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Since 2016, 11 states and D.C. have expanded voting rights for the currently and formerly incarcerated

By Brittany Renee Mayes and Kate Rabinowitz
Since 2016, 11 states and D.C. have expanded voting rights for the currently and formerly incarcerated
Desmond Meade displays a copy of his voter registration form outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando on Jan. 8, 2019, after registering to vote. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Phelan M. Ebenhack

Over a million currently and formerly incarcerated Americans have regained their right to vote since the last presidential election. Though many still face barriers to voting, like outstanding fines and fees, for some of these Americans, this November will be the first time they'll be able to cast a ballot.

"Being from the nation's capital and being able to come home and I still have the right to vote ... it's a blessing," said Shannon Battle, who was formerly incarcerated and is now the Congressman John Lewis Fellow at Free Minds. The fellowship pays a returning citizen to promote nonviolence and racial equity through poetry and storytelling. "Returning citizen" is the preferred term for formerly incarcerated people, and is used to de-stigmatize them while acknowledging their unique difficulties.

Battle was a juvenile when he was given a life sentence and incarcerated in 1993 for homicide. Twenty-five years later, on June 6, 2019, he was released under Washington, D.C's Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA). Battle, now 44, was able to vote in the 2020 D.C. primary, and he is eager to cast a ballot in November in his first presidential election.

"I made a commitment to myself that if ... there's ever the opportunity (to vote) that I would take full advantage of that right," Battle said. "I'ma vote every time I get the chance."

In 2016, more than 6 million Americans were subject to felony disenfranchisement. Since then, thousands of people have reclaimed their right to vote through executive orders and changes to state law. Last month, D.C. passed legislation to join Maine and Vermont in allowing incarcerated Americans to cast ballots.

"There have been several reforms at the state level, changing laws or governors using their authority," said Nicole D. Porter, advocacy director at the Sentencing Project. "There are still millions of people who are disenfranchised because of felony voting rights exclusions ... including several states (that) have hundreds of thousands of people disenfranchised who live in the community on felony probation and parole."

Disenfranchisement policies have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. In particular, Black Americans older than 18 are about four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population. Black citizens account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 30 percent of parolees. In total, 2.2 million Black voters are disenfranchised.

In states such as Georgia and Texas, hundreds of thousands of returning citizens on probation are excluded from voting. Most recently, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed an executive order to automatically restore voting rights for some felons upon completion of sentencing, re-enfranchising an estimated 40,000 Iowans.

In 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, by ballot measure, giving voting rights to most people with prior felony convictions who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation. An estimated 1.4 million voters regained their rights.

But even with these laws changing, the act of voting can still be blocked. Following the ballot initiative, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a bill requiring that formerly convicted Americans pay all court-ordered fines before they can register to vote.

Florida is not alone in having financial roadblocks in place. In more than half of U.S. states, at least some formerly incarcerated Americans are disenfranchised because of outstanding fines, fees and restitution payments to victims. The fees vary from a $50 application fee for a public defender to thousands of dollars in restitution payments.

A study in the American Sociological Review found that the outcome of the highly-contested George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election in 2000 probably would have been changed even if disenfranchised Americans with felony convictions in Florida had been allowed to vote.

"Watching the Gore versus Bush spectacle to have it down to Florida with the hanging chads. ... It kind of gave me an understanding of how important voting was," Battle said. "After that, I always said I wish I had the opportunity to vote."

In the 2016 presidential election, the race came down to just over 100,000 votes in a handful of states - most notably Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. At the time, more than 160,000 voters in those states were disenfranchised.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, some state correction departments started taking steps to reduce the prison population by allowing early releases. In some states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, the completion of a prison sentence re-enfranchises voters, making them eligible to cast their ballots in the upcoming election even if they are still on parole.

But Battle sees a lack of education as the biggest barrier to voting because enfranchisement laws vary from state to state, and there isn't a guarantee that currently or formerly incarcerated Americans know their rights. "Especially a lot of the younger guys that might have entered the system just think that they don't have that right no more," he said.

Battle, released just over a year ago, said he's now committed to being a part of as much of the democratic process as possible - including educating his peers on their rights and volunteering at the polls.

"It's a blessing especially (for) someone like me who always dreamed of one day voting," Battle said. "I never thought I would get the opportunity to vote. I thought that was impossible."

Cows bring danger for hikers in Alps

By Denise Hruby
Cows bring danger for hikers in Alps
Reinhard Pfurtscheller feeds the cows and calves on his farm in the Austrian Alps. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Lena Mucha.

NEUSTIFT IM STUBAITAL, Austria - To Reinhard Pfurtscheller, the land he farmed high in the Alps was always a slice of paradise. He'd wake up in a cabin more than 300 years old, cows already wandering the flower-speckled meadows, snow-capped peaks all around. "There's nothing more beautiful," he said.

Until that warm July afternoon when he watched medics on his pasture zipping shut a body bag.

As the helicopter took off with the victim, Pfurtscheller learned that a 45-year-old hiker from Germany had been brutally assaulted, sustaining grievous injuries to her chest and heart. The farmer was well acquainted with her killers: Bea, Flower, Raven and his other cows.

Across the Alps, such attacks once were a shocking rarity. No longer. Amid the sweeping economic changes jeopardizing farmers' future, the creatures that for decades have defined the region's landscape and culture - bovine stars of tourism campaigns - have become liabilities.

Another hiker was killed a year after the German woman died in 2014, and another in 2017. Statistics aren't kept by Austrian, Swiss, Italian or French authorities, but media reports of incidents have become increasingly common. A young mother, her baby strapped to her back, was trampled; both lived. A couple was run off a cliff, surviving despite tumbling 50 feet.

