Category Archives: CONGRESS WATCH

Democracy’s biggest challenge is information integrity

By Laura Thornton – As the world watches the United States’ elections unfold, the intensity of our polarization is on display. This election was not marked by apathy. On the contrary – citizens turned out in record numbers, some standing in lines all day, to exercise their franchise with powerful determination and the conviction of their choice.

What is notable is how diametrically opposed those choices are, the divergence is not only voters’ visions for America but perceptions of the reality of America. It has long been said that Americans, like citizens elsewhere, increasingly live in parallel universes. Why is this? I believe quite simply it boils down to information.

While there are ample exceptions and complexities, in one universe, people consume a smattering of different news sources, perhaps one or two newspapers, some journals, television and radio broadcasts and podcasts. Many of the sources are considered left-leaning. These Americans tend to hold university degrees and vote for Democrats.

The other universe includes those who primarily get their news from one or two sources, like Fox News, and rely on Facebook and perhaps their community, friends, and family for information.  They lean Republican, and many are not university educated — the so-called “education gap” in American politics. The majority of Republicans, in fact, cite Fox for their primary source of news, and those who watch Fox News are overwhelmingly supportive of Republicans and Trump.  Both universes gravitate toward echo chambers of like-minded compatriots, rarely open or empathetic to the views and experiences of others.

There are obvious exceptions and variations. The New York Times-reading, educated Republican holding his nose but counting on a tax break. Or the low-information voter who votes Democratic with her community.

In the two big general universes, sadly the divide is not just about opinions or policy approaches.  They operate with different facts.  As Kellyanne Conway, former Trump advisor, famously put it, “alternative facts.” more>

5 Ways Joe Biden’s Presidency Will Affect Your Money – and How to Act Now

By Farnoosh Torabi – As with any new President, Joe Biden will have his work cut out for him when he takes the oath of office in January. And while his “build back better” plans are already laid out, it’s yet to be seen how much of an impact his administration can actually make on your finances.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s not behind us, so the recovery will be slow, which Biden has been clear about. Not to mention, with a very possible Republican Senate majority, many of the new administration’s initiatives could face serious pushback, if not a total squashing. The outcome will be determined in a couple months when Georgia’s two Senate run-off races happen.

In short, we can’t read far into what Biden is proposing and use it as a playbook for our personal finances today. “I’m not a big fan of people overhauling their finances or making moves on a presumption of something passing, simply because there are just too many unknowns,” Greg McBride, Chief Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com, told me on my podcast.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the major economic initiatives proposed by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and how to interpret them for the sake of our financial well-being. As always, personal accountability will be just as — if not more — important than matters of policy. more>

Do social media algorithms erode our ability to make decisions freely?

Social media algorithms, artificial intelligence, and our own genetics are among the factors influencing us beyond our awareness. This raises an ancient question: do we have control over our own lives? This article is part of The Conversation’s series on the science of free will.
By Lewis Mitchell and James Bagrow – Have you ever watched a video or movie because YouTube or Netflix recommended it to you? Or added a friend on Facebook from the list of “people you may know”?

And how does Twitter decide which tweets to show you at the top of your feed?

These platforms are driven by algorithms, which rank and recommend content for us based on our data.

As Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, Boston, explains:

If you want to know when social media companies are trying to manipulate you into disclosing information or engaging more, the answer is always.

So if we are making decisions based on what’s shown to us by these algorithms, what does that mean for our ability to make decisions freely?

An algorithm is a digital recipe: a list of rules for achieving an outcome, using a set of ingredients. Usually, for tech companies, that outcome is to make money by convincing us to buy something or keeping us scrolling in order to show us more advertisements.

The ingredients used are the data we provide through our actions online – knowingly or otherwise. Every time you like a post, watch a video, or buy something, you provide data that can be used to make predictions about your next move.

These algorithms can influence us, even if we’re not aware of it. As the New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast explores, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms can drive viewers to increasingly extreme content, potentially leading to online radicalization.

