically remove' Pelosi and McConnell, prosecutors say

Preview: Justice Department prosecutors say have evidence that an alleged rioter who brought a gun to the US Capitol on January 6 was targeting both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A 7th grader's murder went cold for 22 years. Until now

Preview: CNN was granted exclusive access as the NYPD re-opened the cold case of 13-year-old Minerliz Soriano's murder. For nearly four years, the department's top detectives & forensics lab kept the case alive, culminating in a history-making arrest 22 years after her body was found in a dumpster

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Parents of Oxford High suspect returning to area to face charges, lawyers say - The Detroit News

Preview: Parents of Oxford High suspect returning to area to face charges, lawyers say  The Detroit News Live updates: Oxford High School shooting in Michigan  CNN Why prosecutors charged Oxford school shooting suspect's parents  Detroit Free Press Oxford High School shooting: Guns are more important than the motive  MSNBC Michigan school shooting: Ethan Crumbley’s parents facing involuntary manslaughter charges  Fox News View Full Coverage on Google News

South African researchers find evidence people more easily reinfected with Omicron variant than with other variants - CNN

Preview: South African researchers find evidence people more easily reinfected with Omicron variant than with other variants  CNN 'Unprecedented' Omicron Surge in South Africa Is Hitting Children Under Age 5  The Daily Beast Omicron covid variant three times more likely to cause reinfection than delta, South Africa study says  Yahoo News Covid cases surge in South Africa where Omicron variant emerged - BBC News  BBC News Omicron 3 times more likely to cause reinfection than previous COVID variants: researchers  Fox News View Full Coverage on Google News

Prosecutors bring Epstein's massage table into court at Ghislaine Maxwell's trial - Reuters

Preview: Prosecutors bring Epstein's massage table into court at Ghislaine Maxwell's trial  Reuters Epstein's Former House Manager Testifies In Ghislaine Maxwell Trial  NBC News Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial feels disturbingly familiar  The Independent Ghislaine Maxwell was the “lady of the house," former Jeffrey Epstein staffer testifies  CBS News Ghislaine Maxwell Brought Strict Rules to Epstein Home, Ex-Employee Says  The New York Times View Full Coverage on Google News

Biden signs bill to prevent shutdown as Congress turns to debt ceiling, social spending bill - CNBC

Preview: Biden signs bill to prevent shutdown as Congress turns to debt ceiling, social spending bill  CNBC Government shutdown averted as Biden signs short-term funding bill  CBS News Congress avoids a government shutdown — but a long to-do list looms  NPR Biden signs bill averting government shutdown | TheHill  The Hill Biden signs short-term funding bill, averting government shutdown through February  ABC News View Full Coverage on Google News

Columbia Student Is Stabbed to Death Near Campus - The New York Times

Preview: Columbia Student Is Stabbed to Death Near Campus  The New York Times Alleged gang member stabs Columbia University student, 30, to death  Fox News Columbia Student Killed, Tourist Stabbed Near Morningside Park  CBS New York Liberals supported soft-on-crime policies — now that crime has come to campus  New York Post Columbia University engineering graduate student, 30, is stabbed to death  Daily Mail View Full Coverage on Google News

Blizzard warning issued for Hawaii with at least 12 inches of snow forecast - ABC News

Preview: Blizzard warning issued for Hawaii with at least 12 inches of snow forecast  ABC News Hawaii under blizzard warning as 12 inches of snow and winds up to 100 mph expected  Yahoo! Voices A BLIZZARD is coming to Hawaii this weekend  5NEWS Winter heatwave sweeping US but there’s a blizzard warning in Hawaii  The Independent A blizzard warning is in effect for Hawaii as the lower 48 contends with a snow drought  CNN View Full Coverage on Google News

What do Biden's new travel restrictions mean for you? - CBS News

Preview: What do Biden's new travel restrictions mean for you?  CBS News Biden requirement for COVID-19 testing 24 hours before international flights to start Monday  Fox News New US travel rules: What you need to know about the changes prompted by Omicron  CNN Op-ed: Vaccination mandates on domestic flights are not an omicron solution. Airport testing is a better idea.  Chicago Tribune White House says domestic travel vaccine requirements on the table due to omicron variant  Fox News View Full Coverage on Google News

Top National Guard officer tests positive for Covid - Politico

Preview: Top National Guard officer tests positive for Covid  PoliticoView Full Coverage on Google News

Ron DeSantis plans Florida paramilitary force outside federal control - The Guardian

Preview: Ron DeSantis plans Florida paramilitary force outside federal control  The Guardian DeSantis proposes a new civilian military force in Florida that he would control  CNN Gov. DeSantis wants to reestablish Florida State Guard  WPTV News - FL Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast DeSantis’ civilian military is political trial balloon | Letters  Orlando Sentinel Florida’s first responders see new funds to help cope with trauma and prevent suicides - South Florida Sun Sentinel  Sun Sentinel View Full Coverage on Google News

Kavanaugh cites landmark gay rights cases in argument about abortion restrictions - NBC News

Preview: Kavanaugh cites landmark gay rights cases in argument about abortion restrictions  NBC News How Supreme Court could decide abortion case: preserve, limit or strike down Roe v. Wade  Fox News Can Roe and Dobbs co-exist? - POLITICO  Politico The Supreme Court is coming for your reproductive health care | Sheneman Opinion | How SCOTUS Will Rule on Dobbs, in 3 Scenarios  POLITICO Magazine View Full Coverage on Google News

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Beloved Story Of Grandma And Teen's Thanksgiving Text Is Coming To Netflix

Preview: "We thank every single one of you for your love and support in our journey the last 6 years," Jamal Hinton wrote on Twitter.

Mostly White Jury Seated In Daunte Wright Trial

Preview: A white police officer is on trial for fatally shooting Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop in April.

11 Striking Photos You Missed This Week

Preview: A volcanic eruption in Spain, a skier taking a tumble and Macaque monkeys climbing on a photographer are featured in some of this week's most memorable images.

Parents Of Oxford High School Shooting Suspect Charged With Involuntary Manslaughter

Preview: Ethan Crumbley's mother and father face charges in the wake of a Michigan school shooting that left four students dead and seven people injured.

U.S. Employers Added Sluggish 210,000 Jobs In November

Preview: That's after adding more than half a million jobs in October.

Georgia Girl, 14, Fatally Shot As Brother Tries To Sell Homemade Gun: Authorities

Preview: Kyra Scott was killed in Douglasville after reportedly being struck by a shot her younger brother fired at people who took the weapon without paying.

Superintendent: Teen Was Called Into Office Before Shooting, But No Discipline Needed

Preview: Tim Throne repeatedly credited students and staff at Oxford High School for how they responded to the violence Tuesday.

Unvaccinated Nevada State Workers To Pay Monthly Insurance Surcharge

Preview: State workers enrolled in public employee healthcare plans will be charged up to $55 per month if they aren't inoculated from COVID-19.

George Clooney Explains Why He Turned Down $35 Million For A Day’s Work

Preview: "The Tender Bar" director and wife Amal Clooney "decided it’s not worth it."

Stephen Colbert Flips Bonkers Omicron Conspiracy Theory Back On Anti-Vaxxers

Preview: The "Late Show" host tore into "the newest batch of online stupid."

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SCOTUS just handed the religious right the victory it's been waiting for

Preview: How the alliance between evangelicals, Catholics and the far right against abortion created a potent political juggernaut.

Sheriff confirms FBI, U.S. marshals searching for parents of Michigan high school shooting suspect

Preview: Sheriff Michael Bouchard confirms that the FBI and U.S. marshals are currently searching for the parents of the suspect involved in the fatal Oxford High School shooting.

Ron DeSantis wants Florida to establish its own state guard. He can't be trusted.

Preview: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, proposed re-establishing the Florida State Guard. Unlike the National Guard, the volunteer force would answer to him rather than the federal government.

Women terrorized by Trump, right-wing media file lawsuit over election lies

Preview: Rachel Maddow shares Reuters reporting on two women who were threatened and terrorized by Trump supporters and right-wing media after Donald Trump singled them out in a false accusation that they were the reason he lost the 2020 election in Georgia.

Mark Meadows now calling Covid story in own book ‘fake news’

Preview: Chris Hayes: “All of the evidence points to Trump having Covid, knowing he had Covid, and spending a week spreading it around while covering it up and refusing to admit he's sick. But Meadows is willing to undercut his own book in order to pretend that’s not true.”

As arsenal for fighting Covid comes together, anti-vaxxers are literally eating dirt

Preview: Rachel Maddow looks at the increasingly extreme and bizarre ideas being pursued by people who eschew Covid vaccines in favor of imaginary remedies, and shares reporting from Brandy Zadrozny of NBC News on an alarming number of people purchasing bags of dirt they've been convinced have medicinal value.

'It's just a cold': Biden questioned on his voice sounding different

Preview: President Biden told reporters he had a cold that came from his grandson after being questioned by a reporter on his voice sounding different, and assured everyone it wasn't Covid-19.

The amusing reason Trump objected to a pro-Trump television ad

Preview: The conservative Club for Growth is running a fundamentally pro-Trump ad in Ohio's Senate race. So why does the former president want it taken down?

Why Mark Meadows apparently has a problem with his own book

Preview: Thirty years after Charles Barkley claimed his autobiography "misquoted" him, Mark Meadows is describing a story from his own book as "fake news."

Following school shooting, GOP blocks background check bill (again)

Preview: In the wake of this week's deadly mass shooting at Oxford High School, a Senate Democrat tried to advance a background checks bill. It didn't go well.

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Omicron Is Spreading Faster Than Delta in South Africa, Scientists Say

Preview: U.S. health officials braced for community spread as Omicron reached more states, including Nebraska. Follow updates on Covid.

Cognitive Rehab: One Patient’s Painstaking Path Through Long Covid Therapy

Preview: Samantha Lewis is relearning some basic aspects of her daily life after struggling with brain fog and other lingering symptoms for more than a year since being infected by the virus.

Upstate New York Hospitals Are Overwhelmed as Covid Cases Surge

Preview: Health care officials say a “perfect storm” of new Covid cases, staff shortages and filled nursing homes has created a crisis.

Covid Treatments Are Coming

Preview: Here’s why they are a big deal.

Facing Charges, Parents of Michigan Shooting Suspect Are Now Fugitives

Preview: Prosecutors charged the parents of the 15-year-old accused of killing four classmates with involuntary manslaughter, saying they failed to act on troubling signs. Law-enforcement officials say they are now missing.

Stocks Slide After Jobs Report Sends Mixed Messages About U.S. Economy

Preview: Stocks slid after a report on the state of the labor market sent mixed signals about the economy and concerns over the Omicron variant continued. Here’s the latest.

