Rembrandt van Rijn The flight into Egypt – a night piece 1651
Anyone seen an explanation?
The number of coronavirus-related deaths decreased by 20% worldwide last week compared to the week before, according to an analysis by the World Health Organization, which coincides with a drop in cases and deaths in the United States as well, as it appears the course of both the global and domestic outbreaks of the virus may finally be slowing. Slightly fewer than 66,000 fatalities worldwide were reported last week—the third consecutive week the fatality rate has decreased. The WHO also announced the total number of new cases fell to 2.4 million for the week of Feb. 15 through Feb. 21, representing an 11% dip from the prior week, which marks the sixth consecutive week the global case count has declined.
The U.S. has averaged 68,038 new cases per day over the past seven days, a decrease of nearly 40% compared to the average earlier this month. On Tuesday, according to the Covid Tracking Project, the number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the U.S. dropped below 56,000 for the first time since early November. While there is no disputing the fact that the numbers are trending in the right direction, the emergence of new variants has many health professionals concerned. Three particular variants, B.1.1.7 (first found in the U.K.), B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil) are the most prevalent at this point.
There will be thousands. Get fit. One of the many drawbacks of the vaccines is that the virus will beat them. Too many people are infected worldwide to prevent this.
A new coronavirus strain that shares some characteristics with the South Africa variant is emerging in New York City, researchers said Wednesday. As of mid-February, the new variant, called B.1.526, was present in about 12 percent of coronavirus samples collected in the Big Apple and surrounding areas, according to researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. In their analysis of publicly available databases, the Columbia researchers did not find a high prevalence of the South Africa or Brazil COVID-19 variants in the region.
“Instead we found high numbers of this home-grown lineage,” Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement. The Columbia study found the new strain shares some similarities to the South Africa strain, which scientists believe can spread more easily than other virus variants. B.1.526 was also described in research published this week by the California Institute of Technology.
“Critics call it a personal bailout for bureaucrats.”
The U.S. House version of the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” – a $1.9 trillion emergency aid package to help America recover from the coronavirus pandemic has an extra perk for federal workers: Enhanced paid time off if your child is enrolled in a school that isn’t back to full-time, in-classroom instruction. Critics call it a personal bailout for bureaucrats. It is funded through a new $570 million family leave account exclusively for federal workers. While millions of parents struggle to work from home with kids who are enrolled in shuttered or partially shuttered schools, and millions more left the workforce or lost jobs to care for their at-home children, evidently parents in the federal bureaucracy need their own, personal Covid-19 bailout.
Buried on page 305 of the House bill released late last Friday night (included after the bailout details for states and localities), is a new Treasury Department fund called the “Emergency Federal Employee Leave Fund.” $570 million in the new fund is available through September 30. Federal employees caring for others due to Covid-19 are eligible for paid leave. Among those eligible are those who are “unable to work” because they are caring for school-aged children not physically in school full time “due to Covid-19 precautions[.]” The new Fund allows a federal employee “caring for a son or daughter” to qualify for the paid leave, specifically:
“if the school or place of care of the son or daughter has been closed, if the school of such son or daughter requires or makes optional a virtual learning instruction model or requires or makes optional a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning instruction models, or the child care provider of such son or daughter is unavailable, due to Covid-19 precautions;” Under the bill as currently drafted, full-time federal employees can take up to 600 hours in paid leave until September 30, up to $35 an hour and $1,400 a week. That’s 15 weeks for a 40-hour employee. Part-time and “seasonal” employees are eligible, too, with equivalent hours established by their agency.
Find in your thesaurus under “dysfunctional”.
U.S. senators on Wednesday were eyeing potentially significant cuts to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as they awaited a ruling on whether the measure can include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Senate parliamentarian was expected to decide soon whether Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposed minimum wage increase is allowable under a rule allowing a simple majority of the 100-member Senate to approve the sweeping relief measure, instead of the chamber’s typical 60-vote majority. The House of Representatives on Friday could pass the bill that would help tackle the heavy human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.