Facebook’s News Feed algorithm ranks content to keep us engaged on the platform. It can produce a phenomenon called “emotional contagion”, in which seeing positive posts leads us to write positive posts ourselves, and seeing negative posts means we’re more likely to craft negative posts — though this study was controversial partially because the effect sizes were small.

Also, so-called “dark patterns” are designed to trick us into sharing more, or spending more on websites like Amazon. These are tricks of website design such as hiding the unsubscribe button, or showing how many people are buying the product you’re looking at right now. They subconsciously nudge you towards actions the site would like you to take. more>

Staying Focused on the Big Picture

U.S. election-related uncertainty may persist a while longer, but the relatively optimistic longer-term economic outlook hasn’t changed.
By Lisa Shalet – Now that former Vice President Joseph Biden is President-Elect, much of the election uncertainty has dissipated. Markets have factored in Biden’s win as well as the apparent lack of a Congressional Democratic sweep, but headlines concerning the transition of power could contribute to volatility.

We encourage investors to ignore short-term price swings based on the headlines and stay focused on the bigger picture. We still believe that investors should emphasize global stocks over bonds. Morgan Stanley & Co. strategists forecast that the S&P 500 Index, a broad measure of the U.S. market that is now trading around 3500, may reach 3700 by the middle of next year.

Several key points in our economic outlook are unlikely to change due to election results. Here are three reasons why:

The V-shaped economic recovery is on solid ground. October’s nonfarm payroll data was a solid upside surprise, with the unemployment rate falling and the labor participation rate rising. Consumer sentiment is holding up, and manufacturing and services indicators continue to show expansion. Housing and durable goods orders support the capital spending narrative of the new business cycle. In 2021, U.S. GDP could grow at an annualized pace of 5% to 6%—in part because the recession this year enhances the year-over-year comparison, but also given the midyear return to growth. Such economic expansion could power double-digit increases in corporate profits.

The Federal Reserve remains ultra-dovish. The central bank has stayed firm on holding its key short-term fed funds rate near zero through December, 2023. Low interest rates can stimulate growth by facilitating more borrowing, allowing consumers and businesses to spend more. The Fed has yet to define metrics or time frames for “average inflation targeting,” which will likely allow inflation to trend higher without rate intervention to check its rise. Under a policy known as quantitative easing, the Fed also continues to buy government bonds at a significant pace, a direct injection of liquidity across fixed-income markets that can also contribute to economic growth.

The COVID-19 trajectory is unlikely to lead to national lockdowns. The recent surge in new infections is unfortunate and concerning, however, as was the case in the summer, the U.S. economy remains resilient in the face of localized shutdowns. We believe that public health measures and vaccine availability will drive the pandemic’s economic impact. Hopefully by January, we could be past the peak of new cases and closer to available vaccines. Drug development pipelines remain on track to deliver some scaled vaccine distribution by summer, 2021. more>

Here’s how Biden could undo Trump’s deregulation agenda

Biden could use Trump’s playbook to reverse his regulatory moves on pollution, worker safety, health care, and more.
By Sarah Kleiner – Cutting workplace safety inspections. Allowing subpar health insurance plans to be sold to Americans. Permitting tractor-trailer drivers to blow past previous driver-fatigue limits. Waging war on birth control.

These deregulatory actions and others taken by President Donald Trump’s administration have adversely impacted the health and safety of Americans, as revealed in reporting for System Failure, an investigative series produced by the Center for Public Integrity and Vox.

Trump’s actions may not stick. Now that President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office in January, he has a few tools at his disposal to undo some of Trump’s regulatory maneuvers. Some could be more difficult to quickly put to use with a split Congress, however.

If Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, they’ll be able to quickly wipe out regulations pushed through in the last 60 legislative days of Trump’s term, because of the Congressional Review Act, part of the Contract With America that Newt Gingrich and House Republicans campaigned on in 1994.

