Welcome to the New Progressive Era

Welcome to the New Progressive Era
Progressives thought they knew what a Biden presidency would look like. How did they get him so wrong?
By Anand Giridharadas
Apr 14 2021

Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.

People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.

Biden, after all, was a conservative Democrat who has exuded personal decency more than he has pushed for structural decency. One conservative publication labeled him “the senator from MBNA” for his friendliness to credit-card companies. He conducted the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in a way that hurt Hill, for which he later expressed regret. He voted for the Iraq War and eulogized the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. He began his 2020 campaign telling wealthy donors that, in his vision, “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”

But then Biden sold the country on a massive rescue package that his erstwhile rival Sanders has called “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” He quickly followed that with an infrastructure proposal that includes everything from roads to a strengthened safety net for caregivers, and focuses on redressing the harms of climate change and the racist urban planning of the past. Biden plans to finance it partially through a tax increase on the corporations he was once better known for protecting. There have been a slew of executive orders, many of real import, as well as gestures like standing up for Amazon workers seeking to unionize.

The conversations I’ve had in recent weeks have painted a portrait of an improbable coming-together of people and forces: a moderate president, with an ascendant progressive movement at his back and at his throat, facing a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity. It’s still early. It remains to be seen if this momentum will continue, if the infrastructure plan musters the votes, if the ungainly Sanders-to-Manchin coalition holds. But for now, a capital that has been defined in recent years by the absence of useful action bubbles with generative possibility. And many of us who thought we knew what a Biden presidency would look like, and didn’t expect much from it, are suddenly asking ourselves: How did we get him so wrong?

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the so-called Squad, endorsed Sanders in the primary and didn’t anticipate a whole lot from Biden. Nevertheless, during the winter transition, she and her colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus shared their ideas and priorities with the incoming administration—and were taken aback when many of them were adopted.

“The $1.9 trillion package that they put forth was a surprise,” she told me. “A lot of us made recommendations when the administration was in their transition space, and I don’t think a lot of us expected many of those things would make it in.”

For the Reverend William J. Barber II, the North Carolina–based pastor and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, the surprise has been Biden’s venturing beyond his “Middle Class Joe” shtick to talk about a group Democrats have in recent decades preferred not to mention: the poor. At an event Barber hosted last fall, before the election, Biden told the group, “Ending poverty won’t be just an aspiration, but a way to build a new economy.” This, Barber told me, “was huge.” Barber and his team followed up with a 14-bullet-point wish list of poverty-fighting policies, some of which showed up in that first relief bill.

Among Omar and her colleagues’ priorities had been raising the minimum wage to $15, a goal Biden professed to share. But when push came to shove in the Senate, and a procedural obstacle arose, Biden gave in. Many progressives were angry. Biden personally called Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, and explained the White House’s thinking. He suggested that Jayapal and some colleagues talk with his team about a long-term strategy for shared goals. And that meeting actually happened, with Biden’s chief of staff, Ronald Klain, on March 17.

“That was a huge signaling,” Omar told me. It suggests that progressives might not get everything they want, but, she said, “the administration understands that we are not willing to be taken for granted anymore.”

Omar’s experience reflects the collision of events that have landed the country, rather improbably, on the brink of a new progressive era: a president in the sunset of his life finding himself in office thanks in no small part to voters more radical than he, galvanized by long-term trends like rising inequality and the recent upheaval of the pandemic.

“The progressive wing is ascendant in terms of the new members, in terms of grassroots energy, in terms of advocating policies that most Democrats support,” Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of that wing, told me in January. “But the progressive wing is not in the positions of power yet.” Another way to put it is that progressives won the conversation but lost the primary. The man in power is not their man—but he’s hemmed in by their ideas. “So much of this is being framed in the ways that we want,” Jayapal told me.

One sign of this shift is the apparent demise of conventional wisdom that had outlived its usefulness—above all, on the supreme importance of fiscal discipline. “There’s definitely a shift towards a more progressive theory of how the economy works,” John Podesta, a former top aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and the founder of the Center for American Progress, told me.

Related to that turn in ideas is a churn in the idea-givers. Centrist and Wall Street–connected economic counselors like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, who have been mainstays of previous Democratic administrations, are out, while more progressive advisers like Heather Boushey and Bharat Ramamurti are in. “That’s a big deal,” Robert Reich, the labor secretary under Clinton, told me.

I reached out to Summers. He wouldn’t weigh in on personnel changes, but said that if Biden is breaking away from past orthodoxies, it is because “the world has changed.”

He’s right. The shift in received wisdom is obviously about the pandemic. But it is also the result of growing frustration with an economy that fails millions of Americans; the influence of the presidential candidacies of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren; and the hard-won lessons from the Clinton and Obama years about the dangers of caution and of faith in Republicans.

Apparently, while younger progressives were soaking in those lessons, Biden’s team was doing the same.

The old emphasis on bipartisanship and outreach has quietly been displaced in Joe Biden’s Washington with an emphasis on coalition—attending first and foremost to your own side, everyone balancing the holding of their own with the holding of their nose, so as to get the good-enough thing done now instead of waiting for what might never come.

Reed Hundt, a lawyer who served on the Clinton and Obama transition teams, wrote a book about the 2008 financial meltdown titled A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions. When I called him, he was feeling the strange maybe-vindication of the author who hopes but can’t be sure that his book made a difference. He was optimistic about Biden’s aggressive spending in response to the pandemic. And he noted that, while the Obama team trusted too much in the good faith of Republicans, the Biden administration has focused on keeping its own Democratic coalition contented. “Often the phrase is used derisively, but in this case, ‘Generals fighting the last war’ may be good for the country,” Hundt told me.

