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What Adding Luxury Housing Does to Rents Elsewhere

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There’s a fierce argument about housing affordability and supply that’s raging in the urbanist community. The big question: Does building “luxury” (or market rate) housing in wealthy neighborhoods free up more housing for everyone? Advocates in the “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) movement say it does; others are more skeptical.  

The market-rate-skeptic’s view, as captured in Richard Florida’s write-up of a new paper by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper, paints a picture like this: Allowing new market-rate housing citywide will only result in high-end units in already-expensive neighborhoods. At best, developers may win big as the wealthy enjoy new homes. At worst, it could exacerbate segregation in wealthy neighborhoods and displacement in low-income neighborhoods.

The pro-market-rate position, championed by YIMBYs, is more optimistic: This view would concede that, though it’s true that new market-rate units will be expensive given the current scarcity of housing, new units will ease up demand for existing housing. Through a process known as filtering, this older housing gradually becomes more affordable to middle- and low-income households. This will ultimately mitigate displacement risk in more vulnerable communities.

A new working paper by economist Evan Mast of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research may help move the ball on this issue. Mast’s work suggests that even expensive new units in wealthy areas help relieve pressure on rents across the market, including in less-affluent neighborhoods. And that process doesn’t need to take years to unfold.

Until now, the argument for filtering has played out in the long run: Given a steady supply of new housing, older homes and apartments gradually grow more affordable, and households of all income levels gradually move into better housing. But many North American cities are in the grips of an urgent affordability crisis right now: Promises based on “the long run” can feel like cold comfort. What about the short run?

Mast looked at 802 new multifamily developments across 12 central cities, from the “Texas doughnuts” of Dallas to luxury high-rises in New York City. Using commercial address data, he found out the moving history of the residents of these new units. The first round of moves are roughly what you might expect: Approximately 70 percent came from nearby neighborhoods with above-average incomes, with the remaining 30 percent moving from below-average neighborhoods. These aren’t exactly inspiring results for activists focused on helping households at the bottom of the market.

But when a household moves into a new unit, they initiate a kind of housing musical chairs by vacating their existing unit. A second household then moves into that unit, in turn vacating a third unit. For each new market-rate building, Mast follows this trail of movers back through six moves, tracking where residents are moving from, a process he calls the migration chain. By the sixth link of this chain, Mast finds that approximately half of the movers are moving out of census tracts with below-median incomes. As many as 20 percent of movers are coming from the poorest tracts in the city.  

These findings suggest that housing markets aren’t nearly as segregated as some might fear, if you work your way down the migration chain far enough. His model suggests that for every 100 luxury units built in wealthier neighborhoods, as many as 48 households in moderate-income neighborhoods are able to move into housing that better suits their needs, vacating an existing unit in the process. Somewhere between 10 and 20 of these households are coming from among the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, vacating units and reducing demand where housing is most likely to be affordable for working families.

This suggests that even pricey new units could free up a lot of existing housing. Accounting for possibilities like units sitting vacant, out-of-town movers filling the units, or units being used as second homes/pied-a-terres/safe deposit boxes in the sky, Mast’s model still indicates that for every 100 new market-rate units built, approximately 65 equivalent units are created by movers vacating existing units. If the migration chain is as robust as this paper finds it to be, as much as half of theses newly vacated units could be in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. This new supply, combined with less demand, could play a major role in easing pressure on rents in the short run.

No one paper is likely to settle a debate this contentious, but if further research vindicates Mast’s findings, his model could have serious implications for housing policy. For starters, the case against allowing new market-rate housing in high-income neighborhoods would be considerably weakened. And, as Daniel Herriges points out over on Strong Towns, it could also call into question well-meaning policies that suppress the construction of new housing, such as inclusionary zoning.

That doesn’t mean we can expect an end to Great Housing Supply Debate of 2019: It’s clear that deeper issues divide the urbanism community. But in the meantime, we can recognize Mast’s work for what it is: a glimmer of empiricism that helps pierce an increasingly dense fog of ideological theory.