Nowadays, signs warning tourists in German, English, French and Italian are ubiquitous: Cross pastures at your own risk. Hotels display brochures on how to stay safe. Olympic skiers and famous actors help to raise awareness in TV spots and online videos, often stressing "the mountain pasture is no petting zoo." A pilot project in Switzerland will soon launch an app that hikers can use to track the location of free-roaming herds and steer clear.

Yet this summer, with many Europeans yearning for the outdoors after months of coronavirus lockdowns, there are worries that the hiking season will result in even more attacks. Since June, at least nine have been reported. One involved an 8-year-old boy in southern Germany who had to be airlifted to a hospital.

"Some might think this isn't serious," said Andreas Freisinger, an optician living near Vienna in the town of Bad Vöslau. "But do you know how terrifying a herd of cows charging at you is, how fast and agile they are?"

It's a rhetorical question; the 50-year-old Freisinger indeed knows. An agitated herd came at him and his family while they were day-tripping on one of the highest mountains in the eastern Alps. They escaped only because they let their dog off the leash, and the cows pursued Junior as he fled into the forest. When Freisinger went looking for the Saint Bernard mix, he heard a rapid scuffing just before a lone cow knocked him to the ground.

"I was fighting for my life," he recounted recently, describing how he aimed his kicks for the udders. An avid soccer player, he believes that's what saved him. Even so, the animal cracked one of his shoulder blades, an orbital cavity and several vertebrae and ribs, plus flattened his lungs and diaphragm with the weight of a grand piano.

Seven metal plates now hold Freisinger's rib cage together. A 16-inch scar snakes around his torso. But Freisinger has made a full recovery - and still goes hiking.

"It's such a beautiful thing to be in the Alps. But people have to be aware how dangerous this can be," he said.

The scenery that annually draws 120 million tourists would not exist if not for cows grazing. It has been cultivated over seven centuries of farmers driving their herds to mountainside meadows in the summer. The animals' hoofs firm the soil, their tongues gently groom the grasses and wildflowers. In the process, they continually sculpt verdant pastures - beloved backdrops for movies like "The Sound of Music."

All that seemed at stake when a court in the western state of Tyrol found Pfurtscheller solely responsible for the German woman's death and ordered him to pay more than $210,000 in damages to her widower and son, plus monthly restitution totaling $1,850. The 2019 decision shocked farmers, and not just in Neustift im Stubaital, a village of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants who live at the foot of a glacier promoted as the "Kingdom of Snow."

As foreclosure on Pfurtscheller's home and farm loomed, some farmers contemplated banning hikers from their land, a move that would cut off access to the Alps. Others threatened to stop taking their cows into the Alps altogether, a move that would allow nature to cut back in. Forests would soon begin to take over.

"This isn't just about the farmers. It's the wish of all Europeans to have the mountains open for hiking," warned Josef Lanzinger, head of the Alpine farming association in Tyrol.

"This would mean the end of Alpine pastures," said Georg Strasser, president of Bauernbund, the national farmers association that is one of Austria's most powerful lobbies. Falling dairy and meat prices had already tightened the screws on farmers, he told reporters after the ruling, and the specter of lawsuits would prove too much to bear.

Governments quickly acted to keep cows on the pastures. State governors, federal ministers, even the Austrian chancellor spoke out in support of Pfurtscheller, a slender man of 62 who has been farming since he was 10. Last year, federal law was changed to block similar litigation. New insurance policies now cover every farmer whose animals go wild.

In May, the Austrian Supreme Court of Justice upheld a revised lower-court verdict that held the hiker equally culpable for the tragedy, cut her survivors' compensation to $92,400 and halved their monthly restitution payments. The verdict was a real blow, said Markus Hirm, the lawyer for her family. "But given how much political support the farmer had, it still feels like a win."

Farmers feel otherwise because of the pressures they're facing. The steep Alpine terrain limits the amount of feed that can be grown and the number of cows that can be held. On average, a farmer in Tyrol owns 12 cows, but the more dramatic the landscape gets, the lower that figure goes. In some valleys, the average is six cows per farmer. By comparison, Germany's average is 67 cows per farm.

Even with government subsidies - Switzerland hands out $440 for each cow taken to graze in the mountains - earning a living is tough.

"Reinhard really is doing this with all his heart and soul," said Pfurtscheller's wife, Angelika. "There's no money in it."

The number of farms in Tyrol deemed primary businesses is today a fraction of what it once was. Over the past decade, more than 25,000 cows have vanished from the Austrian Alps, according to the Agriculture Ministry, along with hundreds of pastures left for nature. The situation is little different in the Alps in Italy, France and Switzerland, where the loss of pastoral land is being closely monitored by authorities.

Many of the farmers still carrying on have pivoted to the least time-intensive type of farming: suckler herds. As opposed to dairy cows, kept separate from their calves and milked twice a day, suckler herds graze largely unattended while nurturing their calves through the summer.

The unintended consequence is that the mamas, fiercely protective of their young, can react strongly when tourists come too close. Hikers with dogs, as well as bike riders, add to cows' stress. (The casualty on Pfurtscheller's farm was accompanied by a terrier named Frodo.)

"To the cows, dogs are direct descendants of wolves," he said. "If you thought your child is in danger, wouldn't you defend it?"

Pfurtscheller has posted new signs on his land warning hikers to keep dogs away from mother cows at all times. He fences his pastures.

"People want the pastures, they want cows and farmers in Lederhosen," he said. "But nobody sees how much effort it is."

On a sunny afternoon last week, hundreds of hikers traversed his land, passing a small memorial he built for the woman who died there. The crowds are growing, but his herd is thinning. He's down to six cows, having recently given up two that became too old to carry calves.

"I haven't replaced them," Pfurtscheller said.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, coronavirus fatigue grips America

By Brady Dennis, et al.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, coronavirus fatigue grips America
he waterfront in San Francisco is eerily empty on an August afternoon. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Nick Otto.