Representative Jim Clyburn, the influential South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip whose last-minute endorsement helped catapult Biden to the nomination, made the same point about outreach across the aisle. Biden, who is famous for reaching right, has not talked much about that since his inauguration. “I don’t think Obama really understood the lengths to which those guys would go to keep him from succeeding,” Clyburn said about the Republicans. “And I just think that Joe Biden is not going to make that mistake.”

One explanation for Biden’s progressive turn is that he has never been an ideologue. He has lodestars—standing up for the middle class, favoring unions, and so on. But those lodestars have led him to varied results. His superpower, it is often said, is possessing “this sense of where the Democratic Party is, where the median of the party is, at a given moment,” as Khanna put it.

“He is a politician in the best sense of the word,” Reich told me. “That is, he sees a parade and he runs and gets in front of it—as long as the parade is not inconsistent with his values.” He added, “The secret here is that he has no strong ideological preconceptions. The interesting thing is he’s very open-minded. He is able to see changes in the operating consensus, the conventional wisdom, and, almost intuitively—I don’t know that it’s conscious—I think he just understands the change and latches onto it.”

Jeff Connaughton was once known as a “Biden guy.” He worked on and off for the then senator until he grew so disillusioned with Biden and with Washington in general that he wrote a scorcher of a book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. When I asked him about Biden’s shift left, he told me it reflects the best and worst of his old boss.

“You could say he doesn’t have core beliefs, that he shapes himself to the political moment. He often describes himself as a ‘fingertip politician,’ that he can find the political pulse, and that pulse right now is in an exceedingly different place than it was 30 years ago. He stood there in Iowa in 2020 and looked out at the enthusiasm in the other parts of the hall, where the Warren and Bernie troops were cheering and the Biden section was fairly empty. He gets that the progressives have most of the energy and excitement in the party.” Then Connaughton gave the more charitable view: “You might also say it shows he has the capacity for change and growth.”

There was another analysis I heard of Biden: Admirers and critics alike describe him as less of a star than Obama and Clinton were, in their different ways, and therefore more capable of old-school coalition. He connects with voters but doesn’t fill the room, and hasn’t filled the national airwaves. He is, in this view, a throwback to an earlier kind of politician whose job was to marshal disparate factions into alliance, rather than personifying the cause himself.

“My basic view is Biden is a transactional machine Democrat who wants to draw from every faction of the party as a coalition-building strategy,” said Matt Stoller, an anti-monopoly activist who in his newsletter, BIG, is a frequent critic of the Democratic Party establishment. “The machine-Democrat model is just: You’re a dealmaker,” he told me. “You put people in a room and you get them to cut deals with each other. And that’s how Biden, I think, operates. He just wants to hear from the labor guy, the business guy, and then he wants them to basically come to an arrangement.”

In this analysis, Biden is almost like a prime minister of a coalition government in a parliamentary system, where his desired policy course is the one he can get his coalition to agree on. With a 50–50 Senate and a pandemic, this is an orientation that rhymes with practical imperatives.


In the Bubble: From the Frontlines – How Pandemics End (with John Barry and Jeffrey Kluger)

In the Bubble: From the Frontlines – How Pandemics End (with John Barry and Jeffrey Kluger)
By In The Bubble Podcast
Apr 14 2021

Dr. Bob calls up author John Barry and TIME Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger to talk about what the 1918 flu pandemic and the American polio epidemic can illuminate about COVID-19. In addition to the historical similarities and differences, they discuss what “the end” looked like and what, if anything, that means for us today. Plus, find out which of the three men was a Polio Pioneer! And get Dr. Bob’s take on the joint CDC and FDA decision to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Audio: 44 min

FBI hacks vulnerable US computers to fix malicious malware

FBI hacks vulnerable US computers to fix malicious malware
US justice department says bureau hacked devices to remove malware from insecure software
By Alex Hern
Apr 14 2021

The FBI has been hacking into the computers of US companies running insecure versions of Microsoft software in order to fix them, the US Department of Justice has announced.

The operation, approved by a federal court, involved the FBI hacking into “hundreds” of vulnerable computers to remove malware placed there by an earlier malicious hacking campaign, which Microsoft blamed on a Chinese hacking group known as Hafnium.

Hafnium’s operation placed backdoors into “tens of thousands” of servers running Microsoft’s Exchange software, which allows businesses to manage emails, contacts and calendars for their employees. It took advantage of a weakness in the servers, now fixed, to plant the malware, which allowed the hackers to return at a later date.

The FBI’s campaign uses the same weakness in the “hundreds” of servers that have still not been patched to hack the hackers – breaking into the vulnerable computers and removing the backdoors entirely.

“Today’s court-authorised removal of the malicious web shells demonstrates the Department’s commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions,” the US Department of Justice’s assistant attorney general, John C Demers, said. 

“Combined with the private sector’s and other government agencies’ efforts to date, including the release of detection tools and patches, we are together showing the strength that public-private partnership brings to our country’s cybersecurity.”

Although the FBI’s campaign removed the malware placed by one hacker group, it did not actively fix the underlying vulnerability, meaning that affected computers may simply be reinfected in the future if their owners do not take action to protect them. 

