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Americans Sorry

‘I Feel Sorry for Americans’: A Baffled World Watches the U.S. – The New York Times

From Myanmar to Canada, people are asking: How did a superpower allow itself to be felled by a virus? And why won’t the president commit to a peaceful transition of power?

Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times

Hannah Beech

BANGKOK — Myanmar is a poor country struggling with open ethnic warfare and a coronavirus outbreak that could overload its broken hospitals. That hasn’t stopped its politicians from commiserating with a country they think has lost its way.

“I feel sorry for Americans,” said U Myint Oo, a member of parliament in Myanmar. “But we can’t help the U.S. because we are a very small country.”

The same sentiment prevails in Canada, one of the most developed countries. Two out of three Canadians live within about 60 miles of the American border.

“Personally, it’s like watching the decline of the Roman Empire,” said Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, an industrial city on the border with Michigan, where locals used to venture for lunch.

Amid the pandemic and in the run-up to the presidential election, much of the world is watching the United States with a mix of shock, chagrin and, most of all, bafflement.

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Credit…Paul Sancya/Associated Press

How did a superpower allow itself to be felled by a virus? And after nearly four years during which President Trump has praised authoritarian leaders and obscenely dismissed some other countries as insignificant and crime-ridden, is the United States in danger of exhibiting some of the same traits he has disparaged?

“The U.S.A. is a first-world country but it is acting like a third-world country,” said U Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst in Myanmar.

Adding to the sense of bewilderment, Mr. Trump has refused to embrace an indispensable principle of democracy, dodging questions about whether he will commit to a peaceful transition of power after the November election should he lose.

His demurral, combined with his frequent attacks on the balloting process, earned a rebuke from Republicans, including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. “Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power,” Mr. Romney wrote on Twitter. “Without that, there is Belarus.”

In Belarus, where tens of thousands of people have faced down the police after the widely disputed re-election last month of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Mr. Trump’s remarks sounded familiar.

“It reminds me of Belarus, when a person cannot admit defeat and looks for any means to prove that he couldn’t lose,” said Kiryl Kalbasnikau, a 29-year-old opposition activist and actor. “This would be a warning sign for any democracy.”

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Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Some others in Europe are confident that American institutions are strong enough to withstand assault.

“I have no doubt in the ability of the constitutional structures of the United States with their system of checks and balances to function,” said Johann Wadephul of Germany, a senior lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Still, that the president of the United States, the very country that shepherded the birth of Germany’s own peaceful democracy after the defeat of the Third Reich, was wavering on the sanctity of the electoral process has been met with disbelief and dismay.

The diminution of the United States’ global image began before the pandemic, as Trump administration officials snubbed international accords and embraced an America First policy. Now, though, its reputation seems to be in free-fall.

A Pew Research Center poll of 13 countries found that over the past year, nations including Canada, Japan, Australia and Germany have been viewing the United States in its most negative light in years. In every country surveyed, the vast majority of respondents thought the United States was doing a bad job with the pandemic.

Such global disapproval historically has applied to countries with less open political systems and strongmen in charge. But people from just the kind of developing countries that Mr. Trump has mocked say the signs coming from the United States are ominous: a disease unchecked, mass protests over racial and social inequality, and a president who seems unwilling to pledge support for the tenets of electoral democracy.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Mexico, perhaps more than any other country, has been the target of Mr. Trump’s ire, with the president using it as a campaign punching bag and vowing to make Mexicans pay for a border wall. Now they are feeling a new emotion that has overtaken their anger and bewilderment at Trumpian insults: sympathy.

“We used to look to the U.S. for democratic governance inspiration,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, the director of Transparency International Mexico. “Sadly, this is not the case anymore.”

“‘Being great’ is simply not enough,” he added.

In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority democracy, there is a sense that the United States has left the world adrift, even if its application overseas of democratic ideals was imperfect. For decades, Washington supported some of Asia’s most ruthless dictators because they were considered vital to halting communism in the region.

“The world sees the dismantling of social cohesion within American society and the mess in managing Covid,” said Yenny Wahid, an Indonesian politician and activist. “There is a vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled, but America is not fulfilling that leadership role.”

