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On Politics: Trump Pushes Out a Watchdog – The New York Times

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Good morning and welcome to On Politics, a daily political analysis of the 2020 elections based on reporting by New York Times journalists.

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  • On its face, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that passed last month was a victory for liberals, at least by the standards of the Trump era. It was stuffed with money for unemployment relief, support for small businesses and $1,200 checks to most Americans. Still, critics on the left argued that it was an underregulated offering to the corporate elite. They may be even more worried now, after President Trump on Tuesday ousted the head watchdog for oversight of how the administration spends those trillions. What was his reasoning? “He doesn’t think he should be subjected to his political enemies in supposedly apolitical oversight roles,” Cliff Sims, a former White House aide, told our reporters Charlie Savage and Peter Baker. In their article, Charlie and Peter describe Trump’s firing of the official, Glenn Fine, as “the latest step in an abruptly unfolding White House power play against semi-independent inspectors general across the government.”

  • Is voting an “essential activity”? Or maybe it’s a “governmental function.” Hmm, “minimum basic operation,” perhaps? Those are some of the legitimate reasons to go outside, as named in Wisconsin’s statewide Safer at Home Order. But none of those provisions specifically pertain to voting, at least not according to the text of the order. So Wisconsinites found themselves in a bind yesterday, as their state became the first to hold in-person voting under a stay-at-home order. As you might have guessed, it played out chaotically. Poll workers dropped out by the thousands, and many polling places had to close. In Milwaukee, which normally has 180 voting sites, just five were open. And even as the Supreme Court ruled this week that Wisconsin could not extend its deadline for absentee voting, many who had requested a mail ballot said that it had never arrived.

  • Wisconsin is a historically Democratic state, but its heavily white population has been trending Republican over the past 10 years. Along the way it has become ground zero for battles over voting rights. Perhaps only North Carolina has had as many pitched battles in recent years over whether to expand or restrict the ability to vote. Yesterday’s elections — during which voting was also taking place for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — happened only after the conservative majority on the state’s high court ruled against the Democratic governor, who had sought to have in-person voting postponed.

  • A Kaiser Family Foundation investigation released on Tuesday found vast racial disparities in coronavirus mortality rates, with black and Latino Americans more likely than whites to die of the virus in areas across the country. A New York Times report found similar trends specifically among African-Americans. More on that is below, from our reporter Dionne Searcey.


Voters lined up on the sidewalk and in their cars outside Milwaukee Marshall High School on Tuesday.


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A troubling new trend may be emerging as the coronavirus sweeps across America: It is infecting and killing black Americans at disproportionately high rates in some places, according to early data released by several states and big cities. It highlights what public health researchers say are entrenched inequalities in resources, health and access to care.

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Much remains unknown about infection rates, and the numbers coming out of the few cities that are reporting data by race right now are preliminary. But the initial indications are alarming enough that policymakers say they must act immediately to stem the potential devastation in black communities.

African-Americans account for disproportionately high rates of either positive tests or deaths in Michigan, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut and the Las Vegas area. Consider the numbers from Chicago: African-Americans account for more than half of those who have tested positive and a whopping 72 percent of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up a little less than a third of the population.

“Those numbers take your breath away, they really do,” said Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago. Another striking data point from Chicago: Even before the pandemic hit, officials had calculated that white Chicagoans’ average life expectancy was 8.8 years longer than that of black residents.

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Killing of Hachalu Hundessa Shows Ethiopia’s ‘Combustible’ Politics – The New York Times

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NAIROBI, Kenya — In life, Hachalu Hundessa’s protest songs roused and united Ethiopians yearning for freedom and justice. He is doing the same in death, with thousands flocking on Thursday to bury him in Ambo, the town 60 miles west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa where he was born and raised.

Mr. Hundessa, 34, was shot on Monday night by unknown assailants in Addis Ababa and later died of his wounds in a hospital. His death has ignited nationwide protests that have killed 81 people, injured dozens of others and caused extensive property damage. The authorities have blocked the internet and arrested 35 people, including a prominent media magnate and government critic, Jawar Mohammed.

The unrest, analysts say, threatens the stability of Africa’s second-most populous country and deepens the political crisis in a nation already undergoing a roller-coaster democratic transition.

“I am in bitter sadness,” said Getu Dandefa, a 29-year-old university student. When he saw Mr. Hundessa’s coffin in Ambo, he said he dropped to the ground and started crying.

“We lost our voice,” he said, “We will keep fighting until Hachalu gets justice. We will never stop protesting.”