The FBI says it is “attempting” to notify all the owners of the affected computers, either by sending them an email from an official FBI email account, or emailing their internet service providers.

Benevolent hacking, also called a “white hat” hack, is rare, particularly from state actors, but not unheard-of. In 2016, a widespread weakness in internet-of-thingsdevices led to the creation of a botnet called Mirai, which allowed criminals to seize millions of devices and direct them at websites and services, overwhelming them with traffic and crashing them. 

But in 2017, a computer virus called Hajime was discovered to be infecting devices through the same weakness, and closing the door behind it. A message from the virus’s author said they were “just a white hat, securing some systems”.

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Apple Launches Study into Whether Apple Watch Can Detect COVID-19

Apple Launches Study into Whether Apple Watch Can Detect COVID-19
By Hartley Charlton
Apr 14 2021

Apple is launching a study into whether the Apple Watch can be used to detect respiratory illnesses such as coronavirus or flu, in partnership with the University of Washington and the Seattle Flu Study.

Apple initially announced the study at its Time Flies event in September last year, it but has only recently launched, as spotted by Apple Insider.

The goal of the study is to see if the information collected by the Apple Watch and iPhone can detect early signs of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. If you are eligible and decide to participate, you will be provided an Apple Watch to wear. The watch will collect information about your health and activity. You will also be asked to answer simple survey questions in the Apple Research app on your ‌iPhone‌ about respiratory symptoms and lifestyle on a weekly and monthly basis.

If you get sick during the study, you will be provided with a free, at-home nasal swab to be tested for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, and you will be asked to take some additional health measurements using your Apple Watch.

The study is expected to take “up to six months” and participants accepted into the program will be provided with an Apple Watch for research purposes, which they will be expected to wear “throughout the study, both day and night.” Enrolment is open now for individuals in the greater Seattle area who are age 22 or older and have an Apple ‌iPhone‌ 6s or newer.

A previous independent study by Mount Sinai researchers found that an Apple Watch can effectively predict a positive COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before current PCR-based nasal swab tests, which may be reinforced by the findings of this new study.

Previous independent Apple Watch studies have shown that the smartwatch’s heart sensors may be able to detect early signs of diabetes and provide early warning signs of atrial fibrillation.

How People Get Rich Now

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

How People Get Rich Now
By Paul Graham
Apr 2021

Every year since 1982, Forbes magazine has published a list of the richest Americans. If we compare the 100 richest people in 1982 to the 100 richest in 2020, we notice some big differences.

In 1982 the most common source of wealth was inheritance. Of the 100 richest people, 60 inherited from an ancestor. There were 10 du Pont heirs alone. By 2020 the number of heirs had been cut in half, accounting for only 27 of the biggest 100 fortunes.

Why would the percentage of heirs decrease? Not because inheritance taxes increased. In fact, they decreased significantly during this period. The reason the percentage of heirs has decreased is not that fewer people are inheriting great fortunes, but that more people are making them.

How are people making these new fortunes? Roughly 3/4 by starting companies and 1/4 by investing. Of the 73 new fortunes in 2020, 56 derive from founders’ or early employees’ equity (52 founders, 2 early employees, and 2 wives of founders), and 17 from managing investment funds.

There were no fund managers among the 100 richest Americans in 1982. Hedge funds and private equity firms existed in 1982, but none of their founders were rich enough yet to make it into the top 100. Two things changed: fund managers discovered new ways to generate high returns, and more investors were willing to trust them with their money. [1]

But the main source of new fortunes now is starting companies, and when you look at the data, you see big changes there too. People get richer from starting companies now than they did in 1982, because the companies do different things.

In 1982, there were two dominant sources of new wealth: oil and real estate. Of the 40 new fortunes in 1982, at least 24 were due primarily to oil or real estate. Now only a small number are: of the 73 new fortunes in 2020, 4 were due to real estate and only 2 to oil.

By 2020 the biggest source of new wealth was what are sometimes called “tech” companies. Of the 73 new fortunes, about 30 derive from such companies. These are particularly common among the richest of the rich: 8 of the top 10 fortunes in 2020 were new fortunes of this type.

Arguably it’s slightly misleading to treat tech as a category. Isn’t Amazon really a retailer, and Tesla a car maker? Yes and no. Maybe in 50 years, when what we call tech is taken for granted, it won’t seem right to put these two businesses in the same category. But at the moment at least, there is definitely something they share in common that distinguishes them. What retailer starts AWS? What car maker is run by someone who also has a rocket company?

The tech companies behind the top 100 fortunes also form a well-differentiated group in the sense that they’re all companies that venture capitalists would readily invest in, and the others mostly not. And there’s a reason why: these are mostly companies that win by having better technology, rather than just a CEO who’s really driven and good at making deals.

To that extent, the rise of the tech companies represents a qualitative change. The oil and real estate magnates of the 1982 Forbes 400 didn’t win by making better technology. They won by being really driven and good at making deals. [2]And indeed, that way of getting rich is so old that it predates the Industrial Revolution. The courtiers who got rich in the (nominal) service of European royal houses in the 16th and 17th centuries were also, as a rule, really driven and good at making deals.

People who don’t look any deeper than the Gini coefficient look back on the world of 1982 as the good old days, because those who got rich then didn’t get as rich. But if you dig into how they got rich, the old days don’t look so good. In 1982, 84% of the richest 100 people got rich by inheritance, extracting natural resources, or doing real estate deals. Is that really better than a world in which the richest people get rich by starting tech companies?