Ms. Wahid, whose father was president of Indonesia after the country emerged from decades of strongman rule, said she worried that Mr. Trump’s dismissive attitude toward democratic principles could legitimize authoritarians.

“Trump inspired many dictators, many leaders who are interested in dictatorship, to copy his style, and he emboldened them,” she said.

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Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

In places like the Philippines, Mexico and others, elected leaders have been compared to Mr. Trump when they have turned to divisive rhetoric, disregard of institutions, intolerance of dissent and antipathy toward the media.

But there is also a sense that Americans are now getting a glimpse of the troubles people living in fragile democracies must endure.

“They now know what it’s like in other countries: violating norms, international trade and its own institutions,” said Eunice Rendon, an expert on migration and security and the director of Migrant Agenda, a nonprofit organization in Mexico. “The most powerful country in the world all of a sudden looks vulnerable.”

Already, an American passport, which once allowed easy access to almost every country in the world, is no longer a valuable travel pass. Because of the coronavirus, American tourists are banned from most of Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America.

Albania, Brazil and Belarus are among a small group of countries welcoming Americans with no restrictions, however.

The State Department has tried to play up its role in battling the coronavirus overseas, even as the United States struggled to supply its own doctors and nurses with adequate equipment early in the pandemic. In March, the United States provided 10,000 gloves and 5,000 surgical masks, among other medical supplies, to Thailand, which today has recorded fewer than 3,520 coronavirus cases and 59 deaths. Despite the low caseload, most Thais continue to wear face masks in public and the country never suffered a mask shortage.

“Through the American people’s generosity and the U.S. government’s action, the United States continues to demonstrate global leadership in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” a State Department statement said.

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

In Cambodia, which reports being largely spared by the virus so far, there is a measure of schadenfreude toward the United States. Prime Minister Hun Sen has survived as Asia’s longest serving leader by cracking down on dissent and cozying up to China. He has turned his back on American aid because it often came with conditions to improve human rights. Now, he and his administration are ridiculing the United States and its handling of the pandemic.

“He has many nuclear weapons,” Sok Eysan, a spokesman for Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, said of Mr. Trump. “But he is careless with a disease that can’t be seen.”

Reporting was contributed by Azam Ahmed from Mexico City; Melissa Eddy from Berlin; Saw Nang from Yangon, Myanmar; Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Catherine Porter from Toronto; Muktita Suhartono from Bangkok; and Sun Narin from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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America Sorry

Sorry America, But The Second Stimulus Check May Not Happen After All – Forbes

I hope you haven’t made plans to spend the proposed second round of stimulus payments. As each week passes in this long summer, the likelihood of receiving those payments becomes increasingly questionable.

medical mask and hand disinfectant and stressed woman

getty

As a frequent writer on this particular topic, I must admit to being as confused as anyone else on this issue. Back on July 10, I wrote in this space that Congress had no choice but to pass a second stimulus bill. The Cares Act – which included the $600 per week federal unemployment subsidy, as well as the original round of $1,200 individual stimulus payments – was set to expire on July 31. Meanwhile, Election Day (November 3) was no longer a distant, over-the-horizon event.

With the Democratic House-passed HEROES Act already sitting in the Senate for nearly two months, passage of a new – if stripped down – version of that bill looked certain by month-end. It seemed like political suicide to do otherwise.

But I was wrong – or at least I have been so far. July 31 came and went, and no new act has been forthcoming from Congress, relating to either a second round of stimulus payments or an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

That missed call is squarely on me, as well as on other writers, political analysts and assorted fortune tellers, who likewise saw passage of a second bill as inevitable. But where Stimulus Round Two goes from here is entirely on Congress.

At this point at least, that outcome now seems so uncertain that it’s time to contemplate the possibility it may not happen at all.

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The Reasons for Passing a Second Stimulus Bill are as Strong as Ever

This is where the plot gets thicker. None of the conditions that drove the first stimulus package or generated talk of a second round have disappeared.

Examples include:

Unemployment

Despite steady improvement in the number of new claims for unemployment since the peak in April, the job market began cooling in July. In the most recent statistics released for the week ending August 15, the number of new claims for unemployment unexpectedly spiked to 1.1 million, up from 963,000 the previous week. Clearly the unemployment situation remains in crisis.