Why the November Jobs Report Is Better Than It Looks

Preview: The number of jobs added was below expectations, but otherwise the report shows an economy on the right track.

Billions for Climate Protection Fuel New Debate: Who Deserves It Most

Preview: The $1 trillion infrastructure law funds programs that tend to favor wealthy, white communities — a test for Biden’s pledge to defend the most vulnerable against climate change.

A Slow-Motion Climate Disaster: The Spread of Barren Land

Preview: Brazil’s northeast, long a victim of droughts, is now effectively turning into a desert. The cause? Climate change and the landowners who are most affected.

Robberies, Always an Issue for Retailers, Become More Brazen

Preview: In recent months, robberies have been more visible, with several involving large groups rushing into stores and coming out with armloads of goods.

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Can Apple Take Down the World’s Most Notorious Spyware Company?

Preview: Pegasus, the spyware popular with authoritarian countries, needs to be put out to pasture.

Meet the Trump Fanatics Who Have Taken Over Elections in a Critical Swing State

Preview: What happens if Michigan GOP canvassers go rogue next time?

Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About the Crummy Jobs Report

Preview: COVID has really messed with the normal count.

The Exploding Market for Devices That Help You Evade Corporate Productivity Trackers

Preview: When going "inactive" could mean a reprimand or worse.

One of the Most Unusual Cybersecurity Stories of the Year Is Getting More Complicated

Preview: The FBI shut down some encrypted platforms to trick criminals into joining its own. Now one of those platforms is fighting back.

Dear Care and Feeding: My Son’s School Called About His Laptop Usage, and I’m Extremely Worried

Preview: Parenting advice on school laptops, cruel grandparents, and sleep training.

Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book Makes Its Courtroom Debut

Preview: Day four of Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial was a tease of the book, plus detailed testimony on the scene at Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion.

Is It Still OK to Hate Kenny G?

Preview: A new HBO documentary rethinks the legendary—and legendarily despised—smooth jazz colossus.

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Wanted: Clear goals to end the pandemic

Preview: President Joe Biden arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2021. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images American policymakers still haven’t explained what the goal of pandemic policy truly is. This is an excerpt from the newsletter for The Weeds. To sign up for a weekly dive into policy and its effects on people, click here. Nearly two years after the discovery of Covid-19, we still don’t have a good answer to the biggest question: When will the pandemic end? One obvious complication is that the coronavirus has proven very good at unexpected twists and turns, as it recently reminded us with the omicron variant. But part of the problem, experts told me, is that US officials have never done a good job making it clear what the end goal even is and what it would mean for the country to return to something closer to normal. (While much of the US has started to move on, restrictions remain in place, particularly in schools, public transportation, and health care settings.) “It’s been a major problem,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “If you’re not articulating what the metrics are that are driving your public health decision-making, it makes everything more opaque to the general public.” At the beginning of the pandemic, the public was told the goal was to “flatten the curve” — a vague premise meant to ensure health care systems aren’t overwhelmed. Besides that, it was never clear whether the goal was “Covid zero” — true elimination of the virus — or something else. We now know that the elimination of Covid-19 is unlikely, if not impossible. The coronavirus spreads too quickly, and is too adaptive, to truly eliminate. So a more reasonable goal would be to treat it a bit like the flu: a threat we mitigate with vaccines and other treatments, but to some extent learn to live with. What, specifically, that looks like remains unclear. What we can say is Covid-19 isn’t like the flu yet. America seems to be seeing a fall-winter spike in cases, and omicron could make things worse. But precisely because a surge could require new precautions again, it’s important to set a clear goal. “If you have a set of policies that restrict people’s behavior, having pretty clear guidelines about when you will pull those back seems like a reasonable thing,” Robert Wachter, chair of the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine, told me. Authorities could tie restrictions to rates of cases or hospitalization (the latter will become more relevant as more people get vaccinated). The specific threshold will always be somewhat arbitrary, but the idea is to pick a number that is low enough to ensure the virus is under control and that the public can look at to understand if restrictions are warranted. For example: A community could tie school mandates for masking and quarantining to staying below 10 daily new cases per 100,000 people for two weeks. If cases remain below that threshold, the mandates end. As cases rise toward and above that threshold, restrictions phase in. Then there’s the vaccination rate. A community could ease restrictions as its vaccination rate climbs to 70, 80, or 90 percent. Higher is always better, but experts say it’s these higher thresholds that can provide solid community protection, barring new virus variants that evade immunity. In the current context, some of these goals might seem unfeasible — a 90 percent vaccination rate is very high, and no state has hit that threshold. But an ambitious goal can acknowledge how far we are from beating Covid-19, and potentially provide motivation for officials and the public to work to improve things. Another possible goal might be based on the time since vaccines became readily available: After two months of widespread vaccine availability (to allow people to get two shots and let them take effect), restrictions could ease. These goals aren’t exclusive to one another, and could be tracked together. But first, US leaders have to make their goals clear. From the start of the pandemic to now, that hasn’t been the case — and it’s made any light at the end of the tunnel harder to see. There’s still racial discrimination in housing A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated whether there’s racial discrimination in housing — and found evidence that there is still significant levels of racist actions. For the study, researchers Peter Christensen, Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri, and Christopher Timmins used a bot to send correspondences to property managers in the 50 largest US cities. Posing as renters, they used names that invoked associations with racial and ethnic groups: white, Black, or Hispanic. They then gauged if names associated with each group received different response rates. Sure enough, there were significant differences: Response rates were 9.3 percent lower for Black renters, and 4.6 percent lower for Hispanic renters. Black renters faced higher levels of discrimination in the Midwest and Northeast, while Hispanic renters faced higher levels of discrimination in the Northeast and South. NBER The three worst cities for Black renters: Chicago, Los Angeles, and Louisville, Kentucky. And for Hispanic renters: Louisville, Houston, and Providence, Rhode Island. (Yes, Louisville is on both lists.) The researchers noted that “non-response to a renter of color corresponds to a 40.2% reduction in the probability of a subsequent lease by a renter of color” — meaning this does translate to a reduced likelihood of a renter living at a property. More broadly, this trend contributes to racial segregation and inequality, since housing is a crucial ingredient to economic prosperity in America.

