What Happened Today: June 24, 2022
Roe v. Wade overturned; CDC pediatric data error; $200K for those suffering from the Havana Syndrome
The Big Story
In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion. In a 6-3 ruling the court’s conservative members upheld a Mississippi law passed in 2018 that banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a statute that had been blocked by the Mississippi Federal District Court Judge Carlton Reeves, who wrote that the Republican-led Mississipi legislature “chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decades-long campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.” In its decision today, which largely tracked with an earlier-leaked draft version authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the majority effectively returned the issue of abortion access back to the states, finding that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences.” In their dissent, the court’s three liberal justices wrote that “whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.”
The ruling has set off the so-called trigger laws, already passed by 13 states, that immediately ban abortion after Roe v. Wade is overturned. Other legislatures are anticipated to follow suit, with roughly half the states in the nation expected to ban abortion. Taken together, the legal regime spread across restrictive states ushers in a new era of law enforcement surveillance and criminal investigation as state authorities seek to prevent and prosecute illegal abortions. Law enforcement that suspects a terminated pregnancy is illegal will have grounds to seize and search phones, computers, period-tracking apps, and the digital communications of those who might have sought or obtained an abortion. Of particular interest to investigators will be the digital records and private communications that implicate a person’s attempt to obtain abortion medication. Today abortion pills account for more than half of all abortions, though that proportion is likely to climb as more women seek out the pills on the black market.
Speaking today from the White House, President Biden called the decision a “tragic error” and identified what will undoubtedly be a prominent campaign issue for Democrats in upcoming midterm elections. As for what today’s decision could mean for future Supreme Court rulings, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in his concurring opinion that the court should reconsider its previous “demonstrably erroneous decisions” that protected married couples’ access to contraception and same-sex marriages.
In the Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads
→ At the CDC’s annual Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting on Wednesday, a gathering of some of the top health officials and experts in the country, a slide was shown that listed COVID-19 as one of the leading causes of pediatric deaths in the United States—a slide that quickly made the rounds, even getting airtime on CNN. The only problem? The slide is entirely false, an error caught by “a woman who tweets using her first name only and runs [a fact-check] on the world’s most eminent scientists in her free time,” as Matt Shapiro wrote on Substack. Shapiro noted that the slide “is no small error”:
Not only did it count the wrong number for pediatric COVID deaths, it compared all pediatric COVID deaths in a 26-month period to annualized deaths from other causes. This is a massive data error, and yet it persisted through a supposedly rigorous data check from 11 authors and was selected by top-tier scientists for their landmark presentation to the most knowledgeable experts in the field.
This erroneous data, still circulating without a correction from the CDC, is being promoted just as health officials have approved vaccines for children 5 and under.
→ Thursday’s congressional hearings investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol featured testimony from senior members of President Trump’s Justice Department who were enlisted in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including a plan to replace the acting attorney general with a Trump loyalist who promised to overturn the election results. “President Trump tried to erase his loss at the ballot box by parachuting an unqualified man into the top job at justice,’’ Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said on Thursday. “It was a power play to win at all costs, with no regard for the will of the American people.” As the hearings now push into July, these revelations are sure—and indeed are intended—to factor into voters’ decisions at the midterm polls.
→ To combat a global food crisis caused by widespread drought and the war in Ukraine, wealthier nations are trying to ship food to needier ones to stave off famine—and finding that shipping companies are pocketing the bulk of those aid dollars. This past April, for instance, the Biden administration set aside $670 million in food aid for countries in need, a full $388 million of which went toward processing and shipping fees. A key contributor to the high cost of such shipping fees is a pair of protectionist policies, the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 and the Cargo Preference Act of 1954, which require that at least half of all humanitarian food aid from the United States be carried on private U.S. vessels, which get to bid on contracts before their foreign counterparts. This results in huge profits for American shipping companies, who have already seen banner years during the pandemic, and huge costs for the U.S. government and countries in need of food aid. A 2015 Government Accountability Office review concluded that cargo preference policies increase the cost of shipping food aid abroad by roughly 23%.
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→ NUMBER OF THE DAY: $100,000 to $200,000
That’s how much the Biden administration said it will pay out individually to the diplomats, intelligence service employees, and other members of the United States’ most elite bureaucracies who’ve been unable to work after suffering from the so-called Havana syndrome. After six years investigating the cause of the headaches, dizziness, and feelings of confusion government officials concluded that they are not the result of an adversarial foreign power using microwave weapons against members of the U.S. diplomatic community. A group of those who say they’ve been the most affected by the Havana syndrome have cast doubt on such conclusions, and continue to speculate that “the Russians are responsible for the syndrome,” as The New Yorker writer Adam Entous has written, in several accounts about the phenomenon.
→ As the legendary Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi celebrates his 35th birthday today, we would like to celebrate one of his greatest goals, a ridiculous display of power and agility:
→ The Harmony blockchain suffered a $100 million hack this week, as thieves seized on a weak link in Harmony’s security by attacking its “bridge,” where users can swap Harmony for other cryptocurrencies. “The Harmony team has identified a theft occurring this morning on the Horizon bridge amounting to approx. $100MM,” the blockchain tweeted on Thursday. “We have begun working with national authorities and forensic specialists to identify the culprit and retrieve the stolen funds.” As hacks, burglaries, and scams become commonplace across the world of cryptocurrency, it is noteworthy that these decentralized Web 3.0 spaces consistently turn to the central authorities when imperiled.
→ QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Companies would have to stop production, lay off their workers, supply chains would collapse, people would go into debt to pay their heating bills, then people would become poorer,” said German Economy Minister Robert Habeck in an interview today, laying out the dire industrial crisis that’s to come if Russia does not increase its output of gas deliveries to Europe. Earlier this week, Berlin officials moved into their second phase of a three-phase emergency energy plan installed because of dwindling energy reserves. Officials have warned that they may soon need to curtail their energy exports, moving into the emergency plan’s third phase of rationing, to ensure the country has enough to satisfy its domestic demand.