Gabe Rice began sheltering in his suburban Phoenix home with his wife and three youngest children in March. They worked remotely, learned remotely and put social events on hold to hunker down alongside much of the country.

It was challenging and frustrating, but, Rice initially assumed, temporary. It seemed like a plausible plan to help the nation get the pandemic under control within a couple of months.

But Arizona's economic reopening in May, urged by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, was soon followed by a spike in coronavirus infections in June, which became a terrible surge in hospitalizations and deaths by July.

Then came August, and the devastating realization for many Americans that the pandemic, which has killed at least 159,000 people across the country and sickened more than five million, is far from over.

"It's difficult when you think you have a light at the other end of the tunnel to look forward to, and then all of a sudden you realize it's a train," said Rice, 44, a program coordinator at Arizona State University.

An exhausted, exasperated nation is suffering from the effects of a pandemic that has upended society on a scale and duration without parallel in living memory.

The Rice family and millions of other Americans are wrestling with difficult questions about how to juggle school, pay their bills and look after their mental and physical health.

Parents lie awake, their minds racing with thoughts of how to balance work with their newfound role as home-schoolers. Frontline health workers are bone tired, their nerves frayed by endless shifts and constant encounters with the virus and its victims. Senior citizens have grown weary of isolation. Unemployed workers fret over jobs lost, benefits that are running out, rent payments that are overdue. Minority communities continue to shoulder the disproportionate burden of the contagion's impact, which in recent weeks has killed an average of about 1,000 people a day.

The metaphor of a marathon doesn't capture the wearisome, confounding, terrifying and yet somehow dull and drab nature of this ordeal for many Americans, who have watched leaders fumble the pandemic responsefrom the start. Marathons have a defined conclusion, but 2020 feels like an endless slog - uphill, in mud.

Recent opinion polls hint at the deepening despair. A Gallup survey in mid-July showed 73% of adults viewed the pandemic as growing worse - the highest level of pessimism recorded since Gallup began tracking that assessment in early April. Another Gallup Poll, published Aug. 4, found only 13% of adults are satisfied with the way things are going overall in the country, the lowest in nine years.

A July Kaiser Family Foundation poll echoed that, finding that a majority of adults think the worst is yet to come. Fifty-three percent said the crisis has harmed their mental health.

In a podcast released Thursday, former first lady Michelle Obama directly addressed the mental toll, saying she has struggled with the quarantines, the government's response to the pandemic and the persistent reminders of systemic racism that have led to nationwide protests.

"I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression," she said.

Historians say that not even the 1918 flu pandemic, which killedan estimated 675,000 people in the United States, had the same kind of all-encompassing economic, social and cultural impact.

"One of the biggest differences between this virus and [the 1918] influenza is the duration," said John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History."

With coronavirus, he said, the incubation period is longer, patients with symptoms tend to be sick longer, and many take longer to recover. Barry said leaders did not make sufficiently clear early onthe simple epidemiological truththat this would be a painfully drawn-out event.

"Part of the frustration and disappointment and depression, frankly, is because of the expectation that we'd be through this by now," he said.

President Donald Trump repeatedly promised a quick resolution. He conjured the image of church pews packed by Easter. The White House recommended 15 days of restrictions. That was then extended by 30 days, to the end of April. On Thursday, Trump said a vaccine could be ready by Election Day, Nov. 3 - a date well in advance of what his administration's own experts think is likely.

But the virus has repeatedly shown that it has its own timetable. The first wave of shutdowns helped reverse the frightening trend lines of March and early April but came nowhere close to crushing the opportunistic pathogen. And now the season of the pandemic is indisputably the year of the pandemic.

"This will be a long, long haul unless virtually everybody - or a very, very high percentage of the population, including the young people - take very seriously the kind of prevention principles that we've been talking about," Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.

"It is within our power and within our will to really get it down to a level that's low enough that we can do many of the things that would get our economy going again," he added. "There will be a long slog if everybody doesn't pitch in."

Not everyone is experiencing the same level of stress, and everyone's pandemic struggles differ. Any "essential" worker exposed to high-risk conditions day after day has more urgent concerns than someone merely stuck at home and missing out on summer barbecues.

- - -

In Cadiz, Ky., Stephanie Grant has endured one of the most trying years of her life. The 42-year-old lost her job at the end of April. For more than two months, as she waited for unemployment benefits to kick in, she fell behind on her car payment, utilities, insurance and rent for the apartment she shares with her two teenage daughters.

She drained most of her savings trying to remain afloat. She applied for jobs at gas stations and dollar stores. She pursued becoming a coronavirus contract tracer, but that also didn't come through.

"I could not get a job anywhere," she said. "I want to get back out there and work."

As her stress and her bills mounted, Grant turned to a Kentucky nonprofit focused on housing and homelessness. The group helped her catch up on her rent, and the arrival of her unemployment payments in late July have allowed her to catch her breath. For now.

"Right now, I'm wary. It seems like we are falling apart. The stress, the tensions, everything that's going on. . . . People are scared," she said.

And many people are bored, eager to socialize. In Harvey, La., Marlon "Buck" Horton operates a popular bar, Wo-de's Chill Spot. But Horton's bar permit was suspended in late July after complaints about what the state fire marshal described as "a large, non-socially distanced crowd."

Horton, 39, denied the fire marshal's report that he served alcohol indoors. He said people simply eager to grab a beer crowded outside, and a passerby posted a video of the gathering on Facebook, leading to the crackdown.

"We're stuck. We don't have assistance, and we still have landlords," Horton said last week. At a hearing soon after, the suspension was lifted when he agreed to pay a fine and abide by the state's coronavirus rules.

Although somestates battered by the virushave made progress against it in recent weeks, it has infiltrated small towns with little previous exposure.

In Mississippi, George County is among eight counties that have been told to delay school reopenings for grades seven to 12 until Aug. 17 because of high rates of virus transmission. Superintendent of Education Wade Whitney realized how serious the pandemic had become locally when a co-worker in an adjacent office became severely ill and was hospitalized for five days.