The Senate is likely to follow up in early March. The measure is Biden’s top legislative priority. Senate Democrats and Republicans were looking at scaling back some of the biggest provisions, including expanded federal unemployment benefits, $1,400 direct payments to Americans and money for state and local governments, according to lawmakers and aides. [..] A new round of stimulus checks could be scaled back to exclude more high earners, the aide said. Several senators, including Democrat Joe Manchin, have said they were looking at a minimum wage increase to $10 to $11 an hour, instead of $15 by 2025, up from the current $7.25.
“I think even though several Democrats have some concerns, that we can still find a basis for agreement,” Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who must juggle demands of progressive and moderate Democrats amid Republican opposition, described a U.S. economy in need of help beyond the nearly $4 trillion provided last year.
“During the 2020 election campaign, Biden promised to make the Saudis “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
The Biden administration will release an intelligence report Thursday that concludes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, three U.S. officials familiar with the matter said. The intelligence assessment, based largely on work by the CIA, is not new — NBC News was among the organizations that confirmed it in 2018. But its public release will mark a significant new chapter in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and a clear break by President Joe Biden with former President Donald Trump’s policy of equivocating about the Saudi state’s role in a brutal murder that was widely condemned by members of Congress, journalists and a U.N. investigator.
Reuters first reported on the declassified intelligence summary scheduled for release Thursday. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Biden would communicate with the Saudi king, rather than his son the crown prince. She said the declassified report was being prepared for release soon. It remains to be seen how releasing the report will affect U.S.-Saudi relations. Biden officials have been engaging with the Saudis since they took office, according to the State Department.
[..] During the 2020 election campaign, Biden promised to make the Saudis “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Biden has ended American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, but he has not moved to cut off military aid to an important Middle East ally and counterterrorism partner. “The president’s intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia,” Psaki said Wednesday.
Get him under oath.
Rep. Eric Swalwell’s Republican colleagues on the House Homeland Security Committee are asking the FBI to brief them on the California Democrat’s relationship with Chinese spy Fang Fang. The GOP legislators say that it’s important to understand Swalwell’s relationship with Fang, who seduced US politicians as part of her work, to protect themselves and national secrets. The 14 Homeland Security Committee Republicans, led by Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC), wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray that “Members of Congress must understand the threats we now face and the extent of damage already done.”
“As our nation faces a growing security threat from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempts to infiltrate and undermine the United States Government, we write to request a full briefing regarding counterintelligence threats to Members of Congress, including information related to Representative Eric Swalwell’s ties to a suspected Chinese intelligence operative,” the legislators wrote. “In light of Fang’s infiltration of Rep. Swalwell’s inner circle, we believe Members of Congress must know the full extend of the CCP’s efforts to target Members of Congress.” The Republicans wrote to Wray, “We must ensure the Committee can safeguard Top Secret information and make an informed decision regarding Rep. Swalwell’s future access to classified information”
Swalwell is a member of both the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees, which entitles him to top-secret information. Most if not all of his GOP colleagues were unaware of his ties to Fang before a bombshell December report. Swalwell received an FBI “defensive briefing” in 2015 on Fang, who is believed to have returned to China to avoid apprehension. His brother and father remained active Facebook friends with her until after her role was publicly reported. Swalwell has refused to say if he had a romantic relationship with Fang, who fundraised for him and allegedly seduced at least two mayors as part of her work.
Historians are going to think Twitter was a political party.
Social media giant Twitter announced yesterday that it has deleted 373 accounts it claims were linked to Russia, Iran, and Armenia. In a blog post entitled “Disclosing networks of state-linked information operations,” it claimed that it had taken the decision to remove 69 Russian accounts primarily because they were “undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability.”The move sparked controversy on Twitter itself, with many users joking that their own fealty to NATO was insufficiently zealous. Twitter justified the decision by pointing to its rules regarding the prohibition of state-controlled disinformation networks. Yet it failed to fully explain exactly how it knew these users were in the pay of the Kremlin or under the control of the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei.