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14 hours ago
I'll be the first to admit, a 100-to-65 ratio wouldn't be great for a government investment project. But for private capital that's not even trying to invest in the needs of the working class and poor, this is about as good as it gets.
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1 day ago
If you haven't seen it yet...
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'A Very Stable Genius' book excerpt: Inside Trump's stunning tirade against generals

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Hanging prominently on one of the walls is The Peacemakers, a painting that depicts an 1865 Civil War strategy session with President Abraham Lincoln and his three service chiefs — Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. One hundred fifty-​­two years after Lincoln hatched plans to preserve the Union, President Trump’s advisers staged an intervention inside the Tank to try to preserve the world order.

By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.

Trump organized his unorthodox worldview under the simplistic banner of “America First,” but Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn feared his proposals were rash, barely considered, and a danger to America’s superpower standing. They also felt that many of Trump’s impulsive ideas stemmed from his lack of familiarity with U.S. history and, even, where countries were located. To have a useful discussion with him, the trio agreed, they had to create a basic knowledge, a shared language.

So on July 20, 2017, Mattis invited Trump to the Tank for what he, Tillerson, and Cohn had carefully organized as a tailored tutorial. What happened inside the Tank that day crystallized the commander in chief’s berating, derisive and dismissive manner, foreshadowing decisions such as the one earlier this month that brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. The Tank meeting was a turning point in Trump’s presidency. Rather than getting him to appreciate America’s traditional role and alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts who believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more dangerous impulses.

The episode has been documented numerous times, but subsequent reporting reveals a more complete picture of the moment and the chilling effect Trump’s comments and hostility had on the nation’s military and national security leadership.

Just before 10 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon. He stepped out of his motorcade, walked along a corridor with portraits honoring former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and stepped inside the Tank. The uniformed officers greeted their commander in chief. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. sat in the seat of honor midway down the table, because this was his room, and Trump sat at the head of the table facing a projection screen. Mattis and the newly confirmed deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, sat to the president’s left, with Vice President Pence and Tillerson to his right. Down the table sat the leaders of the military branches, along with Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon was in the outer ring of chairs with other staff, taking his seat just behind Mattis and directly in Trump’s line of sight.

Mattis, Cohn, and Tillerson and their aides decided to use maps, graphics, and charts to tutor the president, figuring they would help keep him from getting bored. Mattis opened with a slide show punctuated by lots of dollar signs. Mattis devised a strategy to use terms the impatient president, schooled in real estate, would appreciate to impress upon him the value of U.S. investments abroad. He sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.

An opening line flashed on the screen, setting the tone: “The post-war international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation.” Mattis then gave a 20-minute briefing on the power of the NATO alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon thought to himself, “Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit.” The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump.

“Oh, baby, this is going to be f---ing wild,” Bannon thought. “If you stood up and threatened to shoot [Trump], he couldn’t say ‘postwar rules-based international order.’ It’s just not the way he thinks.”

For the next 90 minutes, Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn took turns trying to emphasize their points, pointing to their charts and diagrams. They showed where U.S. personnel were positioned, at military bases, CIA stations, and embassies, and how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells, nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Korea Peninsula, and Syria. Cohn spoke for about 20 minutes about the value of free trade with America’s allies, emphasizing how he saw each trade agreement working together as part of an overall structure to solidify U.S. economic and national security.

Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson. He heard an adviser say a word or phrase and then seized on that to interject with his take. For instance, the word “base” prompted him to launch in to say how “crazy” and “stupid” it was to pay for bases in some countries.

Trump’s first complaint was to repeat what he had vented about to his national security adviser months earlier: South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it, proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or bill the South Koreans for their protection.

“We should charge them rent,” Trump said of South Korea. “We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.”

Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues.

“They’re in arrears,” Trump said, reverting to the language of real estate. He lifted both his arms at his sides in frustration. Then he scolded top officials for the untold millions of dollars he believed they had let slip through their fingers by allowing allies to avoid their obligations.