"When that person catches it, it kind of hits you right between the eyes," Whitney said. "Small-town George County is not immune."

That co-worker was Matt Caldwell, the director of operations for the school district and the former head football coach at the high school. Caldwell, a big man who played offensive line for the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the early 1990s, had assumed it would be no big deal if he was infected.

"Boy, was I wrong," he said. "I definitely underestimated it. I tell everybody I talk to it's a real thing. Those people who think its just a hoax and all that - I know this, I wouldn't wish what I went through on anybody."

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, has become an oft-quoted expert during the coronavirus pandemic. But she's also a mother who is dismayed that her son Miles, 7, who should be entering second grade in a Maryland public school, will start the year with online-only instruction.

"I'm absolutely devastated. It's not learning," Nuzzo said.

- - -

This is not just back-to-school season, it's also the time when many counties and states hold their annual fairs. Those are being canceled right and left. Professional sports is now back on air, but in most cases without fans in the stadiums and arenas. Major League Baseball is trying to keep its revived season intact after several outbreaks of infection.

And there are the ordinary cancellations so many people have endured - birthdays not celebrated, weddings and funerals carried out over Zoom, trips not taken, loved ones not visited.

Joseph and Kelli Crawford of Gilbert, Ariz., had planned to travel to London in April for their 10th anniversary and for her sister's 30th birthday. Everything was booked: Flights, lodging, tickets to concerts and plays.

They rescheduled for March 2021. But now they worry that even that might be optimistic.

"I'm crossing my fingers. But I'm also not going to be packing my bags," said Kelli, 33.

A flight attendant, she also agreed to an 18-month voluntary separation from her work. She'll keep her health insurance and part of her salary.

But she won't be bored. All four of the Crawfords' children, ages 4, 5, 10 and 13, are home. The three oldest have begun remote classes. Their 4-year-old daughter has been aching to start preschool since she saw her older brother do so last year. But there is no virtual preschool, so that plan is on hold.

"It's one thing for the adults to be lonely," Kelli said. "But these poor kids, I get so heartbroken about the loneliness they're experiencing."

There are glimmers of hope for those staggered by this dire moment: The vaccine development for the novel coronavirus appears to be moving at unprecedented speed. There are promising therapeutics that may lower the mortality rate of those who become severely ill.

The pandemic will someday come to an end, experts promise, because all pandemics have. And though SARS-CoV-2 is a slippery and unpredictable virus, it has not proved as deadly as the 1918 influenza virus that swept across much of the planet.

"In 1918, practically every city in the country ran out of coffins," Barry said. Victims commonly died at home. "All these things led to much greater fear, which meant that people were also more willing to put up with anything that might help."

Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said that though similarities exist between today's outbreak and the influenza pandemic a century ago, American society was different at that time.

Americans had experienced epidemics of cholera, diphtheria and other diseases in the not-so-distant past. They were accustomed to children dying of smallpox, whooping cough and other diseases.

Unlike today, most Americans also had little confidence that a magic bullet would end the suffering and exasperation. "Another expectation of our era is the expectation that science will come up with a fix quickly," Markel said. "None of us have the patience for lengthy processes. We live in an instant society."

Still, Markel said, despite the seemingly endless nature of the current situation, history offers reasons for optimism. When the pandemic of 1918-1919 was over, for instance, people rebounded quickly.

"They went out and started dancing the Charleston, buying raccoon coats and buying stocks and bonds," he said. "It went from zero to 60 in no time flat."

This crisis, too, will pass.

"No question, epidemic fatigue or pandemic fatigue is real. We are experiencing it," Markel said. "But throughout human history, there have been terrible pandemics and contagious threats. Every civilization, every nation, has come through to the other side. And we will, too."

- - -

The Washington Post's Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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Trump still can't get his unemployment benefit executive action to work - not legally, anyway

By catherine rampell
Trump still can't get his unemployment benefit executive action to work - not legally, anyway

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 and thereafter

(For RAMPELL clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Catherine Rampell

It's never a good sign when a president announces five versions of the same policy within 48 hours and still doesn't land on one that's legal.

The Trump administration unveiled four executive actions on Saturday, allegedly to show leadership when Capitol Hill negotiations over more coronavirus relief broke down. Never mind that the impasse happened partly because the administration demanded policies the president's own party doesn't want; and also partly because the White House representative in the talks, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, reportedly decided to go on vacation. President Donald Trump anointed himself savior anyway.

His executive actions, he declared, "will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation."

Instead, he revealed his administration's inability to do the bare minimum homework necessary even when it actually wants to govern.

Trump's memorandum allowing federal student loan payments to continue being deferred, through the end of the year, seems fine. But his anti-eviction order does nothing to stop evictions. His payroll tax deferral, advertised as a tax cut, could actually raise taxes if employers take advantage of it - and knowing this, employers probably won't. So that will likely do nothing, too. It's also not clear whether the treasury secretary even understands which payroll taxes are supposed to be deferred by the president's action.

Then there's the unemployment benefit supplement. What. A. Mess.

With passage of the Cares Act pandemic relief in March, Congress created a $600 federal supplement to state unemployment benefits. This was a lifeline to millions of families. The supplement expired July 31, though, because members of Congress couldn't come to terms on an extension. Republicans insisted the supplement was so generous that it discouraged work. (Five studies find otherwise.)

So Trump decided to supplement unemployment benefits by executive fiat, allegedly providing an additional $400 per week. The administration said it would take $44 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, earmarked for natural disasters, to fund a new $300 weekly payment per worker. But states would get the money only if they kicked in $100 for each worker from their own coffers, on top of whatever benefits they had already been distributing.

States would also have to build an information technology system from scratch to administer this $400, because they cannot legally use their existing unemployment insurance infrastructure to pay out benefits that haven't been authorized by Congress.

