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What Happened Today: August 25, 2022
Questions rise around Biden’s student loan plan; bankers bet big on Italy’s collapse; Fetterman’s Trolling Deepens Dr. Oz’s Self-Inflicted Wounds
The Big Story
The White House’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for college borrowers, announced yesterday, has led to confusion over exactly how the forgiveness will work and when it will begin. Critics of the move also raised concerns about the government’s plan to fund the program and how that could inflame already soaring levels of inflation. Missing entirely from the plan were actions to address a higher education system that remains the gatekeeper to most corporate careers while forcing 55% of those who earned a college degree in 2020 to take on debt to go to school.
Officials involved with the announcement said that by the end of the year, certain borrowers would be able to apply for the aid through a federal application system overseen by the Education Department, with others going through their loan service providers, a process that could place time-consuming bureaucratic hurdles in front of some borrowers who would most benefit from the forgiveness. Those with an income below $125,000 (or a $250,000 household income) will be eligible for $10,000 in forgiveness, with borrowers of Pell Grants eligible for an additional $10,000. Pell Grants usually go to low-income students; providing them more aid bolsters the Biden administration’s claim that the program won’t primarily serve high-income Americans.
Announced alongside a continuation of the Trump-era moratorium on loan repayments that extends beyond the crucial window of the midterms and till the end of the year, the total package could cost the government from $300 billion to twice that amount over the next decade. Officials say ongoing debt reduction efforts will pay for the plan, and it’s unlikely to increase the tax burden for most borrowers, though the lack of future loan repayments will increase the federal deficit. Economists so far have raised more alarm about long-term impacts on inflation, not least because universities could increase tuition if they suspect future rounds of forgiveness. “Education is a ticket to a better life,” said President Biden. “But over time, that ticket has become too expensive for too many Americans.”
In the Back Pages: Fetterman’s Trolling Deepens Dr. Oz’s Self-Inflicted Wounds
→ As Italy heads into contentious national elections in September, hedge funds have lined up bets that Italy’s bond market is going to collapse and that the country will soon default on its debts. Last month the International Monetary Fund predicted that Italy’s economy would face a 5% contraction this year due to Russian oil embargoes and soaring energy costs—Italy is “the most exposed [country] in terms of what happens to gas prices,” one hedge fund investment officer noted—and now investors are as confident that Italy is nearing an economic collapse as they were in 2008. The political conditions in Italy, meanwhile, are equally fraught. Recent polls suggest that a right-wing coalition led by the Brothers of Italy might win power in the fall, as it runs on a Euroskeptic platform that calls for a review of previous agreements with the European Union on public spending and economic governance—a proposal that, for investors betting that Italy will soon default on its debt, comes as good news.
→ Map of the Day:
The number of homes in New Jersey owned by limited liability corporations, or LLCs, has increased by more than 500% since 2012, from some 12,000 homes that year to more than 72,000 as of 2021, driving housing inventory to historic lows and home prices to historic highs. According to an investigation by the Asbury Park Press, LLCs have captured as much as $8 billion worth of inventory in the area, largely by being able to outbid regular buyers with all-cash offers. A big chunk of these purchases are being made by venture capital firms; in the first quarter of 2021, for instance, venture capital firms purchased 15% of available housing inventory nationwide, using their troves of cash and low corporate interest rates to outbid families trying to purchase a home.
→ With just three days to go until play starts at the U.S. Open in New York City, Novak Djokovic announced he will not be allowed into the United States and thus must forfeit his slot in the tournament. Djokovic has been vocal about his decision to not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, particularly after he caught the COVID-19 virus and developed natural immunity last winter. Prevented from entering Australia in January for the major tournament there because of his vaccine status, some anticipated that by the time of the U.S. Open this month, Djokovic, or tennis tour officials, would have been able to circumvent the U.S. border regulation against entry for unvaccinated foreigners. Although any player already in the United States—or any ticket holder, for that matter—is allowed onto the grounds, Djokovic has to get here first to play. “I think it’s a joke if he’s not allowed to participate here,” said John McEnroe. “The bottom line is … it doesn’t look good.”