→ Ten American higher-education institutions are developing campuses for the Metaverse—or Metaversities, as they’re being branded. Using VR headsets, students will soon study stars from the surface of the moon or swim across a human cell or become 19% more anxious and 16% less productive, as a recent test group revealed after assessing the experience of the Metaverse. Some critics have worried, however, that Meta’s goals in developing this technology might differ from the goals of institutions of learning. Meta’s founding goals include “reach[ing] a billion people” and “host[ing] hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce,” while partner institutions like South Dakota State University are funded by taxpayers to educate the state’s citizenry. “I do hope that things like the socioeconomic divide and geography divide can potentially be bridged in education because of some of these new technologies like VR,” said Greg Heiberger, associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University. “Those would be the two tenets I would guess are near the top of [Meta’s] list: making money and giving some of those resources back to make the world a better place.”
→ MAP OF THE DAY:
NASA’s Mars Orbiter has spent 16 years mapping the red planet and is now slowly releasing images of the most detailed cartography of the planet’s surface ever made. Deploying tools that measure visible and infrared wavelengths, the Orbiter is able to gather data on mineral distribution across the planet’s surface—information that will allow scientists to study Mars’ watery past. The Orbiter will release its final near-global map of the Martian surface within the year.
Additional reporting and writing provided by The Scroll’s associate editor, David Sugarman
Your Weekend Reads
→ A significant portion of Amazon’s success can be attributed to its construction and ongoing expansion of Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing arm that serves as the backend for an alarming percentage of the online retail marketplace. In this examination of two other Amazon products, Arc XP and Zeus Prime, Amazon appears poised to do something similar with online media, continually building up what has become a dominant position as the backend infrastructure for U.S. news and media outlets. A dominance, as this Washington Monthly piece points out, that Amazon could soon leverage to largely eliminate much of its competition:
Bezos’s control of Arc and Zeus give him significant power over the news industry. They both allow him to harvest vast amounts of cash from competitors, even as he makes them increasingly dependent on his technology. We know, based on past experience with Amazon and its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing subsidiary, that being dependent on Bezos’s technology comes with serious consequences—often including manipulation, predatory surveillance, and unfair practices. What initially appears to be a benign solution becomes exploitation of a trapped client base.
Bezos’s outsized investment means that he could soon control the backbone of most of the large newspaper markets in America. Meanwhile, Arc’s high cost creates a barrier to entry for new news organizations that can’t afford it. It further accelerates the cleavage of the industry into haves and have-nots. The have-nots—including most small local and ethnic publishers—often struggle with inferior technology that stifles both editorial and revenue ambitions, at a time when local news is increasingly recognized as an essential and endangered public good.
Conversely, if Bezos were to suddenly drop the price of Arc XP and Zeus Prime, he could potentially drive other platform providers out of business, allowing him to take a cut of the entire industry’s revenues right off the top.
“You look at Jeff Bezos and his history and his behavior and how he’s gone about building total domination of e-commerce, and you realize: He could do the same thing to media as he’s done to retail,” says Daniel Williams, the CEO of BlueLena, a company that helps develop revenue models for news organizations. “And I think media is likely to become another instrument of the Amazon empire.”
→ In this lecture and panel discussion recorded last month at the All-In Summit tech conference in Miami, entrepreneur and inventor Palmer Luckey offers a critique of the political gamesmanship and creative limitations that have festered throughout certain parts of the U.S. tech entrepreneur space as well as the culture more broadly. Luckey, who made his first fortune selling Oculus VR to Facebook for $2.3 billion and now runs Anduril Industries, a defense contractor, emphasized the importance for entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers to build products that could have significant social impact—like enhancing national security—regardless of how those efforts might be initially perceived by censorous mobs online. Pointing to the changing tide of opinions from extremely active online personalities about defense efforts following the Ukraine invasion, Luckey explained why he and his collaborators continued to create new products even as they were being roundly criticized for not “being on the right side of the politics” by those who, at that time, were dismissive of the startup’s purpose.
→ After more than 10,000 restaurants in Mexico City closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and delivery platforms began taking a greater cut of revenue from those restaurants still in business, cooks and at-home chefs began turning to private groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to create new food-delivery networks. Customers gravitated to the groups as the prices weren’t inflated with delivery platform fees and because they included more affordable meals, some as cheap as a few dollars, which cooks could now offer by selling directly to those in their immediate vicinity. The self-made networks also brought in a new cohort of restaurant entrepreneurs who had previously been kept out of the industry:
“Everyone in this city eats out,” said Tiana Bakic Hayden, an anthropologist at the College of Mexico. “There are very fancy places where you can spend $100 per head, and then you can eat on the street for 18 pesos [around $1] for four tacos.” This economic stratification is reflected in how delivery apps operate in the city. “My sense is that while [delivery apps] had quite a big impact in the more central neighborhoods, I don’t think they’ve had very much of an impact on pretty big swathes of the city,” Hayden said. “They only serve certain tiers and certain cities.” When Berbera and Mejía first started operating out of her dad’s house, Facebook was key to their early success. After the first couple of times that they uploaded photos of their pizza to the neighborhood group, they were bombarded by 18 messages from people asking for the menu.
Just 21, Caricio has already opened three locations of Elotlan. While foot traffic comprises most of his sales during the day, he said that delivery is key to his business and that about 80% of his orders come from Facebook at night. He’s currently active on four different neighborhood groups, posting regular photos of cheese-drenched tortillas.
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