Editorial Roundup: United States
Mar 21, 2023, 12:25 PM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on voter fraud:
A 59-year-old man was arrested last week for allegedly double voting in the 2020 presidential election. Florida authorities brought the felony charge because of information submitted by Virginia to a national database called ERIC, which is short for the Electronic Registration Information Center. The very same day, Florida pulled out of the fraud detection consortium, along with Missouri and West Virginia, capitulating for political reasons to bizarre conspiracy theories peddled by those who still claim that former president Donald Trump won reelection in 2020.
If Republicans are serious about protecting election integrity and the rule of law, they’d celebrate ERIC as the enormous success it has been in helping states clean up their voter rolls by identifying people who have died or moved, as well as those who have cast ballots in multiple states. But other red states might soon head for the exits, causing the system to collapse — and making ballot fraud harder to detect next year.
The nonprofit association, which is led by its own members, formed in 2012 after a report showed that one in eight voter registrations across the country were no longer valid. Four of the seven charter members were Republican-led states. By last year, 34 states plus D.C. had joined — including the six tightest presidential battlegrounds. The system compiles voter participation records from member states along with change-of-address records from the U.S. Postal Service and death records from the Social Security Administration. The pooling of information has identified more than 11.5 million people who have moved across state lines and over 60 million potential voters who are unregistered.
After a decade of operating in near-obscurity, lies about ERIC began bubbling up from the fever swamps, such as that George Soros was behind the project and that the initiative is a left-wing plot to add more racial minorities to the voter rolls. The basis for this claim is that states agree when they join to send postcards every two years to people, whom the system identifies as eligible but unregistered to vote, with information on how they can sign up.
Eventually, Mr. Trump demanded on social media that states drop out. Louisiana was the first to quit last year. Alabama’s new Republican secretary of state campaigned last year on leaving ERIC and withdrew on his second day in office.
When Florida joined the system in 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) touted ERIC’s ability to keep the state’s voter rolls up to date and boasted that “it will increase voter participation.” Last summer, Mr. DeSantis touted the system by name as a critical tool in his efforts to prosecute anyone who illegally voted. The Office of Election Crimes and Security, which Mr. DeSantis created, said in a January report that ERIC had identified more than 1,000 voters who might have cast ballots in Florida and another member state.
But in an effort to pander to the GOP base ahead of a likely 2024 presidential bid, the DeSantis administration has shifted. Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, a DeSantis appointee, now claims without evidence that ERIC doesn’t do enough to secure data and that the group has “partisan tendencies.”
It’s no coincidence that the secretaries of state of West Virginia and Missouri, which also pulled out last week, are looking to run in competitive GOP primaries for governor next year. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is considering his own U.S. Senate bid next year, says that he and six more GOP secretaries might withdraw next unless “reforms” are made.
Carol Beecher, Alaska’s director of elections, told her state legislature last week that she’s evaluating whether to pull out of ERIC because “it’s expensive and we are a small state.” What she didn’t say, according to the Anchorage Daily News, is that the state’s fees and dues have been less than $17,000 annually in recent years. That’s a bargain.
More than two dozen Republican luminaries, including lawyer Ben Ginsberg and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, signed a letter of support on Monday, pushing back against accusations that David Becker, an ex officio, nonvoting member of ERIC’s board, has connections to Mr. Soros. ERIC is funded entirely through dues set, and paid, by member states.
Representatives of the states that make up ERIC are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss its future. Mr. Becker announced Tuesday that he will not accept renomination to the board as his term expires this week. That he felt compelled to take this step is disappointing. Leaders of goodwill in both parties should find a way to continue the group’s important work to both encourage registration and combat fraud.
The attacks on the database aren’t really about ERIC. They’re part of a broader, multiyear campaign to bully elections officials. Demagogues have planted seeds of doubt in the minds of Americans that their votes don’t count. Now many of these same people are trying to destroy one of the country’s best tools for fighting the rare cases of voter fraud that do occur.
The New York Times on stopping the cycle of bank bailouts:
Here we go again. The federal government is bailing out the banking industry, and the American people, who have seen this show far too often, have every right to be furious.
The proper target for that anger, however, is not the bailout itself, but the need for it.
The government’s decision to guarantee the full amount of insured and uninsured deposits at Silicon Valley Bank and New York’s Signature Bank is the best choice available to preserve the health of the broader economy. A new Federal Reserve program that offers subsidized loans to banks is also a good idea under the circumstances. President Biden’s pledge on Monday that “we’ll do whatever is needed” was needed.