Long hours make bad neighbors

Preview: Twenty-first century work culture is isolating Americans from one another. | Getty Images/iStockphoto Americans’ excessive and unpredictable work schedules are making us lonely, self-centered, and powerless. In the darkest days of the early Covid-19 pandemic, when millions of Americans were struggling to feed their families and living in constant fear of a deadly virus, something unusual happened. Neighbors all over the country started coming together to help one another, buying groceries, picking up medicine, and generally caring for each other at a time when even venturing outside the house was infused with uncertainty and fear. New mutual aid organizations sprang up and saw unprecedented participation and donations — Bed-Stuy Strong, for example, in central Brooklyn, mobilized more than 1,200 people and distributed $1.2 million worth of food, according to founder Sarah Thankam Mathews. Part of the reason for this outpouring was the overwhelming need and a desire to do something to help. Part of it was that some Americans, finally, had time on their hands. The “massive crisis response” of Bed-Stuy Strong was fueled in part, Mathews said, by “a lot of people losing their jobs or having to do much less work at their jobs.” Prior to the pandemic, work was a huge obstacle to community involvement, with lack of free time the most common reason Americans cited for why they didn’t volunteer. Covid-19 has shown that in an extraordinary moment, Americans can come together, but in our ordinary lives, we often just don’t have any extra time to give to others. That shouldn’t be a surprise given the way that American work culture swallows up our days. Whether you’re working 80 hours a week at a high-pressure office job or trying to make ends meet with multiple hourly gigs, “the end result is that you are left with very little time that you would see as being open,” Jenny Odell, author of the book How to Do Nothing, told Vox. We know that long work hours and unpredictable schedules are bad for us as individuals — they contribute to heart disease, anxiety, depression, child care struggles, and more. But the time pressure Americans experience may be harming us on a broader social level as well. When you’re working constantly — or when you’re perpetually on call, never sure if or when you’ll have to go to work — you might not have the energy to volunteer with your local mutual aid group. You might not have time for political activism, even if it’s a cause you care about. You might not be able to get together with others in your workplace or your industry to advocate for better conditions because your schedules never overlap enough to organize. “Part of being a member of a community is coordinating your time with others,” Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Vox. With the rise of precarious and unpredictable work in today’s economy, many people simply can’t do that. An inability to engage with our communities hurts everyone, contributing to social isolation, a decline in worker power, and an inability to tackle problems like climate change that require people to work together. But policies that give Americans back some of their time, through paid leave and more predictable scheduling practices, can help free them up to act communally. And for people who already have some semblance of control over their time, there are ways to push back against the hyperindividualistic ideal of constant productivity and self-optimization. One way to do that is “trying to develop other ways of talking about and evaluating time,” and advocating for “larger collective structures that make it easy and possible for more people to see their time differently,” Odell said. That may sound easier said than done — yet the reward is a world in which we all have more energy not just for ourselves, but to support and care for one another. American capitalism in the 21st century has all but destroyed the concept of free time. For some, that destruction has been insidious. Work hours for salaried employees have been slowly rising for years — in 2014, the average such worker put in 49 hours a week, with 25 percent working more than 60 hours. Child care availability hasn’t kept pace with this rise in hours, and the pandemic has forced many parents, especially moms, to work and care for kids at the same time. Even time that’s not spent on work or family is supposed to be somehow “productive” — the precarity of American jobs and the rise of hustle culture have led to a “feeling that you need to get something out of all of your time,” and an emphasis on “squeezing results out of every minute of your day,” Odell said. That’s if you’re lucky. While salaried workers have been descending deeper into overwork, many low-wage hourly workers are subject to unpredictable schedules that change from day to day or week to week, sometimes with almost no notice. In a sample of about 150,000 service-sector workers surveyed by The Shift Project, which Schneider co-directs, just 20 percent have a regular daytime shift. Two-thirds get less than two weeks’ notice of their schedules, and 10 percent get less than 72 hours’ notice. Meanwhile, two-thirds say they have to keep their schedules open just in case they are called to work on a particular day. The problems of salaried workers and hourly workers aren’t the same — the former tend to make more money and have greater control over their time, even if it doesn’t always feel as though they control it. In both cases, the lack of open time affects everything from sleep to hobbies to how we experience time with our families. It also affects our ability to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Take the case of unpredictable schedules. Research suggests that such work arrangements could be “toxic” for community and political involvement, Schneider said. Unpredictable schedules lead to increased work-life conflict, Schneider said, from difficulty finding child care to trouble finishing school. It stands to reason that if being on call all the time makes it hard to coordinate with day care providers and college classes, it makes it hard to coordinate with volunteer groups too. The people most able to devote time to Bed-Stuy Strong, Mathews said, tended to be people with jobs that were neither too demanding nor too precarious — “jobs that are structured to allow you life outside of your job.” Unpredictable schedules can also make it difficult to organize within a workplace. Having a constantly changing work schedule means you likely see different coworkers every day, limiting your ability to form close relationships with anybody, sociologist Hana Shepherd has found. Related conditions of the modern workplace, like understaffing and overwork, also make it harder for coworkers to form close relationships with each other. When workers can’t bond with one another, it’s more difficult for them to form unions or other groups to push for better working conditions. Another barrier to organizing is that “these schedules wear people down,” Schneider said. “To do the hard work of organizing and self-advocacy, that takes reserves — that takes resources.” Being constantly on call for a schedule that’s always changing depletes those resources — be it time, money, or energy — leaving little left over for forming coalitions or pushing for change. Even for salaried workers, the contemporary American economy encourages isolation and discourages communal behavior. Research shows that being in a hurry can make people less likely to help a person in distress. “If you are feeling very possessive about your time,” Odell said, “you’re not necessarily going to be listening to your environment” — including the people around you and their needs. Many forms of community engagement require a level of awareness of the world around you that’s difficult to maintain if you’re always focused on your own productivity. To be involved in mutual aid, for example, “you have to know what people need” and “you have to be very responsive to a situation that’s changing” — a tall order if you’re working a 10-hour day, putting your kid to bed, and then staying up late working on your side hustle. For some people, the pandemic put a temporary pause on the pressures of work, either because they gained new flexibility by working from home or because they were laid off but had enough savings to get by (others saw only more pressure as they went to work in essential jobs or tried to care for kids while working). But now, a return to offices and the need for the unemployed to find new jobs may be contributing to a decline in involvement with mutual aid, with one group reporting a 70 percent drop in volunteers. Even something like reducing your environmental impact is more difficult if you’re overworked. As Alden Wicker reported for Vox in 2019, cutting down on household waste “can be a lot of undervalued, unpaid work” — researching sustainable alternatives, going to different stores to find washable silicone storage bags or bulk dried beans. That work is a lot harder — maybe impossible — if you’re already operating on a time deficit. So are other types of conscious consumerism. People may want to support their local small businesses rather than shopping at Amazon or other big-box retailers, but visiting several different stores to find, say, surgical masks or the right size diapers for your kid takes more time and energy than many people have at the end of a workday. Overall, the conditions of American capitalism affect different categories of workers in different ways. But for many people, the pressure to maintain our precarious lives makes it all too hard to look out for anyone but ourselves. That’s a problem because the various interlocking crises facing America and the world today, from the pandemic to climate change, demand collective consciousness and action. None of that is possible with Americans’ current relationship to our time. “You get into this constricted posture,” Odell said, in which “everything around you is either something you can have or use, or it’s an obstacle. Or it just doesn’t exist.” It doesn’t have to be this way. There are straightforward policy changes that would give Americans back some control over their time. Predictable scheduling laws, for example, offer protections for workers like advance notice of scheduling changes and the right to request a different schedule. These laws, already in place in Seattle, New York City, San Francisco, and elsewhere, are typically modest in scope, requiring just two weeks’ advance notice of any change. Yet even this small reform was shown to improve Seattle workers’ sleep and happiness, and decrease the amount of hardship they reported in their lives. “Was it a silver bullet? No,” Schneider said. “But it really did move the needle.” A similar law, the Schedules That Work Act, has been proposed at a federal level, but so far has made little headway in Congress. Beyond scheduling, policies like paid leave and a universal basic income could help change the conditions that force Americans into a single-minded focus on our own time and work, Odell said. A more “portable” safety net, with benefits like health care uncoupled from our jobs, could be helpful as well. Meanwhile, American expectations of work and workers will have to adjust as well. As a culture, we define good workers as putting in long hours and always being present at work, Youngjoo Cha, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, told Vox. “Those kinds of cultural notions have to change.” Companies can do their part by allowing time off and flexibility — and by providing those benefits to everyone, regardless of family status, Cha said. That way, parents (especially moms) are less likely to be stigmatized for taking time off, and child-free people are able to take time too, rather than always being expected to fill in for coworkers who have child care responsibilities. Cha has found that at companies where flexible work policies are offered in a gender-neutral and consistent way, employees report greater well-being and are less likely to equate long hours with success. All these broad-based reforms could help free up some of our time and mental energy for causes larger than ourselves and goals more lofty than getting through another day. Individual Americans may be able to make changes in their lives too, if they’re in a position to do so. Hourly workers who are constantly on call and juggling multiple jobs and family obligations may not have the luxury of rethinking how they spend their time, Odell said. But people who do have some control over their schedules can adjust the way they plan their days. Odell recalls a time a few years ago when two friends “gently shamed” her out of working after 5 pm. Such conversations among friends and colleagues can start to change norms away from always working and toward a more expansive ethos that allows for collective well-being. Today, Odell said, “I’m really careful about how I talk about time and values to people.” Another small prescription: talking to strangers, if you feel safe doing so. “Just being reminded that every person that you pass by has a whole history, and they have their own problems, and they’re often way more interesting than you thought” is a great way to build empathy, Odell said. It’s not on any one person to completely change the structure of American life. But by looking outside ourselves a little more, if we can, we may be able to make such change more possible. After all, “community care is, really simply, part of being human,” Mathews said. “It’s how we survived for this long.”

NASA gave Jeff Bezos money to build his office park in space

Preview: Blue Origin wants to build a commercial space station that NASA astronauts could eventually visit. | Courtesy of NASA Blue Origin thinks all kinds of companies will want some space in space. After more than two decades in orbit, NASA is preparing to retire the International Space Station. The habitable satellite only has permission to operate until 2024, and while it’s likely that the space station’s funding could be extended until 2028, NASA plans to decommission the ISS and find a replacement by the end of the decade. Cue Jeff Bezos. The billionaire’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has proposed a new commercial space station called Orbital Reef, which would provide a “mixed use business park” in space. This concept now has the support of NASA. The agency announced on Thursday that it would award Blue Origin and its partner companies $130 million to develop the space station, which NASA hopes will launch before 2030. With the help of several other companies, including Sierra Space and Boeing, Blue Origin plans to build a satellite that’s slightly smaller than the ISS and houses up to 10 people. The design includes desk space, computers, laboratories, a garden, and 3D printers. The goal, the company says, is to lease out office space to interested parties, including government agencies, researchers, tourism companies, and even movie production crews. Blue Origin’s plan is predicated on the idea that the end is coming for the ISS, which NASA is still figuring out how exactly to remove from orbit. While space stations have been helpful for space exploration, Blue Origin senior vice president Brent Sherwood argued in an October op-ed that private companies now have the capabilities to take over much of the burgeoning economy in low-Earth orbit, or LEO. Blue Origin is even building a space tug, a transport vehicle that moves cargo between different orbits, that could reportedly be used to salvage parts from the ISS and incorporate them into Orbital Reef’s systems. NASA doesn’t mind the corporate takeover of low-Earth orbit. The agency’s first space station, SkyLab, was only in orbit for a few months before NASA let the vehicle descend and decompose into the atmosphere. The space agency has been weighing defunding the ISS, which is full of aging hardware, for several years, and NASA’s investment in Orbital Reef is part of more than $400 million in funding that the agency has set aside to develop new, privately built and operated space stations through its Commercial LEO Destinations program. Eventually, NASA hopes that it can send its astronauts to these stations instead of paying to maintain the ISS. Overall, the plan could save the government more than $1 billion every year. “This is technology that is over 20 years old at this point. When you expose that infrastructure to radiation, solar weather ... things are going to break down,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “Having these commercial space stations will be a way of America keeping their foot in low-Earth orbit while focusing more of their resources on moon and Mars exploration.” In the meantime, NASA is currently focusing on the Artemis program, an ambitious plan to establish a long-term human presence on the moon. The agency intends to send people to the moon for the first time in decades as soon as 2025, and hopes the project will eventually serve as a stepping stone to future exploration of Mars. Private companies, including Blue Origin, have desperately fought for a role in this prestigious mission, and especially a lucrative contract to develop pivotal moon landing technology. SpaceX won that contract earlier this year, prompting Bezos’s company to sue NASA and lobby the Senate to reverse the decision. Those efforts have yet to bear fruit, so Bezos now seems to be turning his attention back to the low-Earth orbit economy, where there are more customers and less competition from Elon Musk. “Most, if not all, of the problems or the challenges that need to be worked to have a commercial LEO destination have already been solved by the International Space Station program,” Sherwood, of Blue Origin, said in a Thursday press conference. “That’s the explanation for why we can develop a commercial space station for so much less than it cost NASA the first time.” But there’s reason to believe that the Orbital Reef project may not succeed in the near future — or at all. Blue Origin still hasn’t launched humans into orbit, a feat SpaceX achieved last month during the Inspiration4 mission. Blue Origin also lists its New Glenn reusable launch system and Boeing’s Starliner crew vehicle as pivotal parts of the Orbital Reef plan, but both vehicles have yet to conduct a problem-free spaceflight. Courtesy of Blue Origin Blue Origin has released conceptual renderings of what the Orbital Reef station could look like. Blue Origin isn’t the only company vying to replace the ISS. NASA has also awarded funding to two other space station concepts, which were selected from 11 proposals sent to the agency’s Commercial LEO Destinations program. NASA awarded $160 million to a company called Nanoracks, which is developing a space station called Starlab in partnership with its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. Starlab will house up to four people at any one time, and will include a specialized research laboratory. Northrop Grumman, an aerospace company that frequently collaborates with NASA, will also receive $125.6 million to develop its space station concept, which is designed to house four astronauts and last at least 15 years. At the same time, NASA has already agreed to pay the space company Axiom Space $140 million to help build at least one module, or detachable space station component, that will be conjoined to the ISS. That module will eventually be spun out and attached to several other modules to form a separate, fully functional space station when the ISS winds down operations. That approach is supposed to make it easier to transfer the hardware that’s currently aboard the ISS onto a new vehicle. A NASA spokesperson has described the current moment as “a renaissance for human spaceflight.” In an October statement, the spokesperson said, “As more people fly to space and do more things during their spaceflights, it attracts even more people to do more activities in low-Earth orbit and reflects the growing market we envisioned when we began NASA’s Commercial Crew Program 10 years ago.” For NASA, it’s also critical that at least one of these companies succeeds, and it’s possible that more than one is ultimately launched into orbit. After all, time is running out on the ISS, where malfunctions and outdated technology and equipment are common. Without private companies stepping in to build an alternative, the US government risks a future where it has a human presence on the moon and Earth, and nowhere in the middle. Update, December 3, 10 am: This story was updated with news that NASA announced funding awards for several space station proposals, including Blue Origin’s. This story first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