Why are people starting so many more new companies than they used to, and why are they getting so rich from it? The answer to the first question, curiously enough, is that it’s misphrased. We shouldn’t be asking why people are starting companies, but why they’re starting companies again. [3]

In 1892, the New York Herald Tribune compiled a list of all the millionaires in America. They found 4047 of them. How many had inherited their wealth then? Only about 20% — less than the proportion of heirs today. And when you investigate the sources of the new fortunes, 1892 looks even more like today. Hugh Rockoff found that “many of the richest … gained their initial edge from the new technology of mass production.” [4]

So it’s not 2020 that’s the anomaly here, but 1982. The real question is why so few people had gotten rich from starting companies in 1982. And the answer is that even as the Herald Tribune’s list was being compiled, a wave of consolidation was sweeping through the American economy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, financiers like J. P. Morgan combined thousands of smaller companies into a few hundred giant ones with commanding economies of scale. By the end of World War II, as Michael Lind writes, “the major sectors of the economy were either organized as government-backed cartels or dominated by a few oligopolistic corporations.” [5]

In 1960, most of the people who start startups today would have gone to work for one of them. You could get rich from starting your own company in 1890 and in 2020, but in 1960 it was not really a viable option. You couldn’t break through the oligopolies to get at the markets. So the prestigious route in 1960 was not to start your own company, but to work your way up the corporate ladder at an existing one. [6]

Making everyone a corporate employee decreased economic inequality (and every other kind of variation), but if your model of normal is the mid 20th century, you have a very misleading model in that respect. J. P. Morgan’s economy turned out to be just a phase, and starting in the 1970s, it began to break up.

Why did it break up? Partly senescence. The big companies that seemed models of scale and efficiency in 1930 had by 1970 become slack and bloated. By 1970 the rigid structure of the economy was full of cosy nests that various groups had built to insulate themselves from market forces. During the Carter administration the federal government realized something was amiss and began, in a process they called “deregulation,” to roll back the policies that propped up the oligopolies.

But it wasn’t just decay from within that broke up J. P. Morgan’s economy. There was also pressure from without, in the form of new technology, and particularly microelectronics. The best way to envision what happened is to imagine a pond with a crust of ice on top. Initially the only way from the bottom to the surface is around the edges. But as the ice crust weakens, you start to be able to punch right through the middle.

The edges of the pond were pure tech: companies that actually described themselves as being in the electronics or software business. When you used the word “startup” in 1990, that was what you meant. But now startups are punching right through the middle of the ice crust and displacing incumbents like retailers and TV networks and car companies. [7]


Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack

Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack
A company that makes it easy to charge for newsletters has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions.
By Ben Smith
Apr 11 2021

Danny, left, and Grace Lavery in Brooklyn. Both have signed contracts with the newsletter platform Substack.Elianel Clinton for The New York Times

Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.

“I think the thing that I’m the most looking forward to about this is to start a retirement account,” said Mr. Lavery, who founded the feminist humor blog The Toast and will be giving up an advice column in Slate.

Mr. Lavery already has about 1,800 paying subscribers to his Substack newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, whose most popular piece is written from the perspective of a goose. Annual subscriptions cost $50.

The contract is structured a bit like a book advance: Substack’s bet is that it will make back its money by taking most of Mr. Lavery’s subscription income for those two years. The deal now means Mr. Lavery’s household has two Substack incomes. His wife, Grace Lavery, an associate English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who edits the Transgender Studies Quarterly, had already signed on for a $125,000 advance.

Along with the revenue the Laverys will bring in, the move is good media politics for the company. Substack has been facing a mutiny from a group of writers who objected to sharing the platform with people who they said were anti-transgender, including a writer who made fun of people’s appearances on a dating app. Signing up two high-profile transgender writers was a signal that Substack was trying to remain a platform for people who sometimes hate one another, and who sometimes, like Dr. Lavery, heatedly criticize the company.

Feuds among and about Substack writers were a major category of media drama during the pandemic winter — a lot of drama for a company that mostly just makes it easy to email large groups for free. For those who want to charge subscribers on their email list, Substack takes a 10 percent fee. “The mindshare Substack has in media right now is insane,” said Casey Newton, who left The Verge to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer. Substack, he said, has become a target for “a lot of people to project their anxieties.”

Substack has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions. For one, the new media economy promises both to make some writers rich and to turn others into the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers, even as journalists turn increasingly to labor unions to level out pay scales.

This new direct-to-consumer media also means that battles over the boundaries of acceptable views and the ensuing arguments about “cancel culture” — for instance, in New York Magazine’s firing of Andrew Sullivan — are no longer the kind of devastating career blows they once were. (Only Twitter retains that power.) Big media cancellation is often an offramp to a bigger income. Though Substack paid advances to a few dozen writers, most are simply making money from readers. That includes most of the top figures on the platform, who make seven-figure sums from more than 10,000 paying subscribers — among them Mr. Sullivan, the liberal historian Heather Cox Richardson, and the confrontational libertarian Glenn Greenwald.

This new ability of individuals to make a living directly from their audiences isn’t just transforming journalism. It’s also been the case for adult performers on OnlyFans, musicians on Patreon, B-list celebrities on Cameo. In Hollywood, too, power has migrated toward talent, whether it’s marquee showrunners or actors. This power shift is a major headache for big institutions, from The New York Times to record labels. And Silicon Valley investors, eager to disrupt and angry at their portrayal in big media, have been gleefully backing it. Substack embodies this cultural shift, but it’s riding the wave, not creating it.