“We are owed money you haven’t been collecting!” Trump told them. “You would totally go bankrupt if you had to run your own business.”

Mattis wasn’t trying to convince the president of anything, only to explain and provide facts. Now things were devolving quickly. The general tried to calmly explain to the president that he was not quite right. The NATO allies didn’t owe the United States back rent, he said. The truth was more complicated. NATO had a nonbinding goal that members should pay at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their defenses. Only five of the countries currently met that goal, but it wasn’t as if they were shorting the United States on the bill.

More broadly, Mattis argued, the NATO alliance was not serving only to protect western Europe. It protected America, too. “This is what keeps us safe,” Mattis said. Cohn tried to explain to Trump that he needed to see the value of the trade deals. “These are commitments that help keep us safe,” Cohn said.

Bannon interjected. “Stop, stop, stop,” he said. “All you guys talk about all these great things, they’re all our partners, I want you to name me now one country and one company that’s going to have his back.”

Trump then repeated a threat he’d made countless times before. He wanted out of the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama had struck in 2015, which called for Iran to reduce its uranium stockpile and cut its nuclear program.

“It’s the worst deal in history!” Trump declared.

“Well, actually . . .,” Tillerson interjected.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Trump said, cutting off the secretary of state before he could explain some of the benefits of the agreement. “They’re cheating. They’re building. We’re getting out of it. I keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want out of it.”

Before they could debate the Iran deal, Trump erupted to revive another frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America’s longest war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.

“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”

Trump questioned why the United States couldn’t get some oil as payment for the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off,” Trump boomed. “Where is the f---ing oil?”

Trump seemed to be speaking up for the voters who elected him, and several attendees thought they heard Bannon in Trump’s words. Bannon had been trying to persuade Trump to withdraw forces by telling him, “The American people are saying we can’t spend a trillion dollars a year on this. We just can’t. It’s going to bankrupt us.”

“And not just that, the deplorables don’t want their kids in the South China Sea at the 38th parallel or in Syria, in Afghanistan, in perpetuity,” Bannon would add, invoking Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.

Trump mused about removing General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in charge of troops in Afghanistan. “I don’t think he knows how to win,” the president said, impugning Nicholson, who was not present at the meeting.

Dunford tried to come to Nicholson’s defense, but the mild-mannered general struggled to convey his points to the irascible president.

“Mr. President, that’s just not . . .,” Dunford started. “We’ve been under different orders.”

Dunford sought to explain that he hadn’t been charged with annihilating the enemy in Afghanistan but was instead following a strategy started by the Obama administration to gradually reduce the military presence in the country in hopes of training locals to maintain a stable government so that eventually the United States could pull out. Trump shot back in more plain language.

“I want to win,” he said. “We don’t win any wars anymore . . . We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.”

Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn’t taking many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now.

“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.

Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”

For a president known for verbiage he euphemistically called “locker room talk,” this was the gravest insult he could have delivered to these people, in this sacred space. The flag officers in the room were shocked. Some staff began looking down at their papers, rearranging folders, almost wishing themselves out of the room. A few considered walking out. They tried not to reveal their revulsion on their faces, but questions raced through their minds. “How does the commander in chief say that?” one thought. “What would our worst adversaries think if they knew he said this?”

This was a president who had been labeled a “draft dodger” for avoiding service in the Vietnam War under questionable circumstances. Trump was a young man born of privilege and in seemingly perfect health: six feet two inches with a muscular build and a flawless medical record. He played several sports, including football. Then, in 1968 at age 22, he obtained a diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that exempted him from military service just as the United States was drafting men his age to fulfill massive troop deployments to Vietnam.

Tillerson in particular was stunned by Trump’s diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes, others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson thought to himself, “Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren’t you saying something?”

But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment that Mattis was genetically a Marine, unable to talk back to his commander in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.