Biden’s winter Covid plan is what a new normal might look like

Preview: The Biden White House is trying to get out ahead of the omicron variant threat, detailing a new plan to accelerate vaccinations, increase testing, and make treatments widely available. | Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg via Getty Images The pandemic refuses to quit. What can the White House do about it? Experts were already a little worried about another winter surge of Covid-19. Now the omicron variant has amplified those concerns, though we still don’t know to what extent it will alter the course of the pandemic. The Biden administration is trying to get ahead of the threat, detailing a new plan to accelerate vaccinations, increase testing, make treatments widely available, and deploy teams of public health experts to any hot spots that emerge in the coming months. Taken together, the plan reads like the consensus you would probably find if you asked a few hundred public health experts what we should be doing; in fact, some experts are annoyed some of these things weren’t already being done. Even so, a few provisions — such as promising insurance reimbursement for tests rather than providing them for free — raise eyebrows. But overall, experts seem to think the plan hits the important points. The real question is how much of an impact any program from the federal government can have at this point. Some state governments are resistant to even the most basic measures, such as masks in schools; 16 percent of adults said in October they will definitely not get the Covid-19 vaccine, the highest share recorded by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in its vaccine surveys. People have dug in. The administration knows it can’t stop Covid-19, omicron variant or otherwise. But this is its attempt to lower the barriers for people to coexist with Covid-19: by making it easier to get a vaccine, to get tested, and to get meds if you are sick. Biden’s winter Covid-19 plan, briefly explained The plan announced Thursday by the Biden administration covers the full spectrum of the federal response. It starts with booster shots. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already revised its recommendations, urging all adults over 18 to get an additional dose of a Covid-19 vaccine six months after their second Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech shot (or two months after their first shot if they received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). Many experts are cautiously optimistic that boosters received now will also be protective against omicron if the variant starts to spread widely in the US, though how much protection the current vaccines provide remains to be seen. The Biden administration is partnering with the AARP for an education campaign to get seniors boosted and plans outreach from Medicare as well. While there is still some debate about the value of boosters for young and healthy adults, almost every expert agrees that older Americans and people who have a compromised immune system should receive another shot. AARP also pledged to coordinate ride-hailing programs to get people to their booster appointments, and the White House is calling on employers to give workers paid time off to get their shots. However, 30 percent of Americans remain unvaccinated — including a lot of kids between 5 and 12, who are currently eligible for the vaccines. (Shots for kids younger than 5 are expected to be approved sometime early next year.) Community health centers are going to hold family vaccination days and FEMA is going to set up mobile vaccination clinics. Medicaid will also reimburse doctors for talking with families about getting children vaccinated. This will be an uphill battle: According to the KFF October survey, 30 percent of parents say they will “definitely not” get their child vaccinated and another 33 percent plan to wait and see. And many adults who are currently unvaccinated insist they will never get a shot. Testing remains essential to tracking and stemming the virus’s spread, letting people know if they need to isolate or seek medical attention. The Biden administration plans to issue new regulations to permit patients to seek reimbursement from their health insurer if they purchase an over-the-counter test; they also plan to distribute more tests for free through community health centers and other providers including pharmacies. Another component of the plan is “strike” teams that can be deployed to support hospitals strained because of staffing shortages, to provide monoclonal antibody treatments in areas with high spread, and disease investigators to assist with tracking the virus. There are also stricter rules for international travelers, requiring a negative Covid-19 test within a day before boarding a plane. And as part of the plan, the federal government will take responsibility for doling out the new antiviral medications if and when they are authorized by the FDA. It’s a pretty comprehensive plan, though experts still see some shortcomings. “What other partners could they employ other than AARP to reach others who are not of retirement age?” Tara Smith, a public health professor at Kent State University, told me. “I like that partnership and the things they are doing there — but we need that for other age groups too. I like their family vaccination clinics, but why wasn’t this started in January?” Should the tests just be free? One part of the plan, though, drew particular scrutiny: It calls for patients to seek reimbursement from their health insurer if they purchase an over-the-counter test. Some people are getting billed for Covid-19 tests currently, which might discourage them from taking a test at all; and expanded insurance coverage could help ameliorate that problem. But there will likely still be an obstacle between purchasing the test yourself and getting your money back. It has been well documented in US health care that even small financial obligations can have a sizable effect on people’s actions. The so-called “shoebox effect” — when people who are asked to submit reimbursements on their own never end up doing so because it’s a hassle — could also kick in. “Insurance reimbursement for at-home tests will increase access and mean more people will use the tests, but it’s not a panacea,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. “Having to pay upfront will discourage some people, and the hassles of having to file for reimbursement from your insurer will mean that many receipts will just end up sitting in shoeboxes.” Why isn’t the federal government just buying hundreds of millions of tests and giving them away? It’s a matter of funding. Even 500 million rapid at-home tests would barely be enough for one for every person in the US. Abbott’s rapid testing kits currently retail for $24 for two tests at CVS. It could all add up quickly and, while we can debate whether the government should buy and give away the tests anyway, that much money would likely require creative accounting by federal agencies or else new funding approved by Congress. From the government’s perspective, having patients submit bills directly to the insurer is certainly easier. But it’s more difficult for the patient. The US government also does not typically pay, for all its citizens, the kind of routine medical services that Covid-19 tests will likely become, though most other wealthy countries do so in one way or another. A more conventional American market is expected to emerge, with insurers covering Covid-19 tests as they do other routine tests. “This is our fragmented health care system at work,” Levitt said. The Biden plan looks like a path from an epidemic to a new normal The plan provides a playbook of sorts for how we start to live with Covid-19. Because eradication is out of the question, experts are thinking about how to reduce risk and harm as much as possible, while also allowing life to return to normal as much as possible. “Because Covid-19 is becoming an endemic infection, teaching people how to risk-calculate with an everyday threat is very important,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told me. “To that end, home testing, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, and boosting of the high-risk are really important.” Nobody wants to go back into lockdown, and in the US, there isn’t the political will or public buy-in to do it anyway. The Biden administration is trying to create a plan while facing a big dilemma: Millions of people are still vulnerable to the virus — and that number could grow depending on how effective omicron is at overcoming prior immunity, which we don’t know — but many of them don’t have any interest in getting vaccinated or even getting tested. “Many people are just done. They won’t get boosters, at least right now,” Smith said. “They won’t wear masks short of a serious mandate. They certainly won’t be buying tests.” The federal government has already run into some of the limits of its power: The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large employers is tied up in court. The threat of a mandate did appear to have motivated a lot of businesses to require vaccines and a lot of people to get them; research shows mandates could be effective and new vaccinations did spike after the White House had finalized its regulations. Sometimes, sending the signal can be the next best thing to concrete policy. So they came up with this all-of-the-above approach. Boosters and tests for people who want them. For those who end up getting sick, we have more treatment options than before, with the new antivirals expected to come on the market any day, and the Biden winter plan includes measures for getting the medications out into the country. A new normal isn’t a world without any Covid-19, but a world in which we can live with it. Nature itself will have something to say about that, as omicron reminds us. But this is what the Biden administration says it is doing to prepare.