And despite a handful of departures over politics, that wave is growing for Substack. The writers moving there full time in recent days include not just Mr. Lavery, but also the former Yahoo News White House correspondent Hunter Walker, the legal writer David Lat and the columnist Heather Havrilesky, who told me she will be taking Ask Polly from New York Magazine to “regain some of the indie spirit and sense of freedom that drew me to want to write online in the first place.”

(Speaking of that spirit: Bustle Digital Group confirmed to me that it’s reviving the legendary blog Gawker under a former Gawker writer, Leah Finnegan.)

And a New York Times opinion writer, Charlie Warzel, is departing to start a publication on Substack called Galaxy Brain. (Substack has courted a number of Times writers. I turned down an offer of an advance well above my Times salary, in part because of the editing and the platform The Times gives me, and in part because I didn’t think I’d make it back — media types often overvalue media writers.)

The Times wouldn’t comment on his move, but is among the media companies trying to develop its own answer to Substack and recently brought the columnist Paul Krugman’s free Substack newsletter to the Times platform. And newsrooms can offer all sorts of support that solo writers don’t get. Jessica Lessin, the founder and editor in chief of The Information, a newsletter-centric Silicon Valley subscription publication, said part of its edge was “sophisticated marketing around acquiring and retaining subscribers.”

Substack’s thesis is, in part, that media companies underpay their most prominent writers. So far, that seems to be bearing out. Mr. Warzel isn’t taking an advance, and many of the writers who took advances now regret doing so: They would have made more money by simply collecting subscription revenue, and paying Substack 10 percent, than making the more complex deals with money up front.

The former Vox writer Matthew Yglesias calculated that taking the advance wound up costing him nearly $400,000 in subscription revenue paid to Substack. The writer Roxane Gay told me she earned back her advance within two months of starting The Audacity ($60 a year) with an audience of 36,000, about 20 percent of them paying. She also wrestles with what she sees as Substack “trying to have it both ways” as a neutral platform and a publisher that supports writers she finds “odious,” she said, but has concluded that her dislike of someone’s work is “not enough for them to not be allowed on the platform.”

Isaac Saul, who told me his nonpartisan political newsletter Tangle brought in $190,000 in its first year, wrote recently that he came to Substack “specifically to avoid being associated with anyone else” after being frustrated by readers’ assumptions about his biases when he worked for HuffPost.

One of the writers who left Substack over transgender issues, Jude Doyle, argued that its system of advances amounted to a kind of editorial policy. But the analogy to a media company isn’t clear. Grace Lavery said she wanted Substack to be more aggressive about stopping harassment, but said she didn’t think threats to boycott the email service over writers she disagrees with made political sense. She has had bitter public disputes with other Substack writers, including the journalist Jesse Singal, over their writing on gender policy. “Boycotting Substack because of Jesse Singal would be like boycotting a paper company” over a writer who has books printed on their paper, she said.

Mr. Singal compared Substack with the unregulated, decentralized internet of a decade ago. “In the golden age of blogging, writers hated each other but they went back and forth over each other’s ideas. Now, people call the manager all the time,” he said.

So the biggest threat to Substack is unlikely to be the Twitter-centric political battles among some of its writers. The real threat is competing platforms with a different model. The most technically powerful of those is probably Ghost, which allows writers to send and charge for newsletters, with monthly fees starting at $9. While Substack is backed by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Ghost has Wikipedia vibes: It is open-source software developed by a nonprofit.


A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways

A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways
By Noel King
Apr 7 2021

In his $2 trillion plan to improve America’s infrastructure, President Biden is promising to address the racism ingrained in historical transportation and urban planning. 

Biden’s plan includes $20 billion for a program that would “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” according to the White House. It also looks to target “40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.”

Planners of the interstate highway system, which began to take shape after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, routed some highways directly, and sometimes purposefully, through Black and brown communities. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain. 

It left a deep psychological scar on neighborhoods that lost homes, churches and schools, says Deborah Archer, a professor at the New York University School of Law and national board president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Archer recently wrote for the Iowa Law Review about how transportation policy affected the development of Black communities.

She says the president will face major challenges in trying to rectify historical inequities.

“What is not clear is whether and how that money will be distributed in a way that will address the racial inequalities that are built into our transportation system and our infrastructure,” she tells NPR’s Morning Edition. 

“I think it’s also important for us to think about how we will shift culture within the relevant agencies so that white middle-class and affluent neighborhoods will not continue to be favored at the expense of communities of color, producing lopsided and skewed patterns of infrastructure development.”

Here are highlights from Archer’s interview with NPR:

Why would officials have targeted thriving vibrant communities? Was it just because the people who lived there were Black and or brown?

Some of the time, yes, that was actually the case. The highways were being built just as courts around the country were striking down traditional tools of racial segregation. So, for example, courts were striking down the use of racial zoning to keep Black people in certain communities and white people in other communities. And so the highway development popped up at a time when the idea, the possibility of integration in housing was on the horizon. And so very intentionally, highways were sometimes built right on the formal boundary lines that we saw used during racial zoning. Sometimes community members asked the highway builders to create a barrier between their community and encroaching Black communities.

As I read your paper, I was astonished to realize how many places this happened. Was there any successful resistance?