→ Quote of the Day:
It’s hard knowing that I’m carrying it to bury it.
Nancy Davis, a Louisiana woman who is 13 weeks pregnant with a fetus that, due to a rare condition called acrania, does not have a skull. She was recently told she would either need to carry the nonviable fetus to term or travel out of state to get an abortion. Florida, the closest state that allows abortions, only does so until 15 weeks, leaving Davis little time to make up her mind. Louisiana’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the statewide ban on abortions last Friday, and while the ban does have some exemptions for life-threatening fetal conditions, those exemptions don’t include acrania. Similar stories are emerging from states with similar abortion laws, as women are being forced to carry nonviable fetuses to term and go through the painful process of delivering babies that are already dead.
→ Following recent media reports of concerns over the quality of medical care offered by Amazon Care, the retail giant said on Wednesday that it would wind down its in-house healthcare program. With a focus on virtual appointments and a tech-centric, friction-free approach to providing primary and urgent care to employees of Amazon and several other companies, former and current employees said the quality of care wasn’t always the focus for administrators who prioritized speed and patient convenience. Amazon said that some unspecified number of the program’s 400 or so employees would be moved to new roles. Amazon could soon have plenty of work for those scuttled employees. In July, Amazon offered $3.9 billion to buy One Medical, a nationwide chain of primary care clinics that also sells memberships to Google and some 8,500 other corporations.
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→ In a win for privacy advocates, a judge in Ohio has ruled that the practice of pre-test room scans, when a school or testing company uses a student’s computer to scan the room before or throughout a test to ensure that the student does not cheat, has been ruled unconstitutional. A student from Cleveland State University filed the lawsuit after a professor used a room scan, capturing and then sharing the image of the student’s sensitive tax documents on a nearby table. The student alleged that this violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, and an Ohio judge, J. Philip Calabrese, agreed. He wrote:
Though schools may routinely employ remote technology to peer into houses without objection from some, most, or nearly all students, it does not follow that others might not object to the virtual intrusion into their homes or that the routine use of a practice such as room scans does not violate a privacy interest that society recognizes as reasonable, both factually and legally.
With remote testing and pre-test scans now commonplace in the wake of the pandemic, schools will need to find constitutional ways of ensuring that students do not cheat. “Ensuring academic integrity is essential to our mission,” a spokesperson from Cleveland State University commented on the case, “and will guide us as we move forward.”
→ In a unanimous decision on Wednesday, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s board of trustees voted to fire the school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, over his response to the massacre that claimed the lives of 19 schoolchildren and 2 teachers this past May. Since the shooting, the response of the local police during the shooting has come under scrutiny, with video showing officers holding back outside the school for more than an hour while the gunman was inside. Arredondo’s firing came as a small relief to the families of the victims who were in attendance during the vote and who stood up and applauded the unanimous decision. Citing threats against his life, Arredondo was not present for the vote, and he continues to contend that he was not in charge of the response team that day—that he only oversaw a small unit of six school-district officers and did not tell those officers to hold back.
→ Number of the Day: $10.1 billion
The amount of debt incurred by Texas taxpayers because of 2021 Storm Uri and the state’s mismanagement of its energy infrastructure during the storm. Freezing temperatures knocked out the power of millions of Texans for days, leading energy companies to raise their prices amid the surging demand, from a usual average of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour to a capped high of $9 per kilowatt-hour—a move that prompted dozens of lawsuits that will remain in litigation for years. In the meantime, though, Texas taxpayers will be on the hook for the bonds issued by the state to pay for power at these exorbitant rates. The final sticker price for taxpayers will be a good deal higher than $10.1 billion, as that initial debt will incur interest over its 30-year term and compound significantly.