Spotify Wrapped, unwrapped

Preview: Getty Images/iStockphoto Spotify spies on us, and we kinda love it. When Spotify Wrapped came out in 2017, it hit my group chats like breaking news. A friend frantically sent me a screenshot showing they were in the top 1 percent of Frank Ocean listeners with a message, “CAN U BELIEVE THIS,” followed by a deluge of texts from other friends, highlighting their streaming accolades. Not long after, people all over the internet were sharing their listening results. Instagram stories were filled with streaming statistics that either poked fun at lowbrow taste or flexed artistic inclinations. (I admit, I too shared my own.) Spotify originally released their first iteration of Wrapped in 2015 as “Year in Music,” a feature for users to look back through their last 365 days via the songs and artists they listened to most. The tool included statistics like the listener’s most played songs and how many hours of music they listened to in total. While popular, Year in Music didn’t quite go viral, not until it was upgraded two years later to the customizable, jazzy graphic release it is now. Now, Spotify Wrapped has become an annual tradition, marking the change of seasons the same way beloved cultural staples like Starbucks holiday cups or Mariah Carey mark the holidays. But as Spotify’s feature rose in popularity, so did a growing discourse about algorithms, the use of which has become standard procedure on social media, and which Wrapped relies on. An algorithm takes a set of inputs and generates an output, the same way a recipe turns ingredients into a cake. For Spotify to rely on algorithms means it uses data from its consumers to generate music discovery delivered through playlists. Open Spotify’s home page and you can find any number of curated playlists that source user data collected from the app, from “Top Songs in the USA,” which aggregates collective data, to “Discover Weekly,” which draws from personalized data. To create these playlists, Spotify tracks the music you listen to, organizes it into certain categories, measures tracks against other listeners, and uses that information to choose what music to show you. Screenshot from @madisonbeer on Instagram Singer Madison Beer, who has 28.9 million Instagram followers, shares her 2021 Spotify Wrapped to her story. Spotify’s algorithmic delivery was what initially set it apart from other music streaming platforms, often cited as an important factor in the app’s success in spite of how it relies on tracking data. One user of the app, Kiana McBride, 22, told me, “My Discover Weekly is often fire. Spotify has such good data analytics, it can tell what music I’m likely to enjoy.” While tracking music data doesn’t seem too murky at first glance, the use of artificial intelligence has been proven to discriminate. Reports have shown how artificial intelligence can be encoded with bias and perpetuate racism. When coupled with video technology or security software, algorithms have also played an integral role in bolstering surveillance capitalism. There have even been reports indicating how the platform’s feature is inaccurate and nefariously marketed. Still, Spotify Wrapped goes viral. Our collective enamoration with this recap reveals the extent to which algorithms have become integrated into the way we conceive of ourselves in digital consumer culture: as brands to be refined. According to P. David Marshall, a new media and communications professor at Deakin University and a leading scholar on online identity, the concept of “dual strategic personas” deeply informs how people approach what they share on social media. “Dual strategic persona [uses] the word in both ways,” he told me. “Dual as in two, and duel, meaning you’re actually beginning to play in a space that understands the algorithmic transformations.” Consumers increasingly understand that how they use an app influences the type of content they see, creating a digital double consciousness, where “we realize we’re a digital construction,” but we also realize that “a digital construction is connected to who we are — who we think we are,” said Marshall. In essence, our online selves are still an extension of ourselves; it’s not not a version of personhood. At the same time, it’s a version that is inherently manufactured and performative. And as is the nature of performance, those on stage are called to act incessantly. We strategically construct a certain perception of ourselves through snippets that, with the help of Spotify Wrapped and other algorithms, become increasingly refined. For instance, sharing a Wrapped roundup on social media can position a person in a particular niche: indie; punk; rock. If the music genres are even more obscure, then that person can move themselves into hyper-specific niches: folktronica; cloud rap; Japanese city pop. One user of the app, Alfonso Velasquez, 22, told me he loves viewing other people’s Spotify findings because in comparison, “it makes him feel more indie.” He’s speaking to an instinct to curate a brand out of himself — an instinct derived from dominant influencer culture. “Influencers are in that dual persona structure, working between a corporate version of themselves and a highly individualized version of themselves,” said Marshall. Because of this, they’re “changing our wider transnational culture as to what is normal.” Another user, Isabel Edreva, 21, told me they view other people’s Spotify findings to “take recs.” “If someone I really respect has a top song I’ve never heard of,” she explained, “I’m like, ‘Okay, I should listen to it.’” Many people do not register taking recommendations from Spotify Wrapped as being influenced. But that is the crux of influencer culture. “We begin to do variations of those things that influencers do,” said Marshall. “They become our way of trying to understand online life, and the way that we begin, as ordinary people, to reconstruct our notion of a differentiated persona.” When internet celebrities such as singer Madison Beer, star and singer Loren Gray, or TikTok-viral musician Laufey post their streaming results, the practice catches on even quicker. Spotify Wrapped is just one example of how the habits of influencers, from what they post down to how they post it, becomes a particular guidebook for everyone on the internet, regardless of who you’re following on social media. Spotify makes participating in this culture even easier. With a single tap, the content — already made in various coordinating colors — can be shared. The eye-catching graphics are pre-generated. Users can reveal a little about themselves with low stakes and minimal participation, thoughtlessly mimicking how influencers mine their likes and interests to become a brand. Screenshot from @loren on Instagram Influencer Loren Gray, who has 22.2 million Instagram followers, shares her 2021 Spotify Wrapped to her story. Perhaps it’s this seamless participation with instant brand-building rewards that makes the suspiciousness of having your data tracked on the platform pale in comparison. “It’s just songs,” a user of the app, Sophronia Barone, 21, told me. “I guess it’s no big deal.” Is it just songs, though? When analyzing the back end of the app, a team of five researchers behind the 2019 study “Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music” made clear that algorithms do not exist in a vacuum. They wrote, “Scholars have demonstrated how algorithmic content delivery has implications for the production of gender, race, and other categorizations. Users are invited — or obliged — to have their listening habits turned into “taste profiles,” which are measured using a set of parameters.” Spotify has not made public what these categories are, but the academics ascertained that gender is certainly one of them. They noted that Paul Lamere, the director of the music intelligence and data platform, Echo Nest (which was acquired by Spotify in 2014), provided data based on listening habits by gender in a 2014 blog post. The researchers found that self-reporting your gender is a mandatory part of the platform’s sign-up process and, further, is listed as one of the types of information that Spotify collects and shares under their privacy policy, “indicat[ing] that gender is perceived as vital to the functioning of Spotify, at least for marketing purposes.” They also discovered the company knows your IP address, meaning location, nationality, and by proxy, social class. Another study by the Bank of England found that Spotify data can even reveal user moods. It’s not unreasonable, then, to assume that Spotify can deduce a good chunk of your socioeconomic demographic, narrowing down ethnicity, age, and perhaps even sexuality if you listen to specific podcasts, like Spotify’s popular Queerology. (And after a priest’s sexuality was recently outed by a Catholic publication via his phone’s location data, it’s clear that this information has real-life consequences.) Spotify then capitalizes off that information by selling it to companies, to which demographic profiles are akin to gold. Spotify, of course, isn’t the only company to find success at marketing algorithms back to consumers: Everything from DigiScents, which promises to perfume your home based on your web browsing history, to TikTok, the most popular social media app of the moment, is all about algorithmic-based viewing and encourages us to buy a ridiculous amount of stuff. Meet AI culture, the new age of digitized capitalism, where the consumer is endlessly stuck in their own feedback loop. If you open an app, you inherently give companies free labor in the form of web traffic, AdSense, and taste profiles, only for those apps to sell your profile and user identity — what is essentially you — to others and then eventually, back to yourself. These companies push us toward algorithmic-based viewing, and not only do we lap up what their data reveals about us, but we also eagerly share it for others to see. We do so in the name of self-branding. Because in the end, we get one more quantifiable piece to add to our ultra-specific, online persona. For a fleeting moment, we can all be influencers, too. “I like that Spotify is sharing their stats with you,” said McBride. It’s “like you’re an MLB star for listening to music.”

How to know if omicron is as scary as it seems

Preview: A health worker sanitizes a resident’s hands at a Covid-19 mobile testing site in Cape Town, South Africa, on December 2. South Africa announced the discovery of a new variant, named omicron, on November 25 as cases began to spike and the strain spread across the globe. | Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images These 5 leading indicators will help experts figure out how much of a threat omicron really is. For now, the whole world is waiting for scientists to figure out how much of a threat the omicron coronavirus variant actually is. That will take several weeks at least, according to experts. Science will need to answer big questions about how transmissible the new variant is, how well it overcomes the immunity conferred by inoculation or prior infection, whether it causes more severe illness than other variations of the virus, and so on. But as that work goes on, there are several indicators to monitor in the next few weeks — none dispositive on their own, but which, taken together, should start to give us a better idea of what we are facing. 1) Cases in South Africa We don’t actually know that the omicron variant originated in South Africa or Botswana, the countries that alerted the world to it. They were just the first to detect it, thanks to their world-leading genetic sequencing capabilities. Nevertheless, because it is really good at sequencing, South Africa is an early omicron “hot zone” that should have one of the most complete pictures of how the variant is affecting the virus’s spread. Experts are already watching the country closely to see how much cases rise in the coming days. So far, the answer has been: quite a lot. At the beginning of November, South Africa was seeing about 349 new Covid-19 cases every day on average. As of December 1, it is averaging almost 3,800 new cases daily. Our World In Data Experts say other factors could be contributing to that steep increase, like South Africa’s low vaccination rate (29 percent of its people have had at least one dose), as well as possible superspreader events. The question will be how much omicron alone is driving the surge and how much cases there ultimately swell. The more they spike, the more reason for concern. 2) Hospitalizations in Israel Case numbers will give us some idea whether omicron is driving new surges. Another key question is whether it causes more severe illness than the delta variant, with more people developing serious symptoms, ending up in the hospital, and possibly dying. That would portend a much grimmer picture of the future than if the variant were to prove to be less dangerous than delta. And while there has been early speculation on this, we do not have nearly enough information to say confidently which way it will go. One metric to watch, according to experts: What happens to hospitalization numbers in Israel? It’s another country that is very good at tracking Covid data. It’s also a rich country with comparable vaccination levels to the US and an aggressive booster strategy. It could be a microcosm of what the United States can expect from omicron. “Israel is pretty responsive in terms of taking action, also well vaccinated and boosted,” Bill Hanage, a Harvard University epidemiologist, told me. “A proxy for a place that mostly does things right and an early indicator of what can be expected in similar places.” Omicron has been detected in Israel, but it’s still early. Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator: It takes time for a person to contract the virus and then develop serious enough symptoms that they go to the hospital. Our World In Data 3) The share of omicron among US Covid-19 cases Omicron could take over the pandemic, like delta — or fizzle like beta and gamma, variants you’ve probably already forgotten about. One way to tell if it’s becoming dominant is that the share of cases — in the US and elsewhere — caused by omicron will start rising. To provide some context, when the delta variant took over, it grew from a tiny fraction of all cases (about 1 percent in May) to the vast majority (99 percent by August) in three months. For now, 99.9 percent of samples being sequenced here are the delta variant, as the chart below from the CDC illustrates. CDC “Delta is still the dominant variant in the US,” Jen Kates, director of HIV and global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me, “and that should be the prime concern for anyone.” But if omicron is the next dominant variant, that should start to change soon. We know omicron is in the United States already; what we don’t know is whether it can outcompete delta. This metric is where that answer will ultimately show up. 4) Intrinsic transmissibility The first three indicators are straightforward and easy for everyone to grasp: Are cases rising? Are hospitalizations increasing? Is omicron making up a bigger share of infections? Simple stuff. But there are two more worth monitoring that are much more technical, but crucial to understanding omicron’s transmission. The first is known as intrinsic transmissibility, as described by virologist Trevor Bedford of Fred Hutch on Twitter. In brief, that means: Assuming nobody had immunity against any form of Covid-19, how quickly would the omicron variant spread through the population? For each infected person, how many more people would they infect? This is the R0 metric you might recall from the spring of 2020. As scientists identify more omicron cases and gather more data on the people who are getting infected with it, they will be better able to estimate what that R0 actually is. As Bedford explained, some rough math based on the early data from South Africa suggests omicron’s R0 may fall anywhere from roughly 3 (meaning one infected person would infect three more people on average) to 6 or more. That’s a huge range. In practical terms, that means omicron could be anywhere from less infectious than the original version of Covid-19 to more contagious than delta, already by far the most transmissible variant to come along. Again, based on wildly divergent spike protein, I'm guessing that immune escape will be substantial and so I still suspect that it's quite possible that Omicron will show lower intrinsic transmissibility than Delta. My updated diagram. 16/18 — Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) December 1, 2021 5) Immune escapability But, to complicate the issue further, we live in a world where some people have immunity to Covid-19, at varying levels. People have been vaccinated, or they’ve been infected with other versions of the virus and recovered. Omicron’s ability to evade this immunity will also factor significantly into its ability to transmit in the real world. Figuring that out will depend on more sequencing to identify omicron cases and more information on which patients are contracting the variant. Then scientists can plug the statistics into their models and more accurately project how often vaccinated people or people infected by the previous variants are coming down with omicron. There also might be a difference between how well the variant can elude natural immunity versus immunity via vaccination. With delta, one CDC study found unvaccinated people were more prone to reinfection than vaccinated people. Combining intrinsic transmissibility and immune escapability should give us a better idea of how quickly omicron is likely to spread. But it’s still worth knowing to what degree transmission is being driven by unvaccinated people who are being infected for the first time, versus those who were vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19. If the omicron variant has high intrinsic transmissibility but low immune escapability, then the primary threat is to unvaccinated people. That would indicate the vaccines are holding up well against it, but the virus could tear through unprotected populations. But another possibility is that omicron has relatively low intrinsic transmissibility, but higher immune escapability. Unvaccinated people are still fully vulnerable to the virus in that scenario. But that would also mean vaccinated people could be at higher risk than they currently are, and omicron-specific boosters might even be necessary. “High immune escape, lower intrinsic transmissibility is not necessarily a good thing,” Bedford pointed out. “Higher immune escape places previously infected and vaccinated individuals more at risk.” It will take time to answer those questions. But only once they are answered will we really know how much omicron will alter the course of the pandemic.