There was certainly successful resistance. We can see good examples in Greenwich Village in New York. There were examples from Washington, D.C., which is where the phrase “no white men’s roads through Black men’s homes” came from. That was the rallying cry for folks in D.C. who resisted it. And there was also a successful effort in New Orleans. 

But I think it’s important to point out the most successful efforts to stop the highways were not those that focused on racial justice or those that were put in place to protect Black communities. The people who were most successful were the ones that focused on environmental justice and protecting parks and their communities in that way.


COVID-19’s Baby Bust

COVID-19’s Baby Bust
Disasters usually come with falling birth rates. But this time, they might not recover unless governments take action now.
By Dimitris Valatsas & Patrycja Koszykowska
Apr 9 2021

P.D. James’s 1992 dystopian novel, The Children of Men, imagines a world where a rapidly ageing human race has become infertile. Coincidentally, the novel begins in 2021 with the death of the last human to be born on Earth. Although the real 2021 is not quite as dramatic, the number of births is plummeting around the world. A COVID-19 baby bust is underway.

A year into the pandemic, it is clear that being quarantined at home has not resulted in more pregnancies—despite having all the time in the world for Netflix and chill. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have had the opposite effect: Provisional data coming nine months after most countries locked down last March suggest a steep fall in births across the developed world and in some emerging markets.

In the United States, for example, there were 7.7 percent fewer births in December 2020 than during the same period in 2019. This January, Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, and Florida all recorded declines of roughly 9 percent on an annual basis. While in February, California saw a dramatic 19 percent drop, in part due to families leaving the state.

It’s a similar picture across the Atlantic Ocean, as January birth reports suggest that Europe is faring no better. Hungary is down 9.4 percent on an annual basis. Russia saw a drop of 10.3 percent, France of 13.2 percent, Spain of 20 percent, and Poland a whopping 24.7 percent. Even Sweden, which enforced less severe restrictions on mobility last year, recorded a 6.4 percent drop. All told, if this trend continues, there could be 400,000 fewer Europeans by the end of 2021.

In Asia, too, a baby bust is underway. Births in Japan and South Korea, which are already home to some of the oldest societies in the world, plunged almost 8 percent in December 2020. Meanwhile in China, the first country to be hit by the pandemic, cities like Guangzhou and Wenzhou reported declines of between 19 percent and almost 33 percent.

Although it flies in the face of most jokes, the baby bust is in line with historical evidence. High-fatality events like pandemics and economic crises both tend to be followed by a decline in natality.

At the height of the influenza pandemic in 1919 in the United States, for example, the number of births dropped by 7.1 percent on an annual basis compared with 3.8 percent in 2020. Unlike today, most fatalities during the Spanish flu were adults of child-bearing age, which in part explains why the decline was so steep.

And when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, it caused more than 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage. Then, too, the number of births dropped in the immediate aftermath. A year after the hurricane hit, births had fallen 19 percent in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-designated disaster counties.

Though acute, the effects of high-fatality events on natality tend to quickly reverse. By 1921, two years after the peak of the Spanish flu, the United States had returned to its prior level of annual births. Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina, in the Orleans Parish, the most populated of the six Louisiana disaster counties in 2005, the birth rate returned to pre-hurricane levels two years later.

In that sense, the COVID-19 baby bust might not be so worrying, except that it has come during the prolonged slowdown in birth rates that have haunted the West since the postwar baby boom ended in the 1960s. The resulting aging population has hampered growth, increased debt, and put social security systems on an ever more precarious footing. Needless to say, none of these are developments we need more of.

What can policymakers do to combat this decline? Fiscal support is one option. In the United States, the most recent COVID-19 relief package includes sizeable child tax credits. Parents of children ages 5 and under will be granted $3,600; those with children ages 6 to 17 will receive $3,000. Both are a substantial increase on the past $2,000 per child. Democrats in Congress are pushing to make these tax changes permanent. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio have also been vocal about the benefits of increasing tax credits.

But tax incentives are only one way to combat the demographic decline, and it’s far from clear if it’s the most efficient one. In fact, recent evidence from Eastern Europe suggests pro-natality fiscal transfers are expensive—and on average only mildly effective.

In 2015, the Hungarian government implemented interest-free housing loans and tax breaks for families. More recently, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced free IVF treatments and a personal income tax waiver for women with at least four children. And in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party kept its flagship campaign promise and rolled out the Family 500+ program that gives families monthly allowances of roughly $127 per child.

Roughly 4 to 5 percent of Hungary’s annual GDP is now spent on pro-natalist policies; in Poland it ranges between 3 and 4 percent. Since the announcement of pro-natality programs, birth rates have barely increased: from 9.2 to 9.4 percent in Hungary and from 9.6 to 9.8 percent in Poland. The countries’ fiscal foundation, however, has been permanently altered: It would be nearly impossible politically to roll back these family benefits.


Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus
Collaborating with devoted colleagues, Dr. Kariko laid the groundwork for the mRNA vaccines turning the tide of the pandemic.
By Gina Kolata
Apr 8 2021

She grew up in Hungary, daughter of a butcher. She decided she wanted to be a scientist, although she had never met one. She moved to the United States in her 20s, but for decades never found a permanent position, instead clinging to the fringes of academia.

Now Katalin Kariko, 66, known to colleagues as Kati, has emerged as one of the heroes of Covid-19 vaccine development. Her work, with her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, laid the foundation for the stunningly successful vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. 

For her entire career, Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.

But for many years her career at the University of Pennsylvania was fragile. She migrated from lab to lab, relying on one senior scientist after another to take her in. She never made more than $60,000 a year.