The current level of new claims is more than four times the 250,000 per week average before the pandemic shutdown. And the number of people dependent on government benefits related to unemployment continues to be staggeringly high.

“28 million,” reports Forbes Staff Writer Sarah Hansen. “That’s how many people are receiving some form of government unemployment benefit, according to the Labor Department. That number is unchanged from two weeks ago.”

Despite the statistical evidence of an improvement in the unemployment situation since the peak of the pandemic, it’s obvious we are not out of the woods yet – or even close.

Housing

With the still lingering effects of the Covid-19 economic fallout, many millions of American households are facing the threat of foreclosure or eviction.

While it’s true that millions of American homeowners have their mortgages placed in forbearance, that’s not necessarily a get-out-of-jail free card. Payments not made during forbearance are added to the principal balance of a mortgage. That means the homeowner will owe more on the mortgage after forbearance than before. That not only puts off the day of reckoning, but it also works to reduce home equity.

Many households have been in forbearance since the crisis began back in March. And with Covid-19 cases continuing to rise in many Sunbelt states, the situation is rapidly compounding. Forbearance hasn’t fixed the Covid-19 housing crisis, but mostly deferred it to a future date.

But the situation is even more pronounced for renters.

“Even though White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow has hinted on an extension, the provision’s expiration has allowed landlords to file eviction notices, though they won’t be able to push people out of their homes for at least another 30 days,” wrote Forbes Contributor Niall McCarthy, at the end of July. “Combined with the cut in unemployment payments, it is likely to create the perfect storm for U.S. renters. An analysis from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross estimates that more than 40% of renter households in the U.S. are going to experience rental shortfall during the Covid-19 crisis with just under 12 million facing eviction over the next four months alone. Around 17 million are likely to be impacted throughout the pandemic.”

The crisis among renters can trigger a domino effect. Even if the White House succeeds in extending restrictions against filing eviction notices against tenants, small landlords will be at increasing risk of losing those properties to foreclosure or simply due to ongoing financial losses.

Covid-19 Cases Continue to Spread Rapidly in Some States

Since Covid-19 is the source of the current economic crisis, it’s continued spread holds obvious concern for the economic recovery.

Thus far, the virus has proven both unpredictable and inconsistent. Overall numbers of new infections have moderated in recent weeks, but the pattern is uneven at best. According to data from the CDC, large Sunbelt states, particularly California, Texas and Florida, are continuing to see large numbers of new infections. Meanwhile, other states, where the virus seemed to be contained, are now seeing at least moderate increases in new cases. This includes New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, the former epicenters of Covid-19 in the US.

It’s reasonable to conclude that until Covid-19 is in full retreat, the US economy remains vulnerable. Congress may not be able to make the virus go away but extending unemployment benefits and issuing new stimulus payments will at least minimize the economic impact.

The Half Measures in the President’s Executive Order

To its credit, the Trump White House stepped up when the Senate failed to act on extending the provisions of the Cares Act. The President signed an executive order on August 8 extending federal unemployment benefits by up to $400 per week. But on closer analysis, the benefit isn’t quite as generous as promised.

“Last week, after weeks of failing to secure a stimulus deal, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that would have provided $400 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits,” reported Forbes Contributor Zack Friedman. “However, the $400 benefit was contingent upon states funding 25%, or $100. Later, the U.S. Labor Department said that states could apply their current state unemployment benefits toward the 25% share, which effectively reduced the weekly unemployment benefit to $300 instead of $400. To date, no state government has agreed to fund the supplemental $100.”

Translation: the federal unemployment extension is just $300, and doesn’t begin to go into effect until August 29. That means not only did previous benefit recipients see their weekly checks cut in half, but they’re also going several weeks with no federal benefit at all.

And the much promised $1,200 stimulus payments? They’re not a part of the President’s Executive Order. No Senate approval of such a stimulus payment plan, no stimulus checks!

Is it Time to Give Up Hope of a Second Round of Stimulus Payments?