But, while Democrats maintained control of the House, it’s still unclear which party will hold the majority in the Senate. All eyes will be on Georgia’s runoff for two Senate seats, which will happen in early January. Neither of the Republican incumbents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, garnered a majority of the votes in last week’s election, forcing a runoff with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

If Ossoff and Warnock ultimately prevail, it won’t be clear until January when the Congressional Review Act’s 60-day period began — because it all depends on how many days Congress meets between now and January 3, when its current term ends — but experts predict it started sometime during the summer. more>

America’s Foreign Enemies Mostly Hope for a Joe Biden Win; Allies Are Divided

Neewsweek – Nations around the world are watching the U.S. election with almost the same intensity as Americans at home, and while they can’t vote, they have passionate rooting interests.

During his four years in the White House, President Donald Trump has been accused of having a soft spot for the dictators of America’s enemies. Do those countries return the love? As the 2020 election looms, the leaders and citizens of both America’s allies and rivals are hoping for outcomes that may be surprising.

With the exception of North Korea, most U.S. adversaries such as Cuba, Iran, China and Venezuela are hoping for a Joe Biden win, while America’s allies are split. Germany, Japan and Australia would like to see Biden in the White House; India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.K. hope Trump remains in power.

The former vice president’s chief asset appears to be his predictability: with few exceptions, even the nations hoping for a second Trump term think they can work with a Biden administration. And for some countries, like Russia, the optimal outcome is neither Biden nor Trump, but chaos. more>

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US presidential election: last call for the liberal world order?

Some might have taken for granted the liberal world order of postwar decades. Until Donald Trump trashed it.
By Valerio Alfonso Bruno and Vittorio Emanuele Parsi – The pre-eminent theorist of liberal internationalism, from its origins to its prospects, G John Ikenberry, recently wrote that spring 2020 might well be considered by historians as the end of the ‘liberal world order’—the moment ‘when the United States and its allies, facing the gravest public health threat and economic catastrophe of the postwar era, could not even agree on a simple communiqué of common cause’. For Ikenberry, ‘the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic engulfing the world these days is only exposing and accelerating what was already happening for years. On public health, trade, human rights, and the environment, governments seem to have lost faith in the value of working together.’

May November 2020 then represent the last call for the liberal world order? In recent history, the elections of the president of the United States have represented decisive moments, not only for the country but for the dynamics of the international order tout court. Coming in the middle of a pandemic and counterposing two incompatible Weltanschauungen, the 2020 election may be of unprecedented decisiveness.

The liberal world order was built around a set of principles and institutions governing the international system in the aftermath of World War II. It was based on US leadership and operated through five core institutions: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For all its limits and weaknesses, during the cold war it granted economic development and security to a significant part of the world. ‘Free-market’ societies, conditioned by strong welfare policies, produced a long-term, if fragile, balance between economic competition and social cohesion.

The dynamic worked well until the 1980s. Thereafter, the foresight required to preserve such a fragile balance—based on postwar hindsight—gradually vanished. Liberal premises, such as equality of opportunity, and liberal promises, of a more equal, peaceful and wealthy world, became subverted by regressively ideological economics. A neoliberal world order has almost replaced the liberal one. more>

It’s the most important election in our lifetime, and it always will be

We never know how important an election really is until long after it’s over.
By Ezra Klein – “There’s just one month left before the most important election of our lifetime,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted in early October.

Two days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders backed him up. “This is the most important election, not only in our lifetime but in the modern history of our country,” he said in Michigan.

In 2016, it was Donald Trump deploying the cliché. “This is by far the most important vote you’ve ever cast for anyone at any time,” he said.

I won’t be coy with my view: I think the most important election of my lifetime was 2000, and I’ll defend that view in this piece. But more interesting than the parlor game is the framework of this debate. What makes something the most important election of a lifetime? How would we know?

Before 2016, the campaign in which I heard the “most important election of our lifetime” talk most often was 2004, when George W. Bush ran for reelection against John Kerry. It certainly felt pivotal. It was a referendum on the Iraq War, which was built on lies and carried out by fools, and left Iraq soaked in blood. It was also a referendum on the hard right turn Bush had taken in office, away from “compassionate conservatism” and toward neoconservatism abroad, and a politics of patriotic paranoia at home.