By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and infectious Diseases, knows Dr. Kariko’s work. “She was, in a positive sense, kind of obsessed with the concept of messenger RNA,” he said.

Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

Dr. Kariko’s ideas about mRNA were definitely unorthodox. Increasingly, they also seem to have been prescient.

“It’s going to be transforming,” Dr. Fauci said of mRNA research. “It is already transforming for Covid-19, but also for other vaccines. H.I.V. — people in the field are already excited. Influenza, malaria.”

‘I Felt Like a God’

For Dr. Kariko, most every day was a day in the lab. “You are not going to work — you are going to have fun,” her husband, Bela Francia, manager of an apartment complex, used to tell her as she dashed back to the office on evenings and weekends. He once calculated that her endless workdays meant she was earning about a dollar an hour.

For many scientists, a new discovery is followed by a plan to make money, to form a company and get a patent. But not for Dr. Kariko. “That’s the furthest thing from Kate’s mind,” Dr. Langer said.

She grew up in the small Hungarian town of Kisujszallas. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Szeged and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at its Biological Research Center.

In 1985, when the university’s research program ran out of money, Dr. Kariko, her husband, and 2-year-old daughter, Susan, moved to Philadelphia for a job as a postdoctoral student at Temple University. Because the Hungarian government only allowed them to take $100 out of the country, she and her husband sewed £900 (roughly $1,246 today) into Susan’s teddy bear. (Susan grew up to be a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in rowing.)

When Dr. Kariko started, it was early days in the mRNA field. Even the most basic tasks were difficult, if not impossible. How do you make RNA molecules in a lab? How do you get mRNA into cells of the body?

In 1989, she landed a job with Dr. Elliot Barnathan, then a cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a low-level position, research assistant professor, and never meant to lead to a permanent tenured position. She was supposed to be supported by grant money, but none came in.

She and Dr. Barnathan planned to insert mRNA into cells, inducing them to make new proteins. In one of the first experiments, they hoped to use the strategy to instruct cells to make a protein called the urokinase receptor. If the experiment worked, they would detect the new protein with a radioactive molecule that would be drawn to the receptor.

“Most people laughed at us,” Dr. Barnathan said.

One fateful day, the two scientists hovered over a dot-matrix printer in a narrow room at the end of a long hall. A gamma counter, needed to track the radioactive molecule, was attached to a printer. It began to spew data.

Their detector had found new proteins produced by cells that were never supposed to make them — suggesting that mRNA could be used to direct any cell to make any protein, at will.

“I felt like a god,” Dr. Kariko recalled.

She and Dr. Barnathan were on fire with ideas. Maybe they could use mRNA to improve blood vessels for heart bypass surgery. Perhaps they could even use the procedure to extend the life span of human cells.

Dr. Barnathan, though, soon left the university, accepting a position at a biotech firm, and Dr. Kariko was left without a lab or financial support. She could stay at Penn only if she found another lab to take her on. “They expected I would quit,” she said.

Universities only support low-level Ph.D.s for a limited amount of time, Dr. Langer said: “If they don’t get a grant, they will let them go.” Dr. Kariko “was not a great grant writer,” and at that point “mRNA was more of an idea,” he said.

But Dr. Langer knew Dr. Kariko from his days as a medical resident, when he had worked in Dr. Barnathan’s lab. Dr. Langer urged the head of the neurosurgery department to give Dr. Kariko’s research a chance. “He saved me,” she said.

Dr. Langer thinks it was Dr. Kariko who saved him — from the kind of thinking that dooms so many scientists.

Working with her, he realized that one key to real scientific understanding is to design experiments that always tell you something, even if it is something you don’t want to hear. The crucial data often come from the control, he learned — the part of the experiment that involves a dummy substance for comparison.

“There’s a tendency when scientists are looking at data to try to validate their own idea,” Dr. Langer said. “The best scientists try to prove themselves wrong. Kate’s genius was a willingness to accept failure and keep trying, and her ability to answer questions people were not smart enough to ask.”

Dr. Langer hoped to use mRNA to treat patients who developed blood clots following brain surgery, often resulting in strokes. His idea was to get cells in blood vessels to make nitric oxide, a substance that dilates blood vessels, but has a half-life of milliseconds. Doctors can’t just inject patients with it.

He and Dr. Kariko tried their mRNA on isolated blood vessels used to study strokes. It failed. They trudged through snow in Buffalo, N.Y., to try it in a laboratory with rabbits prone to strokes. Failure again.

And then Dr. Langer left the university, and the department chairman said he was leaving as well. Dr. Kariko again was without a lab and without funds for research.

A meeting at a photocopying machine changed that. Dr. Weissman happened by, and she struck up a conversation. “I said, ‘I am an RNA scientist — I can make anything with mRNA,’” Dr. Kariko recalled.

Dr. Weissman told her he wanted to make a vaccine against H.I.V. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do it,’” Dr. Kariko said.

Despite her bravado, her research on mRNA had stalled. She could make mRNA molecules that instructed cells in petri dishes to make the protein of her choice. But the mRNA did not work in living mice.

“Nobody knew why,” Dr. Weissman said. “All we knew was that the mice got sick. Their fur got ruffled, they hunched up, they stopped eating, they stopped running.”

It turned out that the immune system recognizes invading microbes by detecting their mRNA and responding with inflammation. The scientists’ mRNA injections looked to the immune system like an invasion of pathogens.