The most immediate concern is that the US Senate has adjourned for August recess. They’re not scheduled to return until September 8, the day after Labor Day. That means not only will July 31 have come and gone without a new stimulus act being passed, but apparently so will August 31.

Despite the economic pressures being faced by millions of Americans – in combination with the oncoming November elections – there seems to be little incentive in the Senate to act on a new stimulus package, or at least to do it quickly.

One theory is that members of the Senate will come back with more motivation after recess than they had before. But it’s equally possible we’ll see an impasse over the same issues that tied up the new bill in that chamber since May.

It’s now possible that weeks could turn into months, relegating a new stimulus package to be passed with checks released just before election day.

Or not. After all, the Senate has surprised many by failing to act up to this point.

Final Thoughts

None of this is to categorically declare that a second round of stimulus payments or an extension of federal unemployment benefits won’t happen. But it is to highlight that the indecision has dragged on much longer than most would’ve expected back in July, as the end of the Cares Act came and went.

The point is, it’s premature to make plans for receipt of a second stimulus check.

At this point, there will be no stimulus checks issued in August. There’s a slight chance they’ll go out in September. More likely, a bill will be passed sometime in September, with checks to be issued in October. Whether the timing – just before the election – will be intentional or accidental, will be the subject of future debate.

One fact does seem reasonably certain however: if a second stimulus package isn’t passed and checks issued in October, the next best hope will be 2021.

But don’t hold your breath if that happens.

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Twitter: Sorry for Putting Covid-19 Misinformation Labels on Your ‘Oxygen’ Tweets – Gizmodo

To reign in false claims about covid-19, Twitter put misinformation labels on tweets with the words “5G” and “oxygen” this week.

To reign in false claims about covid-19, Twitter put misinformation labels on tweets with the words “5G” and “oxygen” this week.
Photo: Alastair Pike (AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not always easy to do the right thing in tech, and it can lead to some embarrassing (and funny) mistakes. Just ask Twitter.

As you all probably know, Twitter has been trying to stop misinformation about covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, from spreading wildly on its platform. One way it does this is by sticking misinformation labels on tweets with false information about covid-19, such as posts talking about a cure for the disease (there is unfortunately no cure yet although scientists all over the world are working on a vaccine).

In recent weeks, Twitter has begun adding these labels to tweets that link the rollout of 5G to the spread of covid-19, a topic that has prompted multiple conspiracy theories. Some conspiracy theorists, for example, claim that radiation from 5G towers weakens immune systems and makes people more susceptible to getting covid-19. There is no scientific evidence to support this. However, misinformation about 5G towers has led people to burn cellphone towers in the UK.

Flagging tweets that spit out 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories sounds like a good thing, right? No doubt about that, except when the filtering system you use gets confused.

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Many Twitter users noticed on Friday that Twitter was apparently sticking labels on any tweet that mentioned “5G,” “oxygen,” and “frequency” for some strange reason, even if those tweets were not about harmful 5G conspiracy theories. The label links to a Twitter Moment titled “No, 5G isn’t causing coronavirus,” and includes information from reputable sources debunking the claims.

The end result, of course, was Twitter users posting endless combinations with the words to see if their tweets would get flagged. These types of tweets were obviously not meant to be harmful and were just an attempt to have fun, but Twitter’s filter didn’t have a way of knowing that.

When it comes to why Twitter singled out “oxygen” and “frequency,” the folks at The Week theorize that it’s probably because of a conspiracy theory that claims that 5G is a dangerous frequency that sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere, thereby disrupting our bodies’ normal functions. This is, of course, false. Twitter hasn’t confirmed that this is the reason why its system started flagging the tweets.

Nonetheless, it’s important to note that this type of “moderation by algorithm” can lead to other issues.

“One of the flaws of attempting moderation at scale by algorithm, a problem that has no bearing on 5G, is that it lets tech companies suck the oxygen out of efforts at reform & regulation, as they shrug & turn ‘we tried one thing with code and it did not work’ into ‘can’t be done,’” defense technology writer Kelsey D. Atherton pointed out in a tweet, which also got slapped with a covid-19 misinformation label.