The more perplexing silence was from Pence, a leader who should have been able to stand up to Trump. Instead, one attendee thought, “He’s sitting there frozen like a statue. Why doesn’t he stop the president?” Another recalled the vice president was “a wax museum guy.” From the start of the meeting, Pence looked as if he wanted to escape and put an end to the president’s torrent. Surely, he disagreed with Trump’s characterization of military leaders as “dopes and babies,” considering his son, Michael, was a Marine first lieutenant then training for his naval aviator wings. But some surmised Pence feared getting crosswise with Trump. “A total deer in the headlights,” recalled a third attendee.

Others at the table noticed Trump’s stream of venom had taken an emotional toll. So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he couldn’t stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump’s tirade, this one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.

“No, that’s just wrong,” the secretary of state said. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”

Tillerson’s father and uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was deeply proud of their service.

“The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune,” Tillerson said. “That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die . . . They do it to protect our freedom.”

There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down his guard.

“He’s a f---ing moron,” the secretary of state said of the president.

The plan by Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn to train the president to appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.

“We were starting to get out on the wrong path, and we really needed to have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things,” said one senior official involved in the planning. “We needed to change how he thinks about this, to course correct. Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with that sentiment. [But] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views.”

A few days later, Pence’s national security adviser, Andrea Thompson, a retired Army colonel who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, reached out to thank Tillerson for speaking up on behalf of the military and the public servants who had been in the Tank. By September 2017, she would leave the White House and join Tillerson at Foggy Bottom as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs.

The Tank meeting had so thoroughly shocked the conscience of military leaders that they tried to keep it a secret. At the Aspen Security Forum two days later, longtime NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Dunford how Trump had interacted during the Tank meeting. The Joint Chiefs chairman misleadingly described the meeting, skipping over the fireworks.

“He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders — and he will come in and question those,” Dunford told Mitchell on July 22. “It’s a pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue.”

One victim of the Tank meeting was Trump’s relationship with Tillerson, which forever after was strained. The secretary of state came to see it as the beginning of the end. It would only worsen when news that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” was first reported in October 2017 by NBC News.

Trump once again gathered his generals and top diplomats in December 2017 for a meeting as part of the administration’s ongoing strategy talks about troop deployments in Afghanistan in the Situation Room, a secure meeting room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Trump didn’t like the Situation Room as much as the Pentagon’s Tank, because he didn’t think it had enough gravitas. It just wasn’t impressive.

But there Trump was, struggling to come up with a new Afghanistan policy and frustrated that so many U.S. forces were deployed in so many places around the world. The conversation began to tilt in the same direction as it had in the Tank back in July.

“All these countries need to start paying us for the troops we are sending to their countries. We need to be making a profit,” Trump said. “We could turn a profit on this.”

Dunford tried to explain to the president once again, gently, that troops deployed in these regions provided stability there, which helped make America safer. Another officer chimed in that charging other countries for U.S. soldiers would be against the law.

“But it just wasn’t working,” one former Trump aide recalled. “Nothing worked.”

Following the Tank meeting, Tillerson had told his aides that he would never silently tolerate such demeaning talk from Trump about making money off the deployments of U.S. soldiers. Tillerson’s father, at the age of 17, had committed to enlist in the Navy on his next birthday, wanting so much to serve his country in World War II. His great-uncle was a career officer in the Navy as well. Both men had been on his mind, Tillerson told aides, when Trump unleashed his tirade in the Tank and again when he repeated those points in the Situation Room in December.

“We need to get our money back,” Trump told his assembled advisers.

That was it. Tillerson stood up. But when he did so, he turned his back to the president and faced the flag officers and the rest of the aides in the room. He didn’t want a repeat of the scene in the Tank.

“I’ve never put on a uniform, but I know this,” Tillerson said. “Every person who has put on a uniform, the people in this room, they don’t do it to make a buck. They did it for their country, to protect us. I want everyone to be clear about how much we as a country value their service.”