Now, bear in mind that states are broke.

Actually, not just broke; they're $555 billion in the hole, thanks to lower tax revenues and higher expenses related to covid-19. Nonetheless, they're being asked to pony up an additional $100 per week per worker, plus spend precious resources on a separate IT system when their existing unemployment IT systems are crumbling. The IT build could take weeks or months, while the $300 federal benefit that this not-yet constructed system would distribute is expected to last only about six weeks.

Additionally, the parallel unemployment benefit system might not survive a legal challenge, given that Trump may not have statutory authority to redirect congressionally appropriated funds this way.

If you were a governor, would you opt into this program under these conditions?

In a TV interview Sunday, the director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, acknowledged that the White House had . . . not asked states this question. Soon, though, it got an answer: Governors from both parties declared the program administratively unworkable. The bipartisan National Governors Association expressed concern "about the significant administrative burdens and costs this latest action would place on the states" and asked for congressionally appropriated funds instead.

So, Trump and high-level officials kept changing the details, apparently in an attempt to make the plan more appealing to states.

Sometimes the White House said maybe the feds would provide the entire $400 without requiring states to kick in 25%. Sometimes aides said other money the states were already spending would count as a sort of artificial 25% funding match, meaning each worker would get an additional $300, not the $400 advertised. Sometimes this phony match could be achieved by tallying what each individual worker currently receives from their state; sometimes by what a state spent overall on benefits, across all workers.

By Tuesday evening, at least five contradictory versions of this parallel benefit system had been communicated by various Trump officials, according to a running tally from Georgetown law professor David Super. And if the original design was in a statutory gray area, Super says, the revised versions waiving additional state contributions are "not remotely legal."

That's because the 25% ($100) state funding match included in Trump's executive action wasn't there just for kicks. It was there because it's required under the law Trump cited as giving him authority to create this benefit program: the Stafford Act. Counting existing state spending on jobless benefits, rather than new spending, to meet the state-match requirement would also violate Office of Management and Budget Circular A-87.

Given the whipsawing design of the program, which may not be legal, plus the fact that the Trump administration has already changed the rules midstream for other covid-19 unemployment benefits programs, opting into this would be extremely risky for states.

"It's not a matter of whether states are willing to sign on the dotted line," Super told me. "It's: What are you actually asking me to sign up for?"

Even if no one challenges the policy in court, states might still reasonably fear that the Trump administration would renege on the deal to reimburse them for $300 in weekly benefits, once administration attorneys and budget officials belatedly remember the Stafford Act's requirements. In which case states might be on the hook for the entire cost of the plussed-up benefits. If a state couldn't come up with a quarter of this money, footing the whole bill seems impossible.

Meanwhile, the White House is declaring victory, with outside adviser Stephen Moore proclaiming Trump's toothless, legally dubious actions "a masterstroke." Premature victory laps on administrative actions are par for the course with this administration, which has lost 90 percent of all legal challenges to its regulatory policies.

To be fair, even if the president were competent - and advisers actually did their homework before announcing big policy changes - executive orders could still never substitute for much-needed legislative action right now. Congress must exercise its powers of the purse and pass more covid-19 relief. Not just for enhanced jobless benefits but also for more general state fiscal aid (among other priorities).

But in declaring that he's solved all these problems, President I-Alone-Can-Fix-It hasn't hastened advanced legislative negotiations - he's made a deal less likely to happen. And America's unemployed will pay the price.

- - -

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

It's now clear that college students are customers

By megan mcardle
It's now clear that college students are customers

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 and thereafter

(For MCARDLE clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Megan McArdle

A pandemic is an essentializing force; it strips away the frosting of rhetoric and habit and forces us to confront bare realities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education, which over the past few decades has been one of two sectors that have just kept increasing their prices, the share of national income, and, of course, the share of our attention they claim.

The other one is health care, and in both cases, Americans justified the increased spending in contradictory ways - invoking both pragmatic benefits and airy ideals such as "scholarship" or "caring," which denied the necessity of even appealing to necessity. To skeptics viewing luxury dormitories and multi-millionaire cardiologists, this always sounded a bit like middle-age men selling doubtful wives on a BMW's engineering - "You can't put a price on safety, honey." But we all bought it, and in the case of health care, America has now had an accident that retroactively justified the expenditure.

But colleges are in the opposite position. As students balked at full tuition for online education, Elizabeth Cohen, a political science professor at Syracuse University, set off a minor Twitter storm: "Working at a college or university right now is hearing a lot of people say that they should pay less for something you're working twice as hard to make available for them."

A follower responded, "Your customers are telling you that the value of your now remotely-delivered product is less than you want them to pay." Another academic account fired back: "STUDENTS ARE NOT CUSTOMERS."

And now we get to the essentializing, because the pandemic has made something undeniable: To a large extent, students have become customers. And professors should acknowledge their own role in getting us to that point, because the commodification of higher education is a direct byproduct of the transformation of college into the entrance examination for America's middle class, something the professoriate has cheered on.

Sure, students are buying a complex bundle that's rarely described as a "product." But if you doubt colleges are selling, you need look only at the glossy marketing campaigns. And if you think they're mostly selling learning, consider this thought experiment from economist Bryan Caplan: If you had to choose, would you rather have four years of Princeton University classes but no diploma, or the diploma, but no classes?

Maybe you'd choose the classes; if so, you're in the minority. Most students are primarily buying something else - a credential, a social network - not a "community of learning." Which is not to say that this is what they should be buying, or that we should even think of it as a "purchase."

Markets are terrific, and we need them, but we also need institutions that are buffered from them. When those buffers break down, as they have in America's colleges, dysfunction ensues. University business-think has meant bureaucratic overgrowth and an obsession with useless "metrics" - assessing faculty using student evaluations rather than student learning, goosing "selectivity" by soliciting applications in order to reject them.