Additional reporting and writing provided by The Scroll’s associate editor, David Sugarman
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Fetterman’s Trolling Deepens Dr. Oz’s Self-Inflicted Wounds
By Katherine Dee
You may have already heard about the trolling wars between Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, the two candidates fighting for the senate seat that could decide which party controls the chamber following November’s midterm election. Dr. Oz, who’s running on the Republican ticket, has done everything in his power to fashion himself as a bottom-shelf Trump, using Fetterman’s recent stroke as a launch pad for his latest round of jokes. Oz’s latest was a surreal TikTok in which he wanders around a produce aisle looking like he’s never seen the inside of a grocery store.
The conceit, I think, is that Fetterman doesn’t eat healthily so wouldn’t have any idea how much the price of vegetables has risen due to inflation. Okay—fair enough. Why Oz felt that the best way to convey that accusation was building a crudités plate with raw asparagus, a head of broccoli, carrots, processed “guacamole product,” salsa, and tequila is anybody’s guess. Needless to say, the message was muddled, and widely mocked, in part because he got the grocery store name wrong, calling Wegmans “Wegner’s.” Fetterman retaliated by creating Wegner’s stickers, another data point in his case that Oz isn’t really from Pennsylvania.
Most of the conversation around this back-and-forth between Fetterman and Oz has been about the role social media has played in this race. Some of the commentary seems stuck in 2008: Can you believe this Obama guy was using the Facebook? Anyone remember, oh, I don’t know, 2015? We’re over a decade deep in social media being indispensable for politicians. Of course candidates are going to use social media, TikTok included.
Others have asked, “Is the trolling in this campaign a product of their use of social media?” While it doesn’t hurt to be literate in the various lingua francas of the internet—and actually, it can hurt you if you’re not (recall Hillary Clinton’s much-mocked 2016 “Pokémon Go-to-the-polls” quip)—politicians using humor in their campaign is nothing new. Last year, New York magazine published an overview of what might be called “political trolling” through the years. Its timeline starts at a New Haven rally for Henry Wallace, a Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1947.
While not a new phenomenon by any means, trolling has been amplified by the internet. It is no longer a hyperlocal event, nor even one contained to the heavily gatekept mass-media. Even receiving physical hate mail can be easier to manage emotionally than torrents of nasty Twitter replies, emails or, in extreme situations, SWAT-ing, which as the name suggests is when a troll sends a SWAT team to a victim’s home. It’s not an aberration in the history of human interaction, though.
Trolling primarily serves two purposes: hazing (or gatekeeping) and disarmament through humor or mockery. In political campaigns, it’s the latter: Whoever is able to most effectively mock their opponent usually has the upper hand. We also see trolling prolifically among journalists and the faceless, digital swarm: It doesn’t matter how well your article is written or edited or how witty your comebacks are—if a critical mass of trolls discredits you, you’re toast.
As a gatekeeping tactic, trolling is useful, even if it does often veer into the mean-spirited. It’s a tactic I’ve defended several times before, even when it’s come at my own expense. If you’re in a community that’s easily visible, like a Twitter-based digital subculture, and you want that group to maintain its integrity, gatekeeping through trolling works. If the person can’t hang, doesn’t know the lore, or doesn’t know the right lingo, then “the door” won’t unlock. They’ll remain on the outside.
As for Fetterman and Oz, while they’re not hazing one another, they are using humor as a way to discredit each other. But in an interesting twist, Fetterman’s trolling didn’t deliver the blow to Oz; it only complemented the damage Oz did to himself. The problem with Mehmet Oz’s trolling is not that it’s unfunny or “goes too far” by evoking Fetterman’s health struggles. It’s that it reveals Fetterman has been right all along: Oz is out of touch with his constituents. Crudités? Wegner’s? I don’t even live in Pennsylvania, and I can tell you Oz isn’t a man of the people.