Tillerson’s rebuke made Trump angry. He got a little red in the face. But the president decided not to engage Tillerson at that moment. He would wait to take him on another day.

Later that evening, after 8:00, Tillerson was working in his office at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, preparing for the next day. The phone rang. It was Dunford. The Joint Chiefs chairman’s voice was unsteady with emotion. Dunford had much earlier joked with Tillerson that in past administrations the secretaries of state and Defense Department leaders wouldn’t be caught dead walking on the same side of the street, for their rivalry was that fierce. But now, as both men served Trump, they were brothers joined against what they saw as disrespect for service members. Dunford thanked Tillerson for standing up for them in the Situation Room.

“You took the body blows for us,” Dunford said. “Punch after punch. Thank you. I will never forget it.”

Tillerson, Dunford, and Mattis would not take those body blows for much longer. They failed to rein in Trump’s impulses or to break through what they regarded as the president’s stubborn, even dangerous insistence that he knew best. Piece by piece, the guardrails that had hemmed in the chaos of Trump’s presidency crumpled.

In March 2018, Trump abruptly fired Tillerson while the secretary of state was halfway across the globe on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Africa to ease tensions caused by Trump’s demeaning insults about African countries. Trump gave Tillerson no rationale for his firing, and afterward acted as if they were buddies, inviting him to come by the Oval Office to take a picture and have the president sign it. Tillerson never went.

Mattis continued serving as the defense secretary, but the president’s sudden decision in December 2018 to withdraw troops from Syria and abandon America’s Kurdish allies there — one the president soon reversed, only to remake 10 months later — inspired him to resign. Mattis saw Trump’s desired withdrawal as an assault on a soldier’s code. “He began to feel like he was becoming complicit,” recalled one of the secretary’s confidants.

The media interpretation of Mattis’ resignation letter as a scathing rebuke of Trump’s worldview brought the president’s anger to a boiling point. Trump decided to remove Mattis two months ahead of the secretary’s chosen departure date. His treatment of Mattis upset the secretary’s staff. They decided to arrange the biggest clap out they could. The event was a tradition for all departing secretaries. They wanted a line of Pentagon personnel that stretched for a mile applauding Mattis as he left for the last time. It was going to be “yuge,” staffers joked, borrowing from Trump’s glossary.

But Mattis would not allow it.

“No, we are not doing that,” he told his aides. “You don’t understand the president. I work with him. You don’t know him like I do. He will take it out on Shanahan and Dunford.”

Dunford stayed on until September 2019, retiring at the conclusion of his four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of Dunford’s first public acts after leaving office was to defend a military officer attacked by Trump, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry about his worries over Trump’s conduct with Ukraine. Trump dismissed Vindman as a “Never Trumper,” but Dunford stepped forward to praise the Purple Heart recipient as “a professional, competent, patriotic, and loyal officer. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the security of our nation.”

By then, however, Trump had become a president entirely unrestrained. He had replaced his raft of seasoned advisers with a cast of enablers who executed his orders and engaged his obsessions. They saw their mission as telling the president yes.

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2 days ago
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2 days ago
Sounds like someone should have one of those shock collars on the neck of el presidente. Strong enough to knock him out. God knows, he probably wouldn't even notice after coming to again.
2 days ago
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Russian Premier Resigns, as Putin Calls for Constitutional Overhaul

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MOSCOW — Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia abruptly resigned on Wednesday, shortly after his political patron, President Vladimir V. Putin, sent the country’s political elite into a swirl of speculation with proposals for sweeping constitutional changes that could extend his hold on power for many years.

Mr. Medvedev’s cabinet also resigned.

In a statement issued by the Russian news agency Tass, Mr. Medvedev, a lawyer who has known Mr. Putin since they worked together in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, linked the unexpected resignations to an overhaul put forward earlier on Wednesday by Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin proposed amending the Russian Constitution to expand the powers of Parliament and a body called the State Council, which currently carries little weight.