But with that answer came another puzzle. Every cell in every person’s body makes mRNA, and the immune system turns a blind eye. “Why is the mRNA I made different?” Dr. Kariko wondered.

A control in an experiment finally provided a clue. Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman noticed their mRNA caused an immune overreaction. But the control molecules, another form of RNA in the human body — so-called transfer RNA, or tRNA — did not.

A molecule called pseudouridine in tRNA allowed it to evade the immune response. As it turned out, naturally occurring human mRNA also contains the molecule.

Added to the mRNA made by Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman, the molecule did the same — and also made the mRNA much more powerful, directing the synthesis of 10 times as much protein in each cell.

The idea that adding pseudouridine to mRNA protected it from the body’s immune system was a basic scientific discovery with a wide range of thrilling applications. It meant that mRNA could be used to alter the functions of cells without prompting an immune system attack.


The New Politics is Substance Versus Feelings

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

The New Politics is Substance Versus Feelings
By Martin Longman
Apr 8 2021

It’s really rare that I learn something for someone’s clever “take” on politics, but it happened today when I looked at Jonathan Last’s latest column for The Bulwark. The lattice of the piece is a look at the company Red Bull. It turns it, this world famous company is 100 percent dedicated to marketing. That’s why you don’t just see their logo on soccer jerseys but see soccer teams named the “Red Bulls.” They don’t actually produce the energy drinks. That job is subcontracted out to an Austrian juice company. The Red Bull corporation spends all its energy getting attention for the brand.

While this is interesting in itself, Last uses this novel business arrangement as a metaphor for Republican lawmakers like Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn. In fact, he uses it as a metaphor for the entire Republican Party. He even goes further by comparing the consumers of Red Bull to the consumers of right-wing messaging.

The thing is, this has surprising explanatory power.

Last talks about a post-scarcity economy, meaning an economy where people’s basic needs are met so they’re more interested in buying feelings. Politically, this means that folks no longer want anything tangible from government. They don’t want health care or a stimulus check or something to be done about climate change. Of course, at least half the people in this country don’t fit this description, and most of them are Democrats.

But Last correctly points out that Democrats do not understand the post-scarcity folks at all.

Does it matter to his future political prospects that Matt Gaetz doesn’t advance legislation? Does it matter that Madison Cawthorn staffed up his office with comms people? Does it matter that Marjorie Taylor Greene doesn’t have committee assignments?

Well, these quirks would matter in a system where legislative accomplishments influenced voter behavior. But the preponderance of evidence suggests that Republican voters don’t care about tangible government outcomes.

They don’t care whether or not a border wall is built, or who would have (theoretically) paid for it. They don’t care about whether or not the government fails to manage a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. They don’t care if unemployment is up—or down. They don’t care about stimulus checks. Or the national debt.

It’s a little bit like—check that—it’s exactly like Red Bull.

What Last means is the both the company Red Bull and the people who buy Red Bull care very little about what is in the can. They’re selling or buying a feeling. What matters is that the purchase is made and the emotion is felt, but the quality of the drink is almost wholly beside the point. If people chose Red Bull over its competitors for its superior taste or energy-producing effects, then the marketing model would be much different. The company understands what drives sales and it is not substance.

Likewise, Republican lawmakers now realize that real power doesn’t come from delivering on political promises but from getting attention. The way to get attention is to make a lot of people feel a certain kind of way. Madison Cawthorn, the wheelchair-bound freshman congressman from North Carolina, doesn’t have policy people on his staff. His staff is designed to make him famous. That’s it. And he can get famous by pissing liberals off.

That’s the model for acquiring power in the Republican Party because the majority of Republican voters don’t have anything they want from the federal government. Sure, they might want abortion outlawed, but you may have noticed that confirming judges is about the only thing the congressional Republicans did during Trump’s term in office. Neither their general inactivity nor their failure to deliver on abolishing Obamacare and building a border wall had any noticeable depressive effect on the base’s enthusiasm for Trump’s reelection. The Republicans actually gained seats in the House and nearly kept control of the Senate.

Democrats are different.

Democrats do not seem to understand this new development in Republican politics, perhaps because they do not live in a post-scarcity political world. There are still a great many legislative outcomes that Democrats want from government. So they think that the governing matters more than getting attention.

That’s why Joe Biden won the nomination in a walk, even though he was practically allergic to attention. Instead, Democrats wanted a president who could deliver at least part of a long list of legislative outcomes: Vaccine distribution; closing the loophole on Obamacare’s subsidy cliff; creating a public option; granting statehood to the District of Columbia; creating a federal slate of voting rights protections; using the power of government to decrease carbon emissions; and so on.

It’s an essential point that Biden won the nomination and, especially, the election while doing very little campaigning. He was lampooned for hiding in his basement, but it was not far from the truth. The Republican model works, but it’s merely a competitive model, not some magic trick. A lot of people still want and expect things from the federal government–either for themselves, for other people, or for the future of humanity. Biden is one of those people and he’s operating politically as if pleasing those people is important not just on the merits but for maintaining power.

Both sides can be correct about what works politically, and I think that’s the case here, at least for the moment. We’re living in a battle between feelings and substance.

This helps explain why the Democrats get so little traction by delivering on health care or other major political promises. The people who reward those results were already voting for them. To make real inroads into the Republican base, they need to create a more direct connection to people’s lives. In the past, this came through union membership, but something needs to replace that to make people feel like the Democrats are on their side.