Kerry lost that election. And yet, in retrospect, it clearly wasn’t the most important election of my lifetime, and it may even have been better that Kerry lost it. The ensuing four years forced Bush, and the Republican Party he led, to take responsibility for the disasters they’d created. The catastrophe of the Iraq War became clearer to the country, leading to a Democratic sweep in 2006. The financial crisis, which had been building for years, exploded, leading to Barack Obama’s election and the massive congressional majorities that passed the Affordable Care Act. more>

Trump took a sledgehammer to US-China relations. This won’t be an easy fix, even if Biden wins

By Hui Feng – Few would have thought a US-China relationship marked by relative stability for half a century would be upended in just four years.

But US President Donald Trump’s privileged tour of the Forbidden City in November 2017 by Chinese President Xi Jinping now looks like it happened in a bygone era, given the turbulence in the bilateral relationship since then.

The shift in the US’s China policy is no doubt one of the major legacies of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, alongside a renewed peace process in the Middle East.

When Trump’s daughter Ivanka said at the Republican National Convention that “Washington has not changed Donald Trump, Donald Trump has changed Washington”. This would certainly include its handling of China.

Although China’s rise had been a concern of the previous Bush and Obama administrations, it was the Trump administration that transformed the entire narrative on China from strategic partner to “strategic competitor”, starting with its National Defense Strategy report released just one month after Trump’s 2017 China visit.

This read, in part,

China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favor.

This new way of thinking deemed the US’s decades-long engagement strategy, deployed since President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, a failure.

Prior to Trump, the US had sought to encourage China to grow into a responsible stakeholder of a rules-based international order.

But the Trump administration believes such “goodwill” engagement has been exploited by China’s “all-of-nation long-term strategy” of asserting its power in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to the Trump administration, this is centered on “predatory economics” in trade and technology, political coercion of less-powerful democracies and Chinese military advancement in the region. more>

If we want more companies like Patagonia, we need laws to enforce it

If we want to get past “woke capitalism,” this is what it’ll take to get companies to an equitable relationship with both workers and society.
By Kristin Toussaint – A day after the August NBA strike in response to yet another police shooting—this time, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin—Uber’s head of diversity and inclusion, Bo Young Lee, tweeted out the company’s new billboard campaign. “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber,” the sign read. Lee added, “Now is the time for all people and organizations to stand up for what is right.”

Corporate America had already been examining its complicity in furthering systemic racism and inequality in the wake of a summer rife with police killings of Black people. Uber, for its part, was one of many companies standing up for what’s right—so long as it didn’t have to change too radically. Several weeks earlier, Uber had committed to anti-racism education for riders and drivers, established that it had no tolerance for discrimination, and pledged $1 million toward criminal justice reform. Even so, the company had committed more than $30 million to overturn AB5, the California law that requires its contract drivers be treated as full-time employees. In other words, Uber was arguing against the single biggest thing it could do to foster equity: give its drivers, which some estimates have put at two-thirds non-white, the stability of healthcare and benefits. (When asked for comment, Uber pointed to previous statements on how it’s fighting AB5 because its workers want flexibility.)

Uber’s moves embody what’s known as “woke capitalism,” where businesses respond to societal issues such as systemic racism with representational gestures, from sobering statements to strategic donations. For some people, this is enough. Or so executives hope.

But for others, society’s multiple, overlapping crises have created an opportunity to make companies more accountable—and, ideally, more innovative. “There’s basically no one arguing for shareholder primacy anymore,” says Julius Krein, founder of the public-policy journal American Affairs. “[Corporate leaders] don’t want to leave the current model because they don’t know what comes next, and they’re afraid.” A movement argues that they don’t have to be.

For a glimpse of the future, business leaders need only look to the companies that have best handled the tumult of 2020. They were the ones that were “woke” long before this year. Patagonia’s decision to pay employees while stores were shuttered during lockdowns was not the first time it put workers first: The company has offered on-site childcare for more than three decades. The call Ben & Jerry’s made to dismantle white supremacy following the police killing of George Floyd was not a bandwagon move: The ice cream brand had supported a congressional bill that would study the effects of slavery and discrimination and recommend reparations. Both companies have built reputations as the rare institutions that care about their employees, the communities in which they operate, and the environment. more>