Mr. Medvedev said those moves would “introduce significant changes” to “the balance of power” between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Mr. Putin named him as deputy head of the Kremlin Security Council, a powerful body that includes defense and security officials.

It was not immediately clear whether the resignations signaled a rift at the top of Russia’s hierarchy or were part of a coordinated but as-yet-unclear plan by Mr. Putin to reshape the political system that has been in place with only minor adjustments since the early 1990s.

Mr. Putin described the proposed constitutional changes in his annual state of the nation address as an effort to enhance democracy. They would be the first major overhaul of Russia’s political system since 1993, when the country’s first democratically elected president, Boris N. Yeltsin, sent tanks into the center of Moscow to subdue a rebellious legislature and then ordered a referendum to endorse a new constitution.

Mr. Putin, on a roll abroad but becalmed at home by Russia’s stagnant economy, has a long record of wrong-footing friends and foes, and he has ensured that he has remained the arbiter on all important decisions in Russia since Mr. Yeltsin resigned on Dec 31, 1999.

The Constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms, meaning that without a change, Mr. Putin would have to step down in 2024.

The last time Mr. Putin faced the two-term limit, in 2008, Mr. Medvedev was elected president. Mr. Putin became prime minister, though he remained the real power in the government, and he returned to the presidency in 2012, when Mr. Medvedev became prime minister.

Mr. Putin, who has hinted at staying in power beyond 2024, could be planning a similar move, becoming the prime minister at the helm of a newly empowered Parliament, or head of the state council. But he offered few details on Wednesday about how governing power would be redistributed and gave no hint of his own plans.

When Mr. Medvedev held the presidency, he and his patron were not always in sync, to the annoyance of Mr. Putin, who undid several of his measures.

In particular, Mr. Putin was angry that Mr. Medvedev had declined to use a United Nations veto in 2011 to block airstrikes against Libya, attacks that helped topple the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

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Labor Dept. Rule to Curb Lawsuits by Franchise Workers

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Workers could have more difficulty suing large companies for wrongdoing by contractors or franchisees under a rule announced on Sunday by the Labor Department.

Under the rule, which will take effect in March, employees of a fast-food franchise like a McDonald’s restaurant, for example, may struggle to win a legal claim against the parent company if a franchisee violates minimum-wage and overtime laws.

“This final rule furthers President Trump’s successful, governmentwide effort to address regulations that hinder the American economy and to promote economic growth,” Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a statement.

The rule, which the department proposed last April, fleshes out its position on a concept known as joint employment. It effectively replaces a more labor-friendly Obama-era approach that the Trump administration withdrew in 2017, one of several departures from the previous administration in the area of employment and labor law.

After the rule takes effect, it could limit the ability of millions of workers to recover wages they are owed.

The contractors and franchisees that directly employ workers often have limited resources to pay legal penalties and settlements, making the large upstream companies with whom these employers have a relationship a more practical target.

“This resolution provides much-needed clarity for the 733,000 franchise establishments across America,” said Robert Cresanti, the president and chief executive of the International Franchise Association, an industry group.

Advocates for worker have criticized the rule, arguing that it provides a road map of sorts for employers seeking to avoid liability for harmful practices.

Under the new rule, whether a company like McDonald’s is a joint employer and could be held liable for violations committed by a franchisee hinges on four factors: whether it hires and fires employees of the franchisee; whether it supervises the employees and controls their schedules; whether it determines their pay; and whether it manages their employment records.

A company would typically have to meet some or all of these criteria to be considered a joint employer.

By contrast, under the approach set out by Barack Obama’s Labor Department, a broader set of “economic realities” dictated whether the company should be considered a joint employer — among them, the degree of dependence of workers on the upstream company. For example, a company could be considered a joint employer of a contractor’s employees if it provided facilities and equipment for the workers, and if the workers were easy to replace, even if the company didn’t supervise the workers or hire and fire them.

Catherine Ruckelshaus, the general counsel of the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, said that the department’s new rule essentially offers guidance to the courts, which courts aren