Professors rightly resist these developments. But what else could you expect once colleges became the gatekeeper to all the good jobs? Now most everyone needs to go, regardless of their interest in learning. And an essentially scholarly enterprise doesn't serve most of those people well.

So instead, U.S. higher education bundled "teaching and research" with a bunch of other things - residential amenities, sports teams, networking opportunities, career coaching, dating service and so forth. Among other effects, all this initially created a booming demand for professors; their numbers quintupled from 1940 to 1970 and then almost doubled again by 1988. Without that shift, most of the professors complaining about the commercialization of education would have had to take jobs in actual businesses.

The bundle was still tightly woven enough, however, that we could tell ourselves the learning was still the heart of the package. Then covid-19 came, and suddenly, the lectures and the homework were the only part schools could still deliver. Yet somehow, few students seem reassured that they're getting most of what they were paying tuition for.

Deep down, even university presidents knew this would be the case, which is why so many spent the summer pretending they were going to find some way to reopen, in many cases announcing the truth only when the tuition checks were well in hand. One can imagine a university in which this sort of at best wishful thinking wasn't necessary, one that defined its community narrowly around education. Such schools probably couldn't enroll nearly half of all high school graduates, but on the other hand, in our current situation, they might have kept the ones they did sign up.

Instead,some decades ago, U.S. higher education reimagined itself as the ticket to secure white-collar employment. And like most of the other organizations that supported themselves by selling a lot of tickets, they're going to have to rethink that business model.

- - -

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

Biden made the logical choice

By e.j. dionne jr.
Biden made the logical choice

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

The process was long and winding, but in the end, former vice president Joe Biden landed exactly where he was expected to from the very beginning. Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California was always the safest, most experienced and most tested choice Biden could make.

Harris will create excitement as the first Black woman on a major-party ticket, but no ideological anxiety among middle-of-the road voters. Like Biden, she occupies the Democratic Party's center ground. And she will raise no questions as to whether she is qualified to take over as president.

A man shaped by the U.S. Senate, Biden was comfortable with a legislator who had shined during difficult hearings related to President Donald Trump's malfeasance.

An emotive person who values personal ties, Biden chose a running mate who was close to his dear departed son Beau, from the days when Harris and the younger Biden were state attorneys general.

A White politician often referred to as "working class Joe," Biden understood how important Black voters had been in paving his way to the nomination by giving him a sweeping victory in the South Carolina primary.

A rising movement for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd certainly made Harris's nomination more likely. But her moderation, her long political résumé and, paradoxically, her vigorous campaigning as a Biden foe for the nomination were decisive. If she was, at moments, very tough on Biden on matters related to race, she was even tougher in everything she said about Trump.

Biden prides himself on not bearing grudges, and nothing could prove that more than picking Harris. And he knows that a vice-presidential nominee must be a fearless and ferocious prosecutor of the case against the other party and its nominee.

That was precisely the role Harris auditioned for during her presidential campaign. She will now play it from the second spot rather than the first. "Don't worry, Mr. President, I'll see you at your trial," Harris said in a Twitter exchange with Trump after she ended her presidential quest. She was talking about the impeachment trial, but the jury she will now address consists of the entire American electorate.

And Harris was helped rather than hurt by leaks that some in Biden's world regarded her as "too ambitious." The notion of anyone in politics attacking someone else for excessive ambition is absurd on its face. Who else but ambitious people seek the presidency? But the charge carried a heavy load of sexism that turned the defense of Harris into a cause. By picking her, Biden would ratify his embrace of women's aspirations.

Although Republicans will scour Harris's record as a prosecutor for cases in which she was overzealous -- a charge she has confronted from some civil libertarians and racial justice advocates -- this argument will come with ill grace from a president who keeps tweeting the words "LAW AND ORDER." And Harris's past toughness on crime will complicate the very campaign Republicans want to run.

Where other nominees had sought to balance their tickets ideologically -- Jimmy Carter with the more liberal Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan with the more moderate George H.W. Bush -- Biden occupies the very nearly exact center of opinion in his party: He is a moderate liberal with potential appeal to many White, blue-collar voters who defected to Trump in 2016.

Biden did not want to go too far left and endanger his ability to pull in moderates, independents and Republicans exhausted with Trump. Yet he also needs the enthusiasm of progressives, and particularly of younger voters who often don't make it to the ballot box.

Biden's bottom line in this decision was that there was at least as much potential for risk as for gain in any selection he made. As someone whose record has been picked over for more than a year, Harris minimized the downside risk Biden was taking.

Harris will certainly not mobilize progressives as, for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., or former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams would have. Yet the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants is a breakthrough figure in American politics. Harris's ascendancy to the vice presidency would be another milestone on the United States' long road to full inclusion of all its citizens.

If Biden wins, he would assume the presidency at the age of 78. He thus had an obligation greater than that of any nominee in our nation's history to pick someone whom voters could see from the outset as a plausible president.

Whatever Harris's critics say about her, whatever attacks Trump and the Republicans hurl her way, the depth of her background makes her instantly plausible to occupy the Oval Office. That's why she was on Biden's list from the beginning, and it's why she landed on top at the end.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Tariff Man punishes the Canadian bullies

By george f. will
Tariff Man punishes the Canadian bullies

GEORGE WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump's almost erotic relationship with the Whirlpool Corp. continued last week when he traveled to Whirlpool's factory in Clyde, Ohio, where he boasted to workers that he re-imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum. Why this pleased them is mysterious.

"Canada was taking advantage of us, as usual," he said, as usual. He is indignant that although America has been made great again, it is being bullied by Canada, which inflicts on American purchasers aluminum that is too inexpensive, destroying "our aluminum jobs."