But the wide-ranging intervention is only necessary because the newly shuttered banks — the second- and fourth-largest failed banks in American history — were not exceptions to a pattern of general probity. Just as before the 2008 financial crisis, banks have once again managed to ring up billions in profits by making risky bets and then gone running for government aid as those bets have started to sour. At the end of 2022, the U.S. banking industry was sitting on a total of about $620 billion in unrealized losses as a result of investments undermined by the rise of interest rates.
When the American public last swallowed the bitter pill of a bank bailout, policymakers promised to regulate the industry more stringently to end the long-running cycle of privatized profits and losses absorbed by the public.
Those changes, including the safeguards imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, were, largely, to the good. On average, an American bank failed every three days between 1980 and 1994. The pace of failures reached similar heights in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but since then failures have been much less common. The failures in recent days ended the second-longest stretch without a bank failure since the Great Depression.
Yet the details of Silicon Valley Bank’s rise and fall are depressingly familiar. The bank took big risks to grow quickly by gathering and investing money from a wide range of tech start-ups; its shareholders cheered, and its auditors and regulators did nothing to interfere. Indeed, regulators treated Silicon Valley Bank’s core strategy of investing in government bonds as essentially risk free, blind to the dangers posed by a rapid rise in interest rates. Regulators also should have limited the bank’s dangerous reliance on large, uninsured deposits.
Policymakers — in Congress, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve — have a duty to explain to the American public how things were allowed to spin so far out of control. Banks are different from most private-sector companies. They are insulated from market discipline by various forms of federal protection because, like the power companies that keep the lights on, they provide a public service that is essential to a modern economy. Regulators have a responsibility to ensure that banks do not abuse those privileges.
In the case of Silicon Valley Bank, regulators failed to do that job. The Federal Reserve’s role as the lead agency in responding to this crisis has obscured its failures as the agency that was responsible for supervising the bank in the first place. “They should have stopped them months ago,” said Anat Admati, a finance professor at Stanford University. “That’s my problem with the Fed: If they were honest, they would admit their own mistakes.”
Congress bears responsibility, too. In 2018, a bipartisan bill weakened regulatory oversight of midsize lenders like Silicon Valley Bank, reversing key portions of the Dodd-Frank Act. The new law increased the threshold for the strictest category of regulatory scrutiny to $250 billion from $50 billion. Greg Becker, the chief executive of Silicon Valley Bank, testified before Congress in 2015 that his institution, like others of its size, “does not present systemic risks.” Signature Bank officials also lobbied for, and benefited from, the 2018 changes.
Lawmakers accepted the arguments of the two banks, and their allies, barely a decade after the failure of similar-size lenders like Washington Mutual and National City Bank played a starring role in the 2008 financial crisis. The recklessness of that decision, and companion measures to loosen other safeguards, was clear at the time. This board warned that policymakers were inviting another crisis.
Congress should now correct its mistake by restoring the $50 billion threshold.
Policymakers also need to recognize the limits of government oversight as a substitute for market discipline. Banks should be required to raise more money from shareholders, who have a strong incentive to keep an eye on the way that money is used, since they can lose all of it. Money raised from shareholders is called capital, and banks have far less of it than other kinds of companies. They are allowed to borrow most of the money they use from lenders and depositors. If, for example, banks were required to raise 20% of funding from shareholders, that would still be well below the norm for other kinds of companies but enough that it might have covered Silicon Valley Bank’s losses and saved the bank.
Congress should also require clawbacks of executive compensation and dividends at failed banks. If bankers are required in the future to return some of what they have gained from their poor decisions, it might have a sobering effect.
The government does not want to describe its actions as a bailout because voters don’t like bailouts. The customers of Silicon Valley Bank, in particular, have been loudly unhappy to be described as the beneficiaries of a bailout because that’s an embarrassing thing to be; it contravenes the mythology of Silicon Valley as a scrappy frontier where people build the future without help, or oversight, from the government.
But the success of both the financial industry and Silicon Valley has always depended on government aid and prudent regulation. This bailout is necessary because the government was not paying enough attention. Policymakers ought to be honest about those mistakes and be clear about the steps they will take to avoid a repeat.
The Los Angeles Times on climate denial:
A new United Nations report comes to a definitive but familiar conclusion: We’re not doing nearly enough to prevent disastrous levels of climate change.