As the day went on, Twitter eventually stopped labeling the tweets with the keywords we mentioned. A Twitter spokesperson told Motherboard this weekend that the company’s algorithm is “imperfect and constantly changing” based on what’s happening on Twitter. The spokeswoman added that Twitter prioritized over-labeling to err on the side of caution and reduce harm while providing the necessary context.

“In the last few weeks, you may have seen tweets with labels linking to additional info about covid-19. Not all of those tweets had potentially misleading content associating covid-19 and 5G. We apologize for any confusion and we’re working to improve our labeling process,” Twitter Support tweeted on Saturday. “As we improve this process to be more precise, our goal is to show fewer la
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Sorry Superfans

Sorry, Superfans: Parks and Rec ’s Socially Distanced Reunion Didn’t Work – Yahoo News

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I s it okay to pan a much-awaited sitcom reunion that was put together for charity, that had to be filmed in a very awkward fashion to comply with social-distancing requirements, and that everyone else, critics and fans alike, seemed to love? Because that’s what I’m about to do.

Now, to be fair, there are different types of Parks and Recreation fans, and I might have been a little less primed than others to enjoy what the creators put together for Thursday. Lots of people adore the show’s big, goofy heart. But me, I loved the wicked cynical streak Parks had during the first half of its run, and while I stuck with it through all seven seasons, I wasn’t too sad to see it go by the end. Moreover, I’ve never quite forgiven Parks for killing off Party Down, another of my favorite comedies, by poaching its lead actor back in 2010.

Thursday’s pointless half-hour lead-in, a documentary in which the actors blathered on about how much they like each other, didn’t help build any anticipation. And by the time 9 p.m. rolled around and the new episode was over, I understood something Larry David once said on Curb Your Enthusiasm: “You know those reunion shows, they’re so lame, really. They never work. The actors are 10 years older. It doesn’t look right.”

Nothing about the new episode worked.

The entire concept made no sense. Five years after the show ended, the employees of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department are former employees and scattered all over the place. Leslie Knope works for the Department of the Interior; her husband, the guy who should have stayed on Party Down, is a congressman; Jerry Gergich is mayor; Ann Perkins is volunteering as a nurse in Michigan; Ron Swanson is holed up in a cabin; etc. And yet they’re apparently all still close friends, and Knope has set up a system where they check up on each other daily during the COVID crisis through a “phone tree,” not by simply calling or texting each other but by chatting face-to-face online.

Obviously the writers were working under some demanding constraints. The final season of Parks dictated the future of each of the characters, ruling out an episode where they all still work together, and COVID-19 made it impossible for them to get together in person. But sitcoms work best when they feel natural, and there’s nothing natural about this incredibly contrived situation.

This isn’t a group of government employees goofing off on the job, struggling against the stupidity of both the state and the public while trying to handle piddly local-government tasks, and indulging their hilarious personal foibles. It’s a group of people who worked together years ago and are now talking online for no real reason at all.

The actors’ chemistry seemed thrown off as well. This is a cast that gelled on screen for more than half a decade. Judging by that gushy lead-in show, the rapport wasn’t all an act. Yet here the members of the cast, each in his own room away from everyone else, couldn’t seem to make a conversation feel normal. It felt like they were just sitting there saying lines at each other.

The jokes? People weighing in on the episode via social media seemed to love ’em. But I didn’t laugh out loud once; everything was either a self-conscious nod toward a recurring gag (everyone hates Jerry! Andy’s so stupid! Tom and his crazy inventions!) or simply not that funny (Jerry clicked the wrong Zoom button and now he looks like a dog!). I was impressed by how many side characters they managed to work into a single time slot — Paul Rudd kicks off the episode as Bobby Newport; news anchors Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo each interview Knope and her husband; Swanson’s ex-wife shows up at the cabin — but nothing rekindled the old magic.

Again: I’m a certain type of Parks fan. To me, rekindling the magic would mean a trip back to 2011, not 2015. If you enjoyed the show’s dorkier later years and missed the reunion, by all means stream it when you can. And much respect to everyone involved with the show for pitching in to raise money for charity. The show and some sponsors are matching donations to Feeding America and you can contribute here.

But I can’t lie. The episode didn’t do it for me.

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