But only 3% of U.S. aluminum jobs involve producing primary aluminum. Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics explains that smelters use vast quantities of energy, so most are located where electricity is inexpensive, as in Canada, which has abundant hydropower. Only three companies smelt primary aluminum in the United States, and one of them, Alcoa, smelts globally, so these tariffs essentially serve two companies. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. aluminum jobs involve making things from the metal - things that will cost more and hence sell less because of Trump's tariffs.

The Trump-Whirlpool romance began in 2017 when Whirlpool sought, and got, protection from imported washing machines that Americans desired because of price and quality. In 2006, when the government had worried about Whirlpool's purchase of its largest competitor, Maytag, Whirlpool had said: Worry not, competition from imports (especially from South Korea's Samsung and LG) will keep our prices low and quality high. Eleven years later, although Whirlpool still had a larger market share than Samsung and LG (BEGIN ITAL)combined(END ITAL), Whirlpool got Trump's administration to impose tariffs on those companies' machines.

But in March 2018, the administration, citing the "national security" threat posed by steel and aluminum imports -- mostly from military allies, including Canada, and other friendly nations -- imposed tariffs on those metals. Some nations, including Canada, retaliated with tariffs, some of them on agricultural products, which caused the administration to pay billions to farmers as balm for injuries it had provoked.

When not farming in Iowa's Butler County, Republican Chuck Grassley chairs the Senate Finance Committee. He said there would be no ratification of the USMCA (the US/Mexico/Canada Agreement, NAFTA's successor) unless the retaliation against agriculture stopped. It stopped and USMCA passed, but the United States retained the right to reimpose tariffs on aluminum imports if they surged "meaningfully beyond historic volumes." But imports are not, as the administration claims, "substantially" above historical levels. This year's January-through-June imports from Canada of primary aluminum were nearly 5% lower than those of 2017's first six months. But Trump, unfazed by the nuisance of numbers, unsurprisingly imposed tariffs and Canada unsurprisingly retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods.

Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican and former six-term member of Congress, says U.S. aluminum smelters produce slightly less than 1 million tons a year. In 2017, U.S. consumption was more than 5 million tons. Westmoreland says: We must buy the difference somewhere. If not from our neighbor, ally and USMCA partner Canada, "Would U.S. trade officials prefer aluminum from Russia or China?"

Steel and aluminum are used in washing machines and other appliances, and tariffs on imported metals raise prices. A few jobs are created or protected at substantial cost to the public. Fifteen months ago, this column reported on a study by a Federal Reserve researcher and two University of Chicago economists who found that the tariffs raised the prices of washing machines on average $86 - but also the prices of clothes dryers by $92 because manufacturers used the tariffs on the former as an excuse to raise prices on the latter. The 1,800 manufacturing jobs created by this protectionism cost more than $817,000 apiece.

Congress vests presidents with vast discretion for government's management of trade, so corporations seek protection, and administrations often grant it, regardless of steep and demonstrable social costs. Those who govern us are governed by this principle: Concentrated benefits are visible and appreciated; dispersed costs are invisible and hence not resented.

Of all the congressional Republicans' many apostacies from professed principles, none is as momentous - because none has such comprehensive implications - as abandonment of free trade. This encourages promiscuous government nullifications of market allocations of wealth and opportunity, and the displacement of consumer and producer preferences by government - meaning political - dictates, an odd achievement for a party rhetorically horrified by socialism.

- - -

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Putin is reckless because we allow him to be

By david ignatius
Putin is reckless because we allow him to be

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Aug. 12 and thereafter

(For IGNATIUS clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By David Ignatius

We speak often of the return of the Cold War mentality. Rarely is it demonstrated as clearly as in President Vladimir Putin's announcement Tuesday that Russia's coronavirus vaccine will be called "Sputnik 5," evoking the 1957 Soviet satellite that kicked off the space race.

"I think they view it as some kind of a propaganda coup," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, noting that Russia apparently plans to dispense the vaccine this month before completing the usual safety trials. King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, saw this news as another example of Russia aggressively seeking to expand its influence -- at low cost and maximum impact.

The United States is Putin's main target in this "anything goes" campaign to revive his country's reputation as a superpower. That includes a new Russian push to support President Donald Trump in the presidential election, repeating their meddling of four years ago, according to William Evanina, head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

"We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Joe Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russian 'establishment,'" Evanina said in a statement last week, adding that "some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump's candidacy." He warned, too, about Chinese and Iranian election interference, but intelligence professionals say those efforts are less sophisticated and dangerous than Russia's.

Putin appears oblivious to risks and consequences, but he may be cannier than that. Trump's reelection might seem a long shot now, but even if he loses, the post-election discord in America will benefit Putin. What if the Sputnik vaccine doesn't work? Putin can deny the negative results, ignore them, or just steal the version that works. What if GRU bounty hunters in Afghanistan and assassins in Europe are exposed? No matter, Putin has succeeded in intimidating his adversaries.

In his quest for recognition and revenge, Putin keeps defying the norms of international behavior. That's why the issue of Russian bounties to the Taliban matters -- and Trump's refusal to confront Putin about it should worry us. This Russian leader doesn't stop until someone challenges him.

Intelligence agencies have solid evidence that Russian military intelligence officers, from the shadowy Unit 29155 of the GRU, paid money to Taliban fighters whose bombing killed three U.S. Marines in April 2019. What's more, sources say, there are forensic links between the GRU officers involved in the Afghan operation and GRU colleagues who carried out the attempted assassination of Russian defector Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury, England.

Far from deterring Putin, the exposure of the alleged Salisbury assassination attempt was a prelude to the reckless GRU bounties. Putin is stuck in an endless loop of revenge. The Soviet Union is dead and gone, and the Cold War is ancient history -- but not for this former KGB officer. He's still fighting the lost cause: It's not enough to denigrate his enemies; he actively pursues and tries to kill them. Rather than reforming Russia's corrupt, authoritarian system, he works to undermine America's fragile democracy.