The report, released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warns that the planet is on track to blow past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, a critical threshold virtually every nation on Earth agreed to work to avoid. We can expect to overshoot that within about a decade unless we immediately switch to renewable energy and slash planet-warming pollution in half by 2030. More than a century of burning coal, oil and gas is catching up with us, and there’s little time to change course.
But one frustrating reality underscored by the report is how much we remain in denial about fossil fuels.
The U.N’s scientific assessment, approved by 195 nations, says that existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure — all of the coal-fired power plants, oil wells and gas-powered vehicles already built or on the way — will generate enough greenhouse gas pollution to warm the planet by a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, this century.
Humans have already overheated Earth by 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). To avoid irreversible damage to our communities and ecosystems, we can’t just stop permitting new oil and gas drilling and coal- and gas-fired power plants, and end production of combustion-engine vehicles. We have to cancel and retire existing fossil fuel projects as well.
But that seems like a pipe dream, because the world’s most powerful nations keep advancing planet-endangering projects.
China has been permitting new coal-fired power plants at a staggering rate of two per week. President Biden last week approved the massive Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, giving ConocoPhillips permission to extract as much as 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years and breaking his campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands. Period. Period. Period. Period.” (Yes, he said it four times for emphasis.)
Oil companies, meanwhile, are backing off their commitments to fight climate change and transition to renewable energy as they rake in record profits from soaring fuel prices. In California, the permitting of new oil drilling continues unabated after petroleum companies spent $20 million to get a referendum to overturn a state law banning new wells near homes and schools. Global energy-related carbon emissions reached a record high last year, and another U.N. climate conference in Egypt last fall ended without an agreement to phase out fossil fuels.
Though 1.5 degrees of warming would be horrible enough, every fraction of a degree we go beyond that would mean greater human suffering and environmental destruction. We should feel some optimism that the barriers to addressing it are no longer technological but almost entirely political — and because the worst-case temperature-rise scenarios scientists once feared are no longer considered very likely thanks to the growth in renewable energy, electric vehicles and other zero-emission technology.
It can be overwhelming nonetheless to contrast how little is being done about climate change with the clarity of the science. Overshooting climate thresholds can seem inevitable, and we may feel powerless to stop it. But we are not without power to alter this course by making different decisions every day that, when added up, can reduce the severity of global warming we will live with for decades to come.
From local government to heads of state, officials at all levels should exercise whatever authority they have to dismantle the dangerous machinery of fossil fuels and replace it quickly with clean, renewable energy. Whether it’s accelerating the end of gas-fired plants, oil drilling and internal-combustion cars, or clearing the way for vehicle electrification and wind and solar energy production and transmission, there are thousands of opportunities to avoid the very worst possibilities for our future.
It’s our job to seize on each and every one of those decisions and demand swift action that increases the chances for a more tolerable future for nature and humanity.
The Wall Street Journal on Bernie Sanders, Moderna and profiting off the COVID vaccine:
No good treatment goes unpunished for pharmaceutical companies these days, and Bernie Sanders will offer another example on Wednesday when he holds a political show trial of Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel. His offense? Cooperating with the government to produce life-saving Covid vaccines.
The subject of the Vermont Senator’s hearing is Moderna’s plan to quadruple the price of its Covid vaccine to $110 to $130 per dose when U.S. government purchases stop. Pfizer has said it will charge a similar price after vaccines move to the commercial market, which is expected later this year.
But Mr. Sanders is specifically targeting Mr. Bancel because his company worked with the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to accelerate its vaccine development. Mr. Bancel apparently should have known better than to work with the government.
Early in the Covid pandemic, Moderna received $900 million from OWS for trials to test its mRNA vaccine in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. Pfizer chose to go it alone because “when you get money from someone, that always comes with strings,” as CEO Albert Bourla explained in September 2020. No kidding.
Mr. Sanders claims that taxpayers paid to develop Moderna’s Covid vaccine, and the government thus should be able to dictate its price. That’s nonsense. Before the pandemic, Moderna developed its novel mRNA platform with $3.8 billion in private investment. In spring 2020, it raised another $1.3 billion in private capital to scale up manufacturing.
If not for the Moderna-OWS cooperation, the vaccine rollout would have been much slower. Moderna’s vaccine has proven more durable and protective against severe illness than Pfizer’s in real-world studies. Yet the Administration has consistently paid Pfizer $3 to $4 more per dose. As a result, Pfizer has received more than a billion dollars more from the government than Moderna.