This legendary 92-year-old biologist has some advice for saving Earth

Preview: In an interview with Vox, renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson shares his stories from the field, plan to protect nature, and advice for young scientists. | Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images E.O. Wilson, who’s considered a modern-day Darwin, wants you to go out and look for new species. In the spring of 1955, E.O. Wilson, then a young entomologist at Harvard, traveled to northeastern Papua New Guinea to study ants. Hiking with local guides through dense rainforests, he climbed 13,000 feet to the summit ridge in the Saruwaged mountains — becoming, by his account, the first Western scientist to reach the peak. So much of what Wilson saw during that expedition was new to Western science, including a number of types of ants, he told Vox in a recent interview. “There were a lot of adventures like that,” said Wilson, who’s now 92. Today, it may seem as though scientists have explored nearly every corner of the Earth, from the thick, humid jungles of Central Africa to the rust-red, arid outback of Australia. Walking into an ecosystem and stumbling upon species that have yet to be cataloged in academic journals now seems like something you can only read about in books that people like E.O. Wilson have written. (He’s written more than 30, and if you don’t have time to read them all, you can check out a new biography by Richard Rhodes out about him entitled Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature.) But that’s not how Wilson, now a research professor emeritus at Harvard, sees it. In fact, much of the world’s biodiversity remains undiscovered, he told Vox. “A rough estimate suggests that there are upwards of 10 million species on the planet, and we know only a small fraction of them,” said Wilson, who popularized the term “biodiversity” in the 1980s. “The opportunities are endless.” Sure, you might have to travel farther or study smaller organisms to find something new, he said, but there remains so much potential for discovery. And those discoveries are useful, he added, especially as we seek to conserve nature. While we already know plenty about the forces that harm ecosystems and wildlife, from habitat loss to oil spills, there’s tremendous value in knowing what we have to lose, in better understanding the planet that supports us. I spoke with Wilson about scientific discovery for a recent episode of Vox Conversations (you can find a link below). We also chatted about how studying ants helped him understand human behavior and led to a big new conservation initiative called the Half-Earth Project. Inspired by Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which he published in 2016, the initiative seeks to protect 50 percent of all land and ocean on the planet. The project backbone is a large dataset that shows where new protected areas would be most useful to protect biodiversity. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Most species on Earth are still undiscovered Benji Jones One of my favorite parts of reading your books is hearing about your incredible expeditions. In some cases, you were the first Western scientist to explore these places, like in New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. What was that like? E.O. Wilson Exciting. That’s why I went halfway around the world. I think the most important adventure I did was when I climbed to the center of the Saruwaged Range mountains on the peninsula of Papua New Guinea as the first non-native — that is, the first scientist. With the help of locals, I went up to the 13,000-foot crest of the mountains. Everything was new. Most of the animals that I saw, including kinds of ants, had never been found before. Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images E.O. Wilson first made a name for himself in the study of ants. Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images He made many discoveries throughout his life, including the finding that ants communicate with each other primarily through pheromones. Benji Jones Was there a particular wildlife encounter that stands out to you from all of your travels? E.O. Wilson I believe probably the most important was when I visited a little set of islands off the coast of Australia called New Caledonia and set out to be the first entomologist to arrive there and celebrate a tremendous variety of new species. Benji Jones Your books have really inspired people to go out and explore the world. But I can’t imagine that there are many places in the world today that haven’t been touched by humans. What you did is almost impossible to do now. E.O. Wilson It’s certainly more difficult, but there’s still a lot of unclaimed territory, so to speak. There are many undiscovered and unstudied species in the world — especially in remote areas in the tropics — that await even the most elementary studies, and the results are going to continue to unfold across several generations of scientists. Benji Jones Why is there still a strong need for basic science and cataloging more species? It seems like there’s so much pressure to solve the problem of habitat loss and other forces that are driving down biodiversity. Should we not focus instead on stopping those forces? E.O. Wilson We should be doing both. A rough estimate suggests that there are upward of 10 million species on the planet, and we know only a small fraction of them. [Estimates for the number of species on Earth vary, but a widely cited figure is 8.7 million, which comes from this paper.] In most cases, we just have a few specimens in museums. It would be enormously productive and useful if we made more of an effort to identify all of the species on Earth — to find out where they are and what their status is. The opportunities are endless. They represent the equivalent of the first explorations made by people when they came out of Europe and began to explore the rest of the world. That’s what we have before us. Benji Jones I love this idea that there’s so much wonder still left in the world. You can go out today and find something new that might contribute to science in a productive way. E.O. Wilson Yes, even if you have to travel a little farther than would have been the case a few years ago. The most important discoveries are going to be made in examining the smallest of the ants, the animals, the plants. We just need to know what is on this planet. We need to have a more complete and productive understanding of how to care for the life that we’ve inherited. Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images Wilson discovered hundreds of species of ants throughout his career. Benji Jones Along those lines, why should we care about a species if we don’t even know about it? If a species that we haven’t discovered is going extinct, for example, why does it matter? E.O. Wilson We won’t see the magnitude of our ignorance, of our excitement, or of the useful knowledge embedded in the living environment until we set out to explore all of it. That includes large numbers of small, inconspicuous species. Benji Jones We need to know what we have to lose. E.O. Wilson Yes. We need to not carelessly let any species slip away from us. If we want to know what is on this planet and why it is a live planet — what contributes to that life and what it all means, ultimately, for human existence — we should try to save it all. “If we want to know what is on this planet and why it is a live planet, we should try to save it all” Benji Jones If you were going to give advice to a student of biology today, to explore a type of life, a type of organism, where would you recommend starting? E.O. Wilson If you wish, you can take a map of the world and throw a dart. Where the dart hits, you will find animals and plants and mysteries of great magnitude. What ants can teach us about human behavior Benji Jones You’ve also written a lot about the biological basis of human behavior. What has studying ants and ecology taught you about the behavior of humans? E.O. Wilson My early interests as a kid in the American South led me to the study of ants. And I discovered, in my hometown, the first US colony of [red imported] fire ants. What makes ants stand out and interesting to a young scientist is that they communicate with each other using chemicals — with pheromones. My interest in chemical communication among ants led me to broader studies on the origin of social behavior more generally. This brings us to humans. Human society can be illuminated more effectively by studying how societies are put together in the vast array of organisms, from deer to starlings to ants to bees. Each species creates societies in different ways, using different senses. From that, early on in my career at Harvard, I saw the option of doing a comparative study across many species, using different sensory modalities. I saw the opportunity of building a discipline out of this. And so about 50 years ago, I proposed a new discipline called sociobiology. I couldn’t stay away from humans. I decided to include the peculiarities of human social behavior and how it could be illuminated — the evolution of human and social behavior — by making a comparison with societies of all kinds. That got some attention. Benji Jones You got a lot of flack, as Rhodes details in his book, for your work trying to understand the biological or evolutionary basis of certain human behaviors. Looking back on that now, would you have done anything differently? E.O. Wilson As the unfavorable attention started to fade away, I was happy that I had taken the course of study that I did. There are not many areas of science that are sensitive to the conflict with moral reasoning. It’s a challenge — that goes way back before Darwin and the idea of evolution — that causes an outpouring from time to time due to the seeming animalization of humanity and the human condition. I can understand why sociobiology — which included human behavior as just one more possibility in the evolution of social behavior — caused alarm. But it’s held its ground, and I think sociobiology is now well-accepted. Benji Jones There’s obviously a lot we still don’t know. Do you think it is important that we fully understand all the biological roots of behavior? That we fill in the remaining gaps? E.O. Wilson I think it’s extremely important. Human behavior, as a whole generation of poets, writers, and scientists have come to realize, is deeply rooted in instinct, and there’s a history to that instinct that occurred as humans — protohumans — evolved gradually into the full species, homo sapiens. That is history. It’s prehistory, but it’s history. And it’s enormously important because human instinctive behavior and all of its consequences and all of its possible manifestations are enormously important for our understanding of our own species, our self. Benji Jones Part of me is a little bit scared to know the biological basis of everything. I feel like it could be a slippery slope. So, for example, I’m gay. If you could figure out the biological basis of homosexuality, that could come with some serious and perhaps unpredictable consequences. Are there any concerns that you have about knowing too much? E.O. Wilson No. It’s only by completely open and honest research done to the best of our ability that we can understand where we fit as a species that has evolved in the midst of a living world that has peculiar properties that have deeply influenced what we’ve become. Wildlife conservation “has many victories in a losing war” Benji Jones I can’t help but think that decades of efforts to save nature haven’t accomplished much. Do you think conservation has worked? E.O. Wilson We have had many successes — a rainforest here, the protection of a savanna or tropical grassland there, and so on. But the sum of it all is inadequate. We don’t have a generally recognized, universally accepted moonshot effort to combine all the activity directed toward conservation into a unified, fundamentally accepted ethic of conservation. We have many victories in a losing war. Benji Jones Would it be fair to say that this kind of universal ethic is in line with the Half-Earth Project — your work to conserve half of the planet, both land and sea? E.O. Wilson In the 1960s, a young professor at Princeton, Robert MacArthur, and I decided to create a theory together on something related to our work — research on biodiversity and on what determines the number of species in a particular part of the world. We created the Theory of Island Biogeography. It began when I put together data for ants all through the Pacific region, island by island. I saw that there was a relationship between the area of the island and the number of species found there — in this case, of ants. It turns out it applies to pretty much any organism. Courtesy of Jay Vavra E.O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, one of the many locations where he did field work. A relatively small increase in the area of an island resulted in a different number of species. If you can set aside 15 percent more area when building a nature reserve, you can increase the number of species that can live there, stably, by about 85 percent. This suggested to me — just this one phenomenon — that we ought to translate that into a policy. I suggested that idea in a book entitled Half-Earth. If you can somehow make half of the Earth a reserve, you could save the vast majority of species on it. Benji Jones There’s been a lot of criticism of approaches that aim to increase the size of protected areas. In the past, some of those efforts removed Indigenous people from their land. Can we both add more reserves and protect the rights of Indigenous people? E.O. Wilson Yes. Generally, we have enough examples now from around the world to show that reserves can be created or enlarged in a safe and thoughtful manner with due consideration given to people living there — who own the property and have the methods and philosophies of conservation of their own. We can accomplish both. Benji Jones What advice do you have for scientists or biologists that are just starting their careers today? E.O. Wilson If you have even a glimmering of interest in entering the field of biology, it’s a career that, at this point in our history, is potentially enormously useful. We know that reserves are very fragile and that we need to have a science and technology of reserve creation. We need to know what is in the reserves, down to the smallest invertebrate, animal, alga, fungus, and so on — down to the last species. I would hope every student with any interest in biology at all carefully considers this type of career. Benji Jones How about for people who are not scientists and are just trying to live in a way that doesn’t harm the planet? What do you tell people about their own responsibility? E.O. Wilson Don’t cut down a boreal forest or the Amazon and have a general sense of responsibility for the remaining natural areas of the world. That doesn’t require a PhD in biodiversity. It requires a sense of personal responsibility and merit to save parts of the world that are very valuable for our history, for our welfare, and — unfortunately — are very vulnerable to careless destruction. Benji Jones What does that actually look like for someone in their day-to-day? What is the behavior that we should be living by? E.O. Wilson I’ve found that, in different parts of our country and in foreign countries, when people become familiar with what’s in their natural environment, what’s interesting, what’s important on a broader scale, what gives them pleasures, that depth of understanding leads to a long-term improvement in their quality of life. Correction, December 3, 11 am: Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this article misstated when E.O. Wilson proposed the new discipline of sociobiology. It was 50 years ago.