Europe has tracked Putin's brutal score-settling -- which isn't hard because his operatives barely bother to hide the evidence. The British investigative website Bellingcat has alleged that in 2015, two GRU officers poisoned a Bulgarian arms manufacturer; Bellingcat has also described the GRU's role in a 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, meanwhile, laid out the evidence that the GRU assaulted Democratic Party websites in 2016. Britain has revealed GRU officers' role in the alleged Skripal assassination in March 2018. The following month, four GRU officers were caught in a botched hacking operation in the Netherlands

The GRU covert warriors were so brazen that they even created a "rear base" in the French Alps, used by 15 operatives, according to a December 2019 report by Le Monde. Not only has Russian intelligence tried to murder defectors in Britain, but a 2018 New York Times report alleged that Russia sent a hit man to Florida four years before to kill an unidentified defector there.

How should America deal with Putin? George Shultz and William Perry, two highly respected former secretaries of state and defense respectively, joined more than 100 other prominent experts in endorsing an open letter, published in Politico, calling for a pragmatic, dispassionate attempt to rebuild relations with Moscow.

Rethinking assumptions is often valuable in foreign policy. But in this case, the rethinking should begin with an embittered Kremlin, which seems to relish icons of the Cold War and unwisely keeps taunting America. Putin takes pleasure in jabbing his enemies, but over the long run he is not going to win this fight.

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Some promoters of pyramid schemes use Black Lives Matter movement to justify 'sou-sou' scams

By michelle singletary
Some promoters of pyramid schemes use Black Lives Matter movement to justify 'sou-sou' scams

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Michelle Singletary

Promoters of illegal "sou-sou" pyramid schemes, some using the Black Lives Matter movement to snare victims, want Black folks to believe their participation is for a good cause.

To do this, promoters are misappropriating the sou-sou name that has its roots in Caribbean and West African communities. Some are using efforts to build wealth in the Black community, such as the BLM movement, to pitch an unlawful pyramid structure.

Typically, a sou-sou involves a small group of people who all know one another or members of a family who pool their money in an informal savings club. Participants may agree to contribute a set amount of money on a weekly or monthly basis and take turns getting a payout. Eventually, everyone gets back only what they put into the sou-sou. There's no interest paid or triple-digit return guaranteed.

Familiar with the practice from her native Ghana, Alberta, now living in Virginia, decided to try the American version, which promised that she would receive $3,500 in four weeks after putting in $500 - a 600% return. Participants have to recruit at least two people.

Alberta, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisal, said weeks after she was promised her payout, she's still waiting for her money. So are three other people she persuaded to join, unaware that it was an illegal pyramid scheme.

"I feel so stupid," Alberta said in an interview. "I feel so bad for the people that I brought into it."

Alberta shared a text message from an organizer explaining why she and others have not been paid.

"Nothing is happened or happening bc people have failed to bring in their two people," the message said. "Which is the ONLY WAY the flower will move and people will get blessed . . ."

For my part in exposing the uptick in illegal sou-sou schemes, I was accused of not supporting efforts to uplift the Black community.

"I get it that you work in corporate america and part-take in the racist banking system ran by this country," one reader emailed. "However it is clear that you are just another 'corporate' type person (back in the day you would have been called 'a house . . . [n-word]).' "

That's rich. Disparaging me for trying to prevent others like Alberta from losing their hard-earned money.

Here's a Q&A to explain why you should avoid one of these pyramid schemes.

- - -

Q: What's the difference between a traditional sou-sou and an illegal pyramid scheme?

A: A traditional sou-sou does not promise profit to its members, says Kati Daffan, an assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices.

What many people are being pitched is an imitation sou-sou or "susu," Karen Hobbs, assistant director in the Division of Consumer and Business Education for the FTC, wrote in a recent blog post.

"These kinds of illegal pyramid schemes are the exact opposite of a sou-sou: They promise you'll make more money than you put in and depend on recruiting new people to keep money flowing into the fund. Like all other pyramids, once they run out of recruits to bring into the club, the money dries up, leaving everyone waiting for their payout holding the bag."

- - -

Q: Why would the government try to shut down enterprises that are trying to help Black people build wealth?

A: "The wealth built in a traditional sou-sou comes from the members using their collective resources to provide loans to members who can grow their own enterprises with that money and repay the group," Daffan said.

If you're receiving money based solely on recruiting people further down the line, that's not building wealth, that's a classic pyramid, said Maryland Securities Commissioner Melanie Lubin. "There's no legitimate product," Lubin points out. "There is no business or anything else. What's really important for people to understand is that it doesn't matter what you call it and it doesn't matter what shape it takes. What's really important is that you're only making money in this by recruiting other people."

Just think about it, says Dale Cantone, Maryland's deputy Securities Commissioner. "Where's the money coming from? How do you think you're getting back more than you put in? We've done pyramid scheme cases and the people who are 'victims' get really annoyed with us for stopping them for making what they perceive to be a boom," Cantone said. "If you look at the math, the only way that it continues is by recruiting new individuals. Very shortly you run out of people."

- - -

Q: I was told that because I would be 'gifting' money to an individual, it's not an illegal pyramid scheme. Is that true?

A: It's still illegal. "You don't expect anything back when you give a gift," Lubin said.

- - -

Q: The sou-sou I'm involved with does not pay anyone to run it. There is no 'administrative fee.' So does that make it legal?

A: If the entity emphasizes recruiting and moneymaking, it is still an illegal pyramid scheme. It doesn't matter if there is no administrative or central fee.

"It is considered inherently deceptive because the nature of the operation means it will be harmful to the majority of people who get involved," Daffan said.

- - -

Q: Are the illegal schemes just affecting Black communities?

A: It's hitting many communities. Pyramid schemes often become popular during hard economic times.

"It appeals to anybody who thinks they weren't invited to the party," Lubin said. "It's an equal opportunity fraud."

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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