Mr. Hundessa’s funeral serves as a moment of national reckoning in a country already facing myriad political, economic and social challenges. The fury aroused by his death poses a challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power in 2018 following a wave of antigovernment protests that Mr. Hundessa — a member of the country’s largest but historically marginalized ethnic group, the Oromo — helped to galvanize through his music.

Credit…Oromia Broadcasting Network, via Reuters

Since then, Mr. Abiy, an Oromo himself, has introduced a raft of changes aimed at dismantling Ethiopia’s authoritarian structure, releasing political prisoners, liberalizing the centralized economy, committing to overhaul repressive laws and welcoming back exiled opposition and separatist groups.

In 2019, Mr. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his initiative to resolve the decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea and for spearheading regional peace and cooperation in the Horn of Africa.

A nation of about 109 million people, Ethiopia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, hosts the headquarters of the African Union, and is a key United States ally in the fight against terrorism.

But while the 43-year-old prime minister has made great strides, the changes have unleashed forces that have produced a sharp increase in lawlessness in many parts of the country, with rising ethnic tensions and violence that have displaced 3 million people.

Yohannes Gedamu, an Ethiopian and lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, in Lawrenceville, Ga., said that the ruling coalition had lost its grip on the structures it once used to maintain order in an ethnically and linguistically diverse nation. As a result, he added, as the country moves toward multiparty democracy, rival ethnic and political factions have clashed over resources, power and the country’s direction forward.

The government has come under fire for failing to stop the killing of government critics and prominent figures, like the chief of staff of the Ethiopian Army, and its inability to rescue a dozen or more university students abducted months ago.

In combating the disorder, the authorities have resorted to the tactics of previous, repressive governments, not only blocking the internet, but arresting journalists and enacting laws that human rights advocates say could limit freedom of expression. Ethiopian security forces have been accused of gross human rights violations, including rape, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated all this, leading the government to postpone August elections that many saw as a critical test of Mr. Abiy’s reform agenda. The move drew condemnation from opposition parties, who fear the government will use the delay to attempt a power grab.

Credit…Michael Tewelde/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The last few days demonstrate just how combustible the situation in Ethiopia is,” said Murithi Mutiga, the project director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group.

He added: “The merest spark can easily unleash all these bottled up, ethnonationalist passions that have become the defining feature of Ethiopian politics, especially as it goes through this very delicate transition.”

While Mr. Abiy has a daunting task at hand, many say the government’s forceful response to discontent could make matters worse. Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the group had received reports that security forces had used lethal force on protesters in at least seven towns.

“The initial signs aren’t good,” Ms. Bader said. “The government needs to make clear that it is listening to these grievances, creating the space for them to be heard and adequately responding to them without resorting to repression or violence.”

Given Mr. Hundessa’s stature, and how his music provided a stirring soundtrack against repression, the authorities should pull back and allow “people to grieve in peace,” said Henok Gabisa, the co-chairperson of the International Oromo Lawyers Association, based in St. Paul, Minn. About 200 of the city’s Oromo community protested on Tuesday.

“The Oromo people are in disbelief, shocked and confused,” said Mr. Gabisa, who knew Mr. Hundessa and met him a few months ago in Ethiopia. But arresting political opposition leaders like Bekele Gerba, of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, and raiding Mr. Mohammed’s Oromia Media Network only risked inflaming long-simmering tensions, he said.

“Abiy fumbled,” Mr. Gabisa said. “He dropped the ball.”

Credit…Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Despite the recent upheaval, however, analysts still give Mr. Abiy high marks for his efforts to put Ethiopia on a new course.

Mr. Gedamu said the prime minister had taken huge strides on multiple fronts, establishing the nationally unifying Prosperity Party, overseeing a record-breaking tree planting project to tackle climate change and expediting efforts to complete the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which would bolster the country’s electricity supply.

“It is my understanding that revolutionary positive changes might actually take some time,” Mr. Gedamu said. “But overall, the gains of the reform outweigh the challenges.”

For now, tensions remain high across Ethiopia as Mr. Hachalu is being laid to rest. The military was deployed to parts of the capital on Wednesday, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.

Rawera Daniel, 24, an unemployed university graduate in Addis Ababa, said the authorities should not crack down on citizens who want to mourn.

On hearing of Mr. Hundessa’s death, “I cried like I lost my mother,” he said. “He fought for our freedom. His lyrics spoke on our behalf.”

Mr. Mutiga, of the International Crisis Group, said that Mr. Abiy should rise to the occasion not just as a political leader but as Ethiopia’s healer in chief.

“I think where Abiy definitely could do better is to try to fashion consensus,” he said, “persuade his opponents and be more deliberative and consultative and try to carry people along with him.”