Why the pope dresses like that

Preview: The hidden meaning behind Pope Francis’s clothes. The pope is one of the most recognizable figures in the world, in large part because of the clothes he wears: all-white robes, ornate ponchos, various hats. But not all popes dress alike; there is a certain amount of personal choice involved. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI was named “Accessorizer of the Year” by Esquire magazine for his signature red leather loafers. And Pope John Paul II wore a dark burgundy pair. There are even different articles of clothing that correspond to different events and seasons of year. During times of penance, like Advent or Lent, the pope might wear a purple robe. For ordinary times, he might opt for green. And during major celebrations like Easter or Christmas, popes often wear white and gold to symbolize purity and joy. Pope Francis has made waves within the Catholic church with his relatively modern and progressive takes on church doctrine and tradition, and his clothing choices can be read as a visual shorthand for those policies. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.

Why the government is constantly on the verge of shutting down

Preview: Government workers rally to end a government shutdown in 2019. | Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images The threat of a shutdown seems to crop up every few months. Every December, it seems the US government finds itself in the same place: desperately trying to avoid yet another government shutdown and all of the economic and political problems that would bring. This year has been no different. This week, Congress is scrambling to pass a continuing resolution (CR), or short-term spending bill, to avoid a government shutdown before existing funding runs out on Friday. Lawmakers are broadly expected to do so: Democrats and Republicans on Thursday said they reached a deal that will extend government funding through February, but the measure still needs to pass both the House and Senate. The threat of a government shutdown seems to loom on an annual basis, and some years, it comes every few months in the fall and winter. Because the deadline to pass annual spending bills is the end of September, when Congress misses that deadline, it usually passes a short-term funding bill that goes until December — setting up a government shutdown fight right before the new year. Official shutdowns didn’t begin happening until the 1980s, when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti concluded that federal agencies couldn’t spend money if it hasn’t been approved by Congress. If it seems like shutdowns have been happening more in recent years, that’s because they have. Since 2013, there have been four government shutdowns; prior to that, the last one was in 1996. (In the 1980s and ’90s, there were also multiple shutdowns, but Congress shied away from this tactic in the years that followed.) Threats of shutdowns, and actual shutdowns, are symptoms of how polarized Congress has become. Democrats and Republicans have found it difficult to agree on pretty much anything, including spending bills. In part, that’s because spending bills have increasingly been used as vehicles for partisan priorities lawmakers were unable to pass earlier in the year. These provisions are added to spending bills because they’re generally considered must-pass legislation; when they aren’t successful, federal agencies go unfunded and key services like immigration courts, national parks, and airport security don’t have enough money to keep running at full capacity. Prior to 2013, a government shutdown hadn’t happened in more than a decade. That’s partly due to the political fallout Republicans experienced when they forced a lengthy 21-day shutdown in 1996. After a wave of new Republicans, including more conservative Tea Party members, were elected in 2010, however, the party opted to use a shutdown again in 2013 to try to defund the Affordable Care Act. That effort ultimately failed, but since then, some lawmakers have seen funding deadlines as good opportunities to send a political message. Although Republicans were blamed for the 2013 shutdown, it played well with certain members of the party’s base, underscoring how these deadlines could be an opportunity to energize GOP voters. That has left lawmakers eager to use spending bills — and shutdowns — to score political points and show their party’s voters that they are fighting for voters’ priorities. This year, for example, members of the congressional Freedom Caucus are calling on Senate Republicans to shut down the government to protest federal funding being used for President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates. Why the threat of a shutdown has become so common Congress has become more divided in recent years, making it tougher to find compromises across many bills. That fact has also made it more difficult to pass spending legislation, and not just because lawmakers want to make political stands. Because polarization has led to lawmakers approving fewer bills overall, spending legislation is also often used to address other policy issues, which can make these measures more contentious. “As Congress has consolidated more of its legislative work into fewer large, must-pass bills, those bills bear more of Congress’s political conflicts,” says Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. For example, in this round of appropriation negotiations, Republicans have taken issue with Democrats’ attempts to boost funding for climate-related measures. Add to this polarization Congress’s penchant for procrastinating, and the result is many of these key spending votes come down to the wire each time there’s a shutdown deadline. With their backs against the wall, lawmakers often try to avoid shutdowns with continuing resolutions. But those are just another form of procrastination, and one that also exacerbates the original problem. Since Congress uses CRs as short-term spending patches with set expiration dates, each time one expires, it provides another opportunity for grandstanding and pandering to a party’s base. Those efforts, in turn, once again distract from the negotiation necessary to find a compromise that would allow the spending bill to be passed, leading to yet another last-minute CR, and the cycle repeating itself again. This year, for instance, Congress passed a continuing resolution for the budget in September and is set to do another one this week. When that second CR expires again next year, lawmakers could threaten a shutdown then, too. And because the government has shut down before, the possibility of doing so again no longer seems like as much of a nuclear outcome as it once did. “For each side, it plays to their political base to fight for what they think is important. There isn’t a loud upswell from the American public that says compromise, move forward, keep the government open,” says Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “There is a loud upswell from conservative Republicans who say shut down, keep our priorities.” That loud upswell was evident in 2013, when grassroots anger over Obamacare led House Republicans to refuse to vote for a spending bill if it included money for the Affordable Care Act. That forced a shutdown, and GOP lawmakers successfully made their opposition to the law clear, though they eventually caved and funding for the ACA passed. That opposition became an important part of the party’s midterm messaging in 2014, a year in which they successfully regained control of the Senate and kept the House. In early 2018, Democrats repeated this strategy, refusing to vote for spending legislation because they wanted more protections for DACA recipients, once again using the spending bills for political leverage. And in late 2018, President Donald Trump refused to approve a spending package unless it contained money for his border wall, money he ultimately found other ways to appropriate. While members of both parties have historically utilized shutdowns, Republicans have been more likely to because of a broad interest in reducing government services. And when there are tight House and Senate majorities, as is currently the case, the incentive for lawmakers to derail must-pass bills as a means to make a political statement, is even higher. As Republicans learned just a few years ago, doing so could bolster their messaging for upcoming elections — and allow the minority to retake control. “If you’re focused on getting back in the majority ... it provides an incentive for parties to be less cooperative. It provides an incentive to be a little difficult,” says University of Texas Austin government professor Alison Craig. But it’s important to remember that such maneuvers, while political in nature, can have real consequences. During the last shutdown, 800,000 federal workers went without pay for more than a month, and the US permanently lost $3 billion in GDP. Even when the government doesn’t actually shut down, the threat of one creates huge uncertainty for federal agencies and employees as they struggle to plan for potential closures. There is a way to take the shutdown threat away There is a way to neutralize the threat of a shutdown, but it could have some downsides, too. In the wake of the 35-day 2019 shutdown, the longest the country has experienced, several lawmakers — including Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mark Warner (D-VA) — introduced bills that would set up “automatic continuing resolutions,” or short-term funding bills that would go into effect immediately if Congress doesn’t pass appropriation measures by October 1. The idea is that automatic CRs could serve as a safety net, ensuring that federal agencies never run out of funding, and that the government never shuts down. To make sure that lawmakers would still be motivated to pass new spending bills and not rely on automatic continuing resolutions in perpetuity, Portman’s and Warner’s bills also have provisions that could force painful cuts if no action is taken. Portman’s bill would cut 1 percent in total government spending if lawmakers don’t pass full-year legislation within 120 days, and Warner’s would cut funding for the executive and legislative branches. One of the potential downsides of automatic CRs is that they could make Congress complacent and uninterested in negotiating larger spending packages if they are able to keep relying on CRs. “A CR, while it’s certainly better than a shutdown, is pretty much the next worst thing,” Shai Akabas, the associate director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, previously told NBC News. “If we make it easier to do a CR by making it automatic, we’re probably going to have a lot of CRs.” The threat of a government shutdown has historically forced lawmakers to attempt to compromise on certain policy priorities; for example, past spending deals have included agreements on pay raises for federal employees and aid for farmers. Without sharp deadlines to find such deals, there could be a reduced impetus to do so. “No one likes government shutdowns per se, of course, but the ability to withhold funding — whether from specific programs, specific departments, or, at the extreme, from the entire government — can be a very powerful part of the congressional toolkit,” Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz previously told Vox. “Nothing brings various parts of the executive branch to the table like threats to their funding, and anything that decreases Congress’s ability to hold up that funding correspondingly decreases its ability to force the executive to negotiate and make concessions.” For now, automating the CR process doesn’t seem to be on the table. So the threat of a shutdown will continue to loom both over this week’s negotiations and future ones as well.

