You Say Potato
January 29, 2021
It’s time to play… Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader (if that 5th grader read a TON of news). Test your knowledge of recent world news with this short quiz. Submissions must be made by 12pm EST Monday, 2/1. The winner, announced Wednesday, will win bragging rights for the week as well as a free Daily Pnut t-shirt.
“The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.” — Joan Robinson
“An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today” — Lawrence J. Peter
You Say Potato, I Say Catastrophic Economic Decline
(Spencer Platt via Getty Images)
How did the US economy perform in 2020? Either it cooled just a bit, or was the worst in three-quarters of a century. That’s the takeaway, depending on whether you’re reading the New York Times, or Reuters.
Reuters leads with how the US economy contracted at a pace not seen since the end of WWII, as the pandemic “depressed consumer spending and business investment, pushing millions of Americans out of work and into poverty.”
The Times tells us: true, economic recovery stumbled in the fourth quarter, but overall 2020 fared better than feared, the gross domestic product (GDP) slump wasn’t as bad as in 2008, and we’re already off to a really strong rebound in 2021. By Summer, “as the additional stimulus kicks in and more Americans get vaccinated,” we’ll be back in business, baby.
Reuters notes that nearly every sector except government and the housing market contracted last year. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, and plunging 3.9% meant spending was the worst since 1932. The economy tumbled into recession in February, and as the pandemic took hold and service businesses like restaurants, bars, and hotels closed, unemployment rose, particularly among low wage earners (mostly women and minorities). America had the sharpest rise in poverty since the 1960s, and its recovery has been “K-shaped,” meaning better-paid workers are doing well while lower-paid workers are losing out. Then, of course, the mega-rich just got mega-richer.
The Times quotes a Harvard economist who says, overall, last year’s showing was “bad but not historically bad” — actually quite better than “what was expected midyear.” Businesses became more flexible — retailers embraced online sales, restaurants built outdoor patios, and factories reorganized production lines to allow for social distancing. Then there were the near ‘0’ interest rates and the trillions of dollars in federal aid that helped keep households and small businesses afloat. Despite millions of lost jobs, personal income and savings both rose in 2020. Last May Congressional Budget Office economists estimated that GDP would end the year down 5.6% (it was down less than half that at 2.5%), and wouldn’t reach pre-pandemic level until well into 2022. Now most forecasters expect it to hit that benchmark this year.
Glass half empty, glass half full? Pick a subject, and there’s a chasm between viewpoints, both prospectively and retrospectively. Here’s the thing: whatever you understand Shakespeare’s phrase “the past is prologue” to mean, it’s probably best that as we prepare for the American economy to roar back to life, we never forget the lessons of the past. (NYT, $; Reuters)
Pak In Hope For Justice For Pearl
- Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was considered the mastermind of the 2002 kidnapping and videotaped beheading of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter covering militants in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Saeed, a British-born Pakistani who was implicated in other kidnappings, denied any involvement in Pearl’s gruesome murder.
- He was convicted and sentenced to death, but in 2020 he was acquitted by a Pakistani provincial court. Saeed had denied any involvement in the Pearl killing for 18 years, but in a three-page handwritten letter in 2019 he admitted playing a “minor” role in Pearl’s death. The letter was submitted to Pakistan’s Supreme Court two weeks ago, and in a stunning turn of events Thursday, the court ordered Saeed’s release.
- Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan.” Blinken also noted that Saeed “was indicted in the United States in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the murder of Pearl,” and said the US is prepared to prosecute him. (WaPo, $)
Poles Polish Their Protest Signs And Take To The Streets
- Thousands of outraged women, teenagers, and allies took to the streets again in Poland after a contentious near-total ban on abortion went into effect Wednesday.
- The Constitutional Tribunal made the ruling last October, but its implementation was delayed after hundreds of thousands of Poles protested in the largest demonstrations in the country since the collapse of Communism. Now even the termination of pregnancies for fetal abnormalities — virtually the only kind of abortion performed in Poland — is banned.
- Pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and threats to a woman’s life remain legal, but last year 1,074 of 1,100 abortions performed in the country were due to fetal abnormalities. (NYT, $)
Additional World News
- Mining giant Glencore faces human rights complaint over toxic spill in Chad (Guardian)
- China sharpens language, warns Taiwan that independence ‘means war’ (Reuters)
- Top US diplomat Blinken sees long road to Iran deal (Al Jazeera)
- Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny ordered to remain jailed (WaPo, $)
- US takes aim at China territorial claims as Biden vows to back Japan (Guardian)
- Toyota beats Volkswagen to become World’s No.1 car seller in 2020 (Reuters)
- ‘They use old cloths’: Sri Lanka to give schoolgirls free period products (Guardian)
Quiet, The Facebook Gods Are Speaking
(Hakan Nural via Getty Images)
- Last year, 20 journalists, politicians, and judges from around the world became members of Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which is tasked with passing judgment on the social media giant’s handling of the most difficult content issues. On Thursday, the board issued its first decisions, coming down on the side of unrestricted speech.
- The board, which claims total independence from Facebook, overturned several decisions made by the company to remove posts for violating policies on hate speech and violence, among other issues. Facebook says the board’s decisions will be binding.
- In coming weeks, the board must rule on an even more politically-charged issue: whether to overturn Facebook’s decision to suspend former President Trump’s account, in the wake of his influence on the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th. (NBC News)
DHS Declares Threat Level: Midnight
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a bulletin Wednesday warning of a continued threat from domestic violent extremists. Specifics were not cited; rather, it described “a heightened threat environment across the United States, which DHS believes will persist in the weeks following the successful Presidential Inauguration.
- The bulletin said: “Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists … could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.” Neither DHS nor the FBI had issued a warning in advance of the January 6th rally in Washington, DC, despite social media chatter that suggested violence could occur that day.
- The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), tweeted: “The domestic terrorism attack on our Capitol earlier this month shined a light on a threat that has been right in front of our faces for years.” At present there is no federal criminal statute penalizing attacks motivated by extremist ideologies. (NPR)
Additional USA News
- Most Americans must wait months for vaccine, taskforce warns (Guardian)
- Millions Meant for Public Health Threats Were Diverted Elsewhere, Watchdog Says (NYT, $)
- U.S. Congress Republicans face dilemma in controversies around Cheney, Greene (Reuters). Cheney and Greene in the same party? Not my ideal Friday night.
- Milwaukee was already failing students of color. Covid made it worse (Guardian)
- The Biden administration nears a deal for enough shots to vaccinate 300 million Americans by the end of summer. (NYT, $)
- Biden Team Puts NATO Call On Video In Rare Move (NPR). So far, the Biden administration has been NATOrious for their transparency.
- Democrats’ plan to fight child poverty: Monthly cash for kids (Politico)
What’s All The Buzz About Bee-Killing Pesticides?
- Honey bees are the world’s most important single species of pollinator in natural ecosystems, and their importance to agriculture cannot be overstated. In the early 2000s, scientists began sounding the alarm on the decline in the honey bee population; after extensive studies, it was shown that neonicotinoid pesticides harm both honeybees and wild bees. Europe and the US took notice.
- In 2013, concern over the declining bee population led the EU and a few neighboring countries to restrict the use of certain neonicotinoids. Environmental groups filed lawsuits in the US, and in 2014 the Obama administration issued a blanket ban against the use of neonicotinoids on National Wildlife Refuges.
- In 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the EPA in a decision that concluded the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor could not be used in the US. But in 2018, President Trump reversed the ban on bee-killing pesticides in National Wildlife Refuges, and in 2019 Trump’s EPA allowed sulfoxaflor back on the market.
- Continued damage to bee colonies caused by any use of neonicotinoid pesticides led the EU to totally ban all outdoor use of these pesticides in 2018. But post-Brexit, when the UK was no longer part of the EU bloc, the British government approved the use of one neonicotinoid to stave off “potential danger” to the sugar beet crop from a virus spread by aphids. Now Wildlife Trusts has advised Britain’s environmental secretary it will take legal action challenging that decision. The charity again cited numerous large-scale field trials showing the harm neonicotinoids do to pollinators and aquatic life. (BBC, EarthJustice)
Additional Weekend Reads
- Scientists address myths over large-scale tree planting (BBC).
- Micro-brewing goes more micro (Phys)
- Lawmakers announce hearings on GameStop and online trading platforms (TechCrunch)
- The GameStop stock short squeeze is driven by Reddit users (NPR). They say it’s all a meme… but is it?
- GM says no more tailpipe emissions by 2035, carbon neutrality by 2040 (ArsTechnica)
- Why Instacart Is Laying Off Workers as Deliveries Soar (Wired)
- Naked mole rats speak in dialect (Phys). Clothed mole rats speak it too, but have shunned the nudist population.
- How the Opioid Epidemic’s ‘Rock Doc’ Seduced a Town (Atlantic)
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