Indeed, the supposedly “independent investigation and analysis” team at the Stanford Internet Observatory, to which Twitter contracted out its work, itself has troubling connections to the (U.S.) state. For example, its non-resident fellow Matt Masterton was, until recently, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. Indeed, the whole observatory is located within the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, headed by former American Ambassador to Russia (and noted Kremlin hawk) Michael McFaul. Supposed “experts” accuse users of being Russia-linked disinformation agents with great regularity. Ben Nimmo, data journalist and former NATO press officer, falsely asserted that a noted Ukrainian concert pianist and a Welsh pensioner were Kremlin bots. Nimmo was recently announced as Facebook’s chief of intelligence.
The New Zealand bond market imploded on Thursday as traders raced to price in a better-than-even chance of a rate hike coming as soon as this year, to ensure the central bank meets a shock Ardern government mandate to keep housing affordable. The yield on the 10-year New Zealand government bond soared 18.5 basis points to 1.852 per cent. Australian 10-year government bonds rose in sympathy, trading 11 basis points higher at 1.718 per cent. The New Zealand currency edged down 0.1 per cent to US74.26¢ late in the session, but it’s trading around the highest level since August 2017. The bond market sell-off came after New Zealand’s finance minister, Grant Robertson, declared that the central bank’s remit will now change so that it has to consider housing when making monetary and financial policy decisions.
Specifically, the the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) will have to take into account “government policy relating to more sustainable house prices, while working towards its objectives,” the finance minister said. In effect, that will mean that the RBNZ has to weed out investor property demand, which low rates and easy credit have fuelled. It will need to regularly explain to the government “how it has sought to assess the impacts on housing outcomes”. The finance minister also asked the RBNZ to provide advice on debt-to-income ratios and interest-only mortgages. “The minister’s direction is in tune with our recent advice to the government in which we detailed the many influences on house prices, including the actions of the Reserve Bank,” said RBNZ governor Adrian Orr. Just a day ago, he said the RBNZ had the capacity to deploy negative rates if needed.
The RBNZ is forecasting that house prices will soar to 22 per cent annual growth by mid-year, as New Zealanders turn to the investment they are most familiar with and that has delivered big returns in the past – housing. The central bank slapped new restrictions on the housing market earlier this month, after warning that speculation is helping to fuel huge post-pandemic price gains. The December REINZ house price index rose an eye-watering 17.3 per cent year on year, with prices up 18.1 per cent in Auckland and 16.6 per cent outside Auckland. ANZ New Zealand fixed income strategist David Croy said markets interpreted the government’s move to change the RBNZ’s mandate to include housing as further confirmation that the economy is flying. The market “is simply seeing the government’s move as validation of the good news,” he said.
Since the Lincoln Project’s co-founder John Weaver was accused of sexually harassing multiple young men, the controversial anti-Trump group has received tens of millions in free media coverage, according to a new analysis. Weaver’s alleged misconduct broke in a story on January 11 in a report from the American Conservative, but Lincoln Project members have still been aplenty on both CNN and MSNBC – two networks that have heavily promoted the organization, run by anti-Trump Republicans, since its inception. According to the new analysis from the conservative Washington Free Beacon, media coverage between January 11 and February 11 for the group is worth a whopping $32 million, based on advertising value estimated by media monitoring service Critical Mention. In that time, there were 40 appearances by founders and advisers – 10 on CNN and 30 on MSNBC.
Earlier this month, Weaver resigned from the group he co-founded after being accused of making unwanted sexual advances on numerous young men, often offering professional advances in exchange for sexual favors. He apologized for sending “inappropriate” messages, but reports since have indicated his behavior was known about by others, including co-founder Steve Schmidt, who has denied such knowledge. Only hours after Weaver’s departure, Schmidt appeared on ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’, where he faced no questions about his fellow co-founder but was grilled about the group’s tens of millions in funding and where it goes. That subject has become yet another controversy for the group, as it has been revealed much of the money was funneled into separate organizations involved with the founders.
Pass it to Nancy and Kamala.