I changed my mind on rent control

Preview: People march in Chicago, Illinois, on March 20 during a demonstration in support of Illinois lifting the ban on rent control. | Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images Rent control won’t fix the housing crisis. It’s still a good idea. Renting has a stability problem. As a renter, you don’t know if your landlord might sell your home, turn it into condos, or evict you. You don’t know if you can make any lasting ties in a community. Part of this stability problem is a cost problem. Renting can already be very expensive in America. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the share of households who are rent-burdened (or who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent) has been increasing; in 2017, nearly half of all renter households in the US fit in the category. If your rent suddenly becomes unaffordable, you often have just a few short weeks to find alternative accommodations and move. Now tenant advocates and officials in some cities across the US are reconsidering an oft-maligned policy: rent control. As Bloomberg’s Kriston Capps notes, the policy is “making a comeback.” Santa Ana, California, adopted a rent control ordinance; in Boston, voters elected a new mayor who ran in part on rent control; and in St. Paul, Minnesota, “voters enacted one of the most stringent rent control policies in the nation.” Not all rent control policies are alike: Some programs cap annual rent increases or put limits on the absolute price of a unit; it can be granted to certain low-income people or applied to all buildings of a certain type. Voters are backing these measures in response to the skyrocketing price of housing. But all of these policies share a problem if enacted as the exclusive solution to rising rents. As economists often stress, rent control fails to address the core issue of why housing is so expensive to begin with: lack of supply. In particular, states and cities have a bevy of rules and regulations regarding what kind and size of new homes can be built that overwhelmingly make it illegal or unprofitable to build small single-family homes, multi-family homes, and dense neighborhoods. Despite economists’ consternation, demand for rent stabilization policies is growing, in particular in high-cost-of-living cities where a greater share of rent-burdened tenants are higher-income young people with political power. As historian Suleiman Osman explained in his book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, New York City’s history of rent control can be explained in part because a “large number of white professional renters gave the [tenants] movement muscle unmatched in other cities.” As higher-income professionals stay renters for longer, renters in America’s biggest cities are gaining in political power. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, as of September 2020, California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington, DC, have some form of rent control either at the state level or below. (The number of units covered in each of those places could vary wildly.) It’s clear that these areas share something else in common: They have high-demand labor markets — superstar cities — where the rising cost of housing is largely due to localities’ reluctance to allow more housing to be built even as demand has shot through the roof. Rent control should be understood as a remedy for displacement, rather than a solution to the spiraling cost of housing. It’s best as a measure that can help keep current tenants from being displaced from their neighborhoods, and as part of the long-term project of solving America’s housing shortage. Both the case for and against rent control are more nuanced than their opponents give them credit for. There’s also little empirical research on rent control. While economic theory indicates that rent control’s costs are high (more on this later) — it was only a few decades ago when the field was largely unified in opposition to minimum wage policies. Basic economic theory held that the costs of implementing a minimum wage (namely, fewer jobs) would largely outweigh the benefits of higher wages. But after a flurry of empirical research was conducted, researchers just didn’t find the large costs to employment opportunities that they expected and minimum wage became a lot more popular among experts. Rent control could be next. It’s become abundantly clear that even if states do begin to build more homes, it will take years if not decades to rebalance supply and make housing more affordable, and in the meantime millions of families will continue to suffer. Economists are right to be worried about the ways rent control could worsen the housing crisis, but rent control can work. The case against rent control The fastest way “to destroy a city, other than bombing.” This quote about rent control has been attributed to the late Assar Lindbeck, a Swedish economist who once chaired the prize committee for the economics Nobel, and it’s the dominant sentiment of most economists. This statement is purposely hyperbolic, but Lindbeck wasn’t kidding about economists’ instinctive disdain for the idea. University of Chicago Initiative on Global Markets The University of Chicago’s Initiative on Global Markets surveys top economists at American universities. This 2012 poll shows that the vast majority disagreed with the statement that rent control has had a “positive impact” on affordable housing. The logic is simple: If you set a price ceiling below what the market price would be, you will reduce the incentive for people to supply that good. If you’re a hatmaker and the government says you’re not allowed to charge more than $5 for hats you’ve been able to sell for $10, you’ll probably stop making as many. Of course, here we’re not talking about hats, we’re talking about housing. If fewer hats are produced, that’s not great, but if fewer homes are produced, that’s catastrophic. We’re facing a national housing shortage of 3.8 million homes, and it’s the leading contributor to the spiraling cost of housing and modern homelessness. It also could induce landlords to reduce their investment or upkeep of properties if they see their profits being slashed. Scarcity empowers the people in control of the scarce resource, and rent control does nothing to make housing less scarce. Landlords can still find ways to extract income more in line with the true price of the apartment in a housing-scarce city. In Berlin, despite the city’s rent control laws, renters are being asked to pay thousands of euros for furniture or appliances in order to get a lease. Bloomberg’s Alice Kantor reports that “one ad recently asked 25,000 euros ($28,300) up front for kitchen equipment, a TV and furniture.” The ad was for a one-bedroom apartment renting at 930 euros a month. At best, critics say, rent control empowers one small group of people: the tenants who were living in buildings when the law was enacted. Arpit Gupta, a professor of finance and economics at New York University who said he is a “little skeptical of rent control,” explains that these policies often act as “a one-time transfer of equity from landlords to current tenants.” That is, instead of helping make renting permanently affordable, rent control policies just transfer the benefit of housing scarcity from the landlord to the current tenant. The problem is that there are a lot more “future tenants” than there are current tenants, and at some point even current tenants will likely move. So while there is a clear benefit to existing renters when a rent control ordinance is passed, it’s important to look at what happens to rents and renters in aggregate. That’s what Stanford economists Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian did in a 2019 paper focused on rent control in San Francisco. They found that the policy did make beneficiaries 10 to 20 percent more likely to remain in their homes in the medium to long term than tenants who weren’t covered by rent control. They also note that “the effects of rent control on tenants are stronger for racial minorities, suggesting rent control helped prevent minority displacement from San Francisco.” However, landlords directly affected by rent control pivoted away from providing rental units towards other types of real estate, like condos (this could lead to more evictions as landlords seek to avoid rent control policies). Overall, the authors find it reduced the available rental housing by 15 percent and that the policy “likely drove up citywide rents, damaging housing affordability for future renters.” Alternatively, Brigham Young University economist David Sims’s 2006 paper on rent control in Massachusetts found that there was basically no effect on the construction of new housing. Economists also have distributional concerns. When landlords cannot discriminate based on price, they discriminate in other ways, for instance on their religious preferences, in favor of people who are members of their own race and class, or even against families with children. There is evidence this happens in the housing market already, to be fair. While there are laws on the books to prevent this sort of discrimination, almost no one is even attempting to enforce them. Even with a robust enforcement apparatus, it would be very hard to catch. In another paper, Sims’s findings indicate that relatively richer people are more likely to benefit from rent control policies, and according to a review of the literature by the Urban Institute, Black and Hispanic residents are underrepresented in rent-controlled units. The authors ultimately conclude that rent control’s “benefits are concentrated among wealthier, whiter households.” Economists are right that rent control does not fix the fundamental problem of the rising cost of housing and its application to that problem is wrongheaded. Rent control needs to be seen not as a tool for addressing the cost of housing (we know how to do that!) but as a stabilization tool for tenants and communities that are continually shunted from neighborhood to neighborhood by economic forces they often have no say in. The case for rent control — or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb In a world where housing is a scarce resource, some tenants have to lose. There aren’t enough homes, so how do we decide who gets them? Without rent control, the losers are people with less money; those who cannot afford increases in rent are forced out of their neighborhoods, and people who can afford them get to stay or move in. Rent control gives policymakers a chance to redistribute the pains of scarcity in the near term. Even research that concludes rent control is on net harmful to tenants in the long term concedes that it reduces displacement for current tenants. This is especially important because fixing the underlying issue in America’s high-cost cities and suburbs is a long-term solution that will require millions of new homes to be built. Even if everyone agreed right now to pursue the goal of housing abundance, it could still take decades for the housing markets to rebalance. Jeff Chiu/AP People hold up signs at a rally in favor of more housing in January 2020 in Oakland, California. So what is to be done for the tens of millions of rent-burdened families before we can reach housing abundance? Should we simply allow the cycles of displacement and segregation to occur without any policy intervention? Rent control is the answer. Of course, it’s not the whole answer. A well-designed rent control policy exists in tandem with eliminating exclusionary zoning laws, reducing the cost of housing construction, and providing universal vouchers to help low-income tenants afford their rent. Even research that is done by those skeptical of rent control finds that it is at least successful at reducing displacement of current tenants, in particular the Stanford study that found rent control reduced displacement by up to 20 percent. According to the Urban Institute review, “If rent control is judged on its ability to promote stability for people in rent-controlled units, evidence has generally found it to be successful.” Then the question becomes the policy design. There, the devil is in the details. To encourage people to still build more homes, it is important to exempt future construction from rent control and to allow landlords to increase rents annually by a moderate sum tied to inflation. Policymakers also want to make sure there are incentives to keep existing rental stock well-maintained; one way to do so is by allowing for vacancy decontrol so that when a tenant moves out, a landlord can upgrade the unit and charge a higher rent to the next tenant. When it comes to worries that rent control policies might increase evictions (both formal and informal) as landlords are motivated by profit to convert to condos or force their tenants to vacate so they can renovate, the answer is that, similarly to all types of abuses of power in the market, there needs to be more oversight. A few policies that cities and states should enact are: Just cause eviction statutes, which would require the landlord to justify kicking a tenant out of the property. The government can define what a reasonable justification is, including but not limited to failure to pay rent, desire to add another tenant to the renter’s lease, violation of lease terms, illegal activity, etc. Right to counsel to ensure that tenants are not just getting steamrolled in these types of hearings. Numerous studies have pointed to the fact that the vast majority of tenants are going unrepresented by counsel. A rental registry to keep track of tenants and landlords. One of the biggest factors leading to informal evictions is that the power imbalance between very low-income tenants and landlords leads the former to simply comply when told to leave their home, even if they have the right to stay. By creating a rental registry, landlords will know that their lease terms are being monitored by local officials and that they will be easily caught if they informally or illegally evict tenants in order to get around rent control laws. Skeptics will correctly note that implementing all these ideas would increase the costs of renting out properties, which might push some landlords toward condo conversions or away from developing new units. That’s why it’s important to simultaneously make it cheaper and easier to build and renovate housing. As almost all urban economists have noted, the primary constraint on housing supply in America’s cities and suburbs is the regulatory morass that drives up the cost of developing and producing new homes and makes it nearly impossible for a landlord to extract multiple rents from a single lot by building multi-family housing. “The limits on housing construction are basically about land use,” explained J.W. Mason, an economics professor at John Jay College. “In an exurban setting, you have a lot of vacant land and developers are deciding ‘is it profitable enough to build something here,’ and that’s what determines whether new housing gets built. So you could imagine in an environment like that, rent control might [have] a significant effect on new construction. ... In a dense, major city ... the limit on housing is not how profitable developers expect to be but on the amount of land that’s available for developing housing.” There is, of course, the NIMBY problem. Rent control might insulate its beneficiaries from rising rents leading to greater opposition to new housing development. But there’s evidence that some renters oppose new housing out of fears of displacement and will change their minds once rent control insulates them from quickly rising rents. Opponents of rent control might chafe under the insinuation that there are no alternatives to rent control. One of the best ideas is a social insurance program, proposed by Diamond and endorsed by economist Noah Smith, that would entail the government compensating renters via tax credits or direct payments if they see inordinate rent hikes. It could be funded by taxes or fees levied on landlords, reducing the distortionary effects of rent control that is not equally applied. Instituting demand-side programs like this under conditions of extreme scarcity comes with baggage of its own. Namely, the increased money in tenants’ pockets is passed through to the landlord in the form of higher rents. However, a social insurance program in tandem with making it easier to build new housing units could also be a good idea, though the policy design of such a program is more complicated than a rent control policy. Rent control does not and will not fix the underlying cost problem, and in a vacuum, a new rent control policy would likely exacerbate the supply crisis. But rent control as a tool for reducing displacement and as a part of a broader housing policy in high-cost cities and suburbs is necessary. Economists may be wary now, but if they don’t get on board and help design these policies, cities may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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