Tiksa Negeri contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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No politics, please! HK finance professionals impose self-censorship after security law – The Guardian

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By Sumeet Chatterjee and Scott Murdoch

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A year ago, growing anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong were a hot topic in conversations among bankers, lawyers and other investment professionals in one of the world’s biggest and freest financial hubs.

On Thursday, two days after China imposed a controversial new security law on the city, you could almost hear a pin drop. Bankers were tight lipped, shunning any mention of the legislation over the phone or messaging apps in a sign of how much disquiet it has triggered.

More than half a dozen people Reuters spoke to said they chose not to talk about the impact of the law on their businesses with their colleagues and external contacts, though there had been no such official instruction from their respective organizations.

The sweeping legislation pushed the semi-autonomous city, which is the regional home for a large number of global financial companies, on to a more authoritarian path.

The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

While it doesn’t directly impact the financial sector, its provisions including giving a special police unit extra powers of search, electronic surveillance and asset seizure that have stoked concerns among some professionals.

‘IT COULD CHANGE THE WAY WE COMMUNICATE’

Both Hong Kong and Chinese government officials have said the law is vital to plug gaping holes in national security defences exposed by months of sometimes violent protests against the local government and Beijing over the last year.

But critics fear it will crush freedoms and an independent legal system that are seen as key to Hong Kong’s success as a financial centre and a gateway between China and the world.

“I was on a call with Singapore colleagues this morning when one of them asked me about the law and its impact on Hong Kong,” said an executive at a regional insurance company, who like his peers declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of the matter.

“I had just started when my boss tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to move on to business matters. Later, all our team members in Hong Kong were told to strictly refrain from sharing opinion on this on calls and social media.”

While most financial professionals in Hong Kong have long been aware of being tracked by the world’s most sophisticated electronic surveillance system when they travel to China, they said they have had no such concerns or need for precautions in Hong Kong.

A corporate lawyer with an international law firm said that could change the way in which people in the former British colony “communicate and correspond” from now on.

“I think some people could become very careful in what they write on Whatsapp and Wechat … as a firm we are not writing anything in any correspondence like that (related to the law) but it could become an issue for some.”

Some of the professionals said that they were also reviewing their previous posts on social media related to the pro-democracy protests and the security law, and deleting ones they thought would be viewed as sensitive.

A senior Hong Kong-based wealth manager with an European bank said that he had been advised by his manager to minimize his conversations over messaging apps with his local clients about any political impact on markets and investments.

One financial analyst who was arranging a meeting in a café said it might need to be held somewhere more private if the conversation included the new security law.

“Walls have ears now,” he said.

(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee and Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong; additional reporting by Jennifer Hughes; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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Four ways for Joe Biden to reset our polarized and dysfunctional politics – The Washington Post

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Happily for Biden, the dramatic events of the past three months have upended the political landscape. With the primary debates now a distant memory, he has a second chance to lay out a new-and-improved policy agenda that is as radical as it is centrist, one that can serve as a foundation not only for winning the election but also governing the country thereafter.

So what would a radically centrist Democratic platform look like? Here are four ideas that are anything but mushy middle:

Obamacare for All

As citizens of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands know, it is possible to ensure that everyone has high-quality, affordable medical care through a regulated system of private insurance and private health providers. Here in the United States, we already have the basic infrastructure to do it as well: the Obamacare exchanges.

Here’s how it would work: Give every American household a voucher to buy a comprehensive policy on a state or regional exchange for a premium of no more than 10 percent of the previous year’s income. Co-payments and deductibles also would be capped. Premiums would be lower for the elderly and waived for those with disabilities or households with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Medicare, Medicaid and employer-provided insurance would all fade away.

Let’s start with Medicaid, the health insurance plan for poor people that severely limits their choice of doctors, delivers disappointing health outcomes and, because it pays so little to providers, forces hospitals and doctors to overcharge everyone else. So why not let poor people choose from a variety of private insurance plans that compete for their business, just as happens for other Americans?

We already do that with the Medicare Advantage Program, which provides a single comprehensive policy to the 34 percent of seniors who select it and costs no more than traditional Medicare. With its separate programs for hospitals (Part A) and doctors (Part B) and drugs (Part D), each with different financial arrangements, traditional Medicare has become a confusing anachronism that creates perverse incentives and makes it hard to manage care for chronic conditions.

Getting health insurance from employers is another idea whose time has come and gone. Companies that offer it find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to chintzy companies that don’t. And it is based on a highly regressive tax loophole that costs the Treasury $150 billion a year. In an economy in which job switches and layoffs are common and millions of people work for themselves, tying health care to employers also discourages entrepreneurship, creates job lock and adds to economic insecurity.

