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Sensemaker: Biden attacks poverty

Monday 8 March 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Meghan Markle said she contemplated suicide, and that an unnamed royal raised concerns about the colour of her son’s skin.
  • Schools reopened in England and the government said it was considering longer days and shorter holidays to make up for lost learning. 
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from house arrest in Tehran but faces a new court case on Sunday.

Biden attacks poverty

It won’t affect Meghan and Harry – the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that passed the US Senate on Saturday isn’t aimed at the Santa Barbara hacienda set. But it could accelerate America’s recovery by putting money in the hands of people who will actually spend it, and it could make Biden a consequential president by tackling poverty head-on. 

This bill is bottom up; it aims to do the exact opposite of Trump’s tax cuts. There are serious questions about whether Biden can pass a separate $2 trillion green infrastructure package, but they are for another day. For now what stands out about Biden’s first big legislative win are its size, its long-term impact and its dependence on another Joe:

  • It’s big. $1.9 trillion is three times what Senate Republicans wanted to spend on compensating low and middle earners for last year and extending Covid protections. It includes $1,400 cash payments for everyone making under $75,000 a year and enhanced unemployment benefits until September. 
  • It lasts. Long-term uplifts for the poor include dramatically expanded child tax credits and access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. Historically, Republicans have found it hard to roll back new entitlements once on the statute book. 
  • It scraped through the Senate by one vote, without a single Republican supporter, and only after late night haggling over unemployment benefits with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democrat who calls himself the “common sense middle”. He wanted, and got, lower payments than the left was hoping for.

So the bipartisanship Biden hoped for in his inauguration speech isn’t happening, already. The Republican position is that the economy is about to take off anyway, so hand-outs to people already on decent incomes are a waste of money that will only add more trillions to a federal debt that’s now higher in relation to GDP than at the end of World War Two. And Democrats didn’t want to risk the kind of stalemate that nearly wrecked Obamacare, so they prioritised a win.

The bill still has to be passed by the lower House, but should be signed this week, putting Biden in the odd position of being able to say Xi Jinping isn’t the only one lifting millions out of poverty. 

Next up: the $2 trillion climate plan that Biden campaigned hard on. Democrats may try to use the same “reconciliation” approach that saved them last week because it only needs a one-vote majority. If that doesn’t work, they’ll need 60 votes including those of ten Republicans. Pork, anyone?


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Life savers
On International Women’s Day, the Guardian reports that young women entering the UK workforce face a £100,000 shortfall in their pension pots relative to men by the end of their careers. The calculations are by Scottish Widows. Their starting point is an average gender pay gap of 10 per cent in favour of men at age 25 (£26,100 vs £23,700). Then men save on average £3,300 a year for their pensions for the next 15 years compared with £2,200 for women. The gap widens to the point that women, on average, would have to work an extra 40 years to build up the same pension pots as men.


New things technology, science, engineering

Thermal scammers 
Later this year it’s entirely possible that you will go to a sports event or a cinema and feel reassured by a bleeping thermal scanner taking everyone’s temperature as they enter as a first line of defence against resurgent Covid. Don’t be too reassured. Last week the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that some of these scanners missed tell-tale signs of Covid-induced fever and could therefore “present potentially serious public health risks”. The real culprits, according to the Washington Post, are cheap sensors in seven widely-used makes of scanner that can overreact to apparently high temperatures, and algorithms designed to compensate. Upshot: person with Covid passes scanner and infects multiple neighbours. Let’s crack on with vaccination.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Green investment
Guy Opperman, the UK’s pensions minister, has told the FT he “massively” believes that pension funds should continue to hold stakes in companies like Shell and BP rather than divesting under pressure from groups like Friends of the Earth and ShareAction. He says he wants to see “a partnership between trustees, asset managers, and the companies as these companies transform themselves into green energy companies”. There’s a legitimate argument to be made against over-abrupt divestment, and Opperman is an interesting MP who’s opposed development of opencast coal mining in his constituency. It’s just that these particular talking points could have been written for him by the companies he’s defending. So FoE gets the last word: “If the government is serious about showing leadership on climate ahead of COP26, it needs to stop fooling itself that continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies offers any solution to the climate crisis.”


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Hope for SMA babies
The most expensive drug ever approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) will be available on the NHS in England this year. It’s for the 80 or so babies born each year with spinal muscular atrophy, which can cause paralysis and is the leading genetic cause of death in infants. The drug costs nearly £1.8 million per dose, is administered only once and restores the function of a single faulty gene called SMN1. Zolgensma is made by Novartis Gene Therapies and was approved for use in the EU last year by the European Medicines Agency. Novartis defended the price as fair precisely because it’s a one-off treatment, and it’s hard to argue with the company’s claim that the potential for future treatment of other genetic conditions with single-dose drugs is “very exciting”.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Francis in Iraq
Over the weekend Pope Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 90-year-old leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should “live like all Iraqis in peace and security”. The Pope proceeded to Mosul, where he prayed in the ruins of churches destroyed by Isis in 2014, and held a mass in a stadium in Erbil, ending with the words “salam, salam, salam” – for peace. Anyone who forecast a papal visit to northern Iraq five years ago would have been dismissed as delusional. Demonstrations of faith in interfaith dialogue don’t get much more dramatic than this.

The week ahead

UK: 
8/3 – schools in England reopen; ONS publishes analysis of vaccine hesitancy; US climate envoy John Kerry visits London; Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey delivers speech on the UK economy, 9/3 – Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance appear before select committee session on pandemic preparedness; TV writer Graham Linehan appears before Lords committee session on freedom of expression online, 10/3 – vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch appear before select committee session on vaccine uptake among BAME communities and women; ONS publishes analysis of how Covid-19 affects men and women differently, 11/3 – cabinet office minister Lord Agnew delivers speech on procurement after Brexit; chancellor Rishi Sunak gives evidence to treasury committee on the Budget, 12/3 – ONS publishes monthly GDP estimate and trade figures; review of Welsh lockdown restrictions due, 13/3 – 25 years since Dunblane massacre, 14/3 – Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe due to appear in court in Tehran

World:
8/3 – International Women’s Day; jury selection begins in case of Derek Chauvin, charged with murder of George Floyd, 9/3 – OECD publishes global economic outlook; Japan and South Africa release fourth quarter GDP; German foreign minister Heiko Maas addresses Brookings Institution, 10/3 – pre-trial hearing for Kyle Rittenhouse, suspect in Kenosha shootings; press conference on interim findings of German investigation into Wirecard scandal, 11/3 – one year since WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic; China’s National People’s Congress closes with vote on changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, 13/3 – one year since fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor; Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, 14/3 – Grammy Awards

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs Getty Images

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