Yet progressives are targeting Moderna as “a poster child for corporate greed,” to quote Mr. Sanders, because they believe this advances their view that pharma companies profit from government innovation and support. The truth is closer to the opposite. The government and public benefit from Moderna’s billions of dollars spent on research and development.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre piled on by claiming Moderna’s price hike is “hard to justify” even as Biden officials hail the benefits of Covid vaccines and boosters. If they are as effective as public-health officials say, then the benefits from reducing hospitalizations among the elderly would more than exceed the new higher price.
Taxpayers were getting a bargain under the OWS contract that paid Moderna about $15 a dose. Even after the vaccine transitions to the commercial market, Moderna’s price will be lower than for such vaccines as GSK’s shingles shot ($183) or Merck’s pneumonia vaccine ($216), according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Under the Affordable Care Act, Americans with private insurance won’t have to pay a penny out-of-pocket for the vaccines. Moderna will also offer free vaccines to the uninsured. So what’s the problem? Moderna will profit from its innovation. Oh no! Worse, Moderna’s profits will fund trials of other vaccines in development, including for cancer.
Life-saving vaccines and treatments undermine the political narrative that pharmaceutical companies are capitalist exploiters, a view also growing on the political right. That’s why Mr. Bancel is in the dock.
The Guardian on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 20 years later
It did not take long for anyone to realize that the Iraq war was the disaster that many had predicted; not much longer than it took to confirm that it was launched on a lie and that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Whatever relief or joy was felt by Iraqis at the fall of Saddam Hussein’s violent and oppressive regime, it was soon subsumed by the horror of what followed. The body count and wider damage have not stopped rising since. When the 10th anniversary arrived, Islamic State (IS), birthed by the war’s fallout, had yet to make its frightening rise to establishing a “caliphate”. Two decades on from the beginning of the war, with the “shock and awe” assault of March 19, 2003, we are still fathoming the impact of the U.S.-led and U.K.-backed invasion.
The toll has been felt most of all, of course, within Iraq itself. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the violence that followed. The Costs of War project estimates that several times as many may have died from knock-on effects. More than 9 million Iraqis were displaced. Thousands of coalition personnel, mostly American, were killed. Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on improving lives were instead squandered destroying them. Much of the Pentagon spending went to just five huge corporations.
The catastrophe was compounded by the failure to plan for what came next. Iraqis watched as power stations and national treasures were looted, while American troops guarded the oil ministry and Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, glibly dismissed the turmoil: “Freedom’s untidy.” The security vacuum and de-Ba’athification strategy fomented sectarianism not only in Iraq itself, but far beyond its borders – and fueled terrorism that has proved not only most deadly in the region, but has taken lives in the west, too. Later decisions such as support for Nouri al-Maliki made matters worse.
The invasion curtailed hopes of stabilising Afghanistan, by drawing away attention, resources and troops. It strengthened and emboldened Iran. It reinforced North Korea’s conviction that it was essential to acquire and defend WMDs. It hastened the end of the brief unipolar moment and undercut visions of a rules‑based global order. A military adventure conceived by many of its players as a brash reassertion of U.S. supremacy in the wake of the September 11 attacks only weakened and undermined the country – all the more so after the horrors of Abu Ghraib and wider brutality against civilians. Russia and China took note. So did the global south, hindering efforts to garner support for Ukraine. It was hardly the first time America’s foreign policy had clashed with its declared ideals, but it had not been so public and inescapable since Vietnam. Liberal interventionism was badly discredited. The refugee flows produced by regional instability, along with IS-led or -inspired attacks in Europe, contributed to growing ethno-nationalism and fueled support for Brexit.
Iraq currently appears relatively calm. But U.S. troops are still present due to the ongoing battle against IS. Though there is now a government, following a year of deadlock after elections and an outburst of violence in Baghdad, the state remains unable to keep the lights on or provide clean water. Politicians and officials have pocketed billions.
More than half of Iraqis are too young to remember life under Saddam Hussein. Some now aspire to a society and government that looks beyond sectarianism and towards a brighter future, as the 2019 Tishreen movement, and the re-emergence of participants in 2021’s elections, showed. Yet the low turnout underscored that others have given up on democracy, thanks to those who boasted that they were bringing it to justify their war. It may be many more years before we fully reckon the effects of the catastrophe unleashed two decades ago.