With everyone getting insurance from the same exchanges, there would be dozens of insurers competing vigorously for customers in every state on the basis of price, service and health outcomes. The existing Medicare apparatus could be empowered to set caps on what doctors, hospitals and drug companies could charge and on insurance company profits. Wages would rise as companies no longer have to pay for insurance — that’s the consensus among economists. And having been relieved of their rapidly rising Medicaid costs, states could redirect hundreds of billions of dollars to education, infrastructure, housing and social services.

By my rough calculation, as much as $1 trillion of health-care spending would be shifted from states, businesses and households to the federal government, which, like in every other advanced country, could pay for it with a value-added tax — in effect, a national consumption tax. The current Medicare payroll tax could be abolished.

Tax Reform

Right now, we tax corporate profits twice — once, at the corporation when the profit is made, and again when any of that profit is distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends or capital gains. This double taxation is economically inefficient and leads to rampant tax cheating.

The better solution is to tax all business profits — whether earned by a corporation, a small business, a partnership or sole proprietorship — at the same rate, and then give owners and shareholders a proportionate tax credit that they can use to offset personal income tax obligations. Experts refer to this as “integrating” the corporate and personal income taxes.

In the past, integration proposals from the business lobby were designed to reduce tax revenue and provide a windfall to businesses and the people who own them. A radical centrist version would do just the opposite.

The business profits tax could be set at 30 percent, well above the current 21 percent and close to the average in other industrialized countries. At the same time, the top individual tax rate could be raised from its current 37 percent to 40 percent and be applied not only to wage and salary income, but also to dividends and capital gains, now taxed at only 20 percent.

The same 40 percent rate also could be applied to inheritances valued at more than $500,000, even as the now hollowed-out estate tax is phased out. Unrealized capital gains, however, would be taxed at death, closing a gaping $50 billion-a-year loophole.

Under such a tax code, corporations would no longer be at a competitive disadvantage to LLCs and family-owned businesses. Corporate executives, business owners and private-equity managers would no longer pay a lower tax rate than the middle-class workers they employ. And billionaires would no longer be able to pass on fortunes to their heirs tax-free.

End class segregation in public schools

Although the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, it has never barred states from segregating public schools by class. And in too many metropolitan regions, they amount to much the same thing, with poorer black and Hispanic students clustered in failing inner-city school systems and richer, white students attending higher-performing suburban schools.

Because public schools receive much of their funding through local property taxes, schools in wealthier districts tend to have more resources and better teachers than poorer ones. But even in states where funding is relatively equal, there is ample evidence that segregating poor children in the same schools deepens their educational disadvantage. In class as in race, separate is inherently unequal.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a condition of federal education funding, Congress could require states to create larger metropolitan-wide school systems with economically and racially diverse student populations that can equalize the distribution of resources and teaching talent. Using magnet schools, school choice, extensive busing networks and lotteries for the most sought-after schools, these school systems could ensure that no school winds up with a population that is overwhelmingly rich or poor.

National service, national dividend

The greatest threat to American capitalism and American democracy is the erosion of our social capital, the trust and responsibility we feel for each other and for the institutions that hold society together.

One way to begin rebuilding social capital would be to require all citizens to devote two or three years to national service sometime during their lifetime. Service could be performed when people are young, or after they retire, or sometime between. It could be provided through government programs such as the military, the Peace Corps or a reinvented Civilian Conservation Corps, or through an authorized nonprofit entity such as Teach for America, a local homeless shelter or arts group. Not only would such service improve the lives of our fellow citizens, but it also would give all of us a chance to meet, work with and live among people who are different from ourselves.

National service would reinforce the idea that we all have obligations to and responsibility for the country and each other. But it could also reinforce the idea that each of us has an equal claim on the nation’s bounty, tying national service to a national dividend that every citizen would receive. One way to do that would be for the government to set up a trust fund for every child born in the United States, to which it would contribute $2,000 every year until the child reaches 18. The money would be invested in a broad portfolio of U.S. stocks and bonds, so that by the time they set out in life, every young American would have around $50,000 that could be used to pay for college, start a business or put a down payment on a house.

I realize that at a moment when our politics is so polarized and the legislative process so dysfunctional, it sounds positively naive to imagine something so communitarian as national service tied to a national dividend — or for that matter, any of the other ideas on this list. But that is precisely why they would be so politically appealing, tapping into the deep craving among voters for initiatives that are practical and unifying and offer hope for the future. The administrative and financial details can be worked out later. For Biden, the more immediate challenge is to drag the political conversation out of an unsatisfying and unproductive rut by offering a set of bold, fresh ideas that promote equality and reinforce the feeling that we are all in this together.

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