A group of about three dozen Democrats in the House have signed a letter calling for President Joe Biden to give up his sole authority to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons, which was obtained by Politico. “Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” reads the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., according to Politico. “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgment.” The letter continues, “While any president would presumably consult with advisors before ordering a nuclear attack, there is no requirement to do so. The military is obligated to carry out the order if they assess it is legal under the laws of war. Under the current posture of U.S. nuclear forces, that attack would happen in minutes.”
The congressman said in a tweet on Wednesday: “ICYMI: I’m calling on @POTUS to install checks & balances in our nuclear command-and-control structure. Past presidents have threatened nuclear attacks on other countries or exhibited concerning behavior that cast doubt on their judgment.” The Democrats suggest several alternatives to the president’s sole authority, including requiring other officials in the presidential line of succession, specifically the vice president and the House Speaker, neither of whom can be removed by the president if they disagree — to concur with a launch order.”
Which idiots signed that treaty?
On 4 February the German energy giant RWE announced it wassuing the government of the Netherlands. The crime? Proposing to phase out coal from the country’s electricity mix. The company, which is Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon, is demanding €1.4bn in ‘compensation’ from the country for loss of potential earnings, because the Dutch government has banned the burning of coal for electricity from 2030. If this sounds unreasonable, then you might be surprised to learn that this kind of legal action is perfectly normal – and likely to become far more commonplace in the coming years. RWE is suing under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), a little-known international agreement signed without much public debate in 1994.
The treaty binds more than 50 countries, and allows foreign investors in the energy sector to sue governments for decisions that might negatively impact their profits – including climate policies. Governments can be forced to pay huge sums in compensation if they lose an ECT case. On Tuesday, Investigate Europe revealed that the EU, the UK and Switzerland could be forced to pay more than €345bn in ECT lawsuits over climate action in the coming years. This amount, which is more than twice the EU’s annual budget, represents the total value of the fossil fuel infrastructure that is protected by the ECT, and was calculated using data gathered by Global Energy Monitor and Change of Oil International.
With ECT-covered assets worth €141bn (or more than €2,000 per citizen), the UK – which in 2019 became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law – is the country most vulnerable to future claims. In 2019 the European Commission called the ECT “outdated” and “no longer sustainable”, and more than 450 climate leaders and scientists and 300 lawmakers from across Europe have called on governments to withdraw from the treaty. But in response, powerful interests have mobilised to not just defend the treaty, but to expand it to new signatory states. These interests include the fossil fuels lobby keen to keep its outsized legal privileges; lawyers who make millions arguing ECT cases; and the Brussels-based ECT Secretariat, which has close ties to both industries and whose survival depends on the treaty’s continuation.
That graph is downright scary.
California’s Assembly is slated to consider a new bill requiring department store childrens’ sections to be largely “gender-neutral” in order to combat “prejudice” and “judgment” against gender non-conforming children. “Large retailers that sell toys, clothes, and other children’s items in California would have to devote floor space to merchandise marketed to both boys and girls under a new bill,” Politico reported earlier this week. “Stores would be able to sell the same products they do now as long as they maintain some areas where shoppers can find all toys or clothes, regardless of gender-based marketing, under CA AB2826 (19R) from Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell). It would apply to department stores with 500 or more employees beginning in 2023.”
Lowe told Politico that the idea for the bill, which he also introduced last year to little effect, came from one of his staffers, who claims her daughter wanted an item in the “boys” section but felt slighted because she felt the toy was designated for a male child. “This is an issue of children being able to express themselves without bias,” Lowe told the outlet. “Keeping similar items that are traditionally marketed either for girls or for boys separated makes it more difficult for the consumer to compare the products and incorrectly implies that their use by one gender is inappropriate,” the text of the bill notes.
We try to run the Automatic Earth on donations. Since ad revenue has collapsed, you are now not just a reader, but an integral part of the process that builds this site. Thank you for your support.
Support the Automatic Earth in 2021. Click at the top of the sidebars to donate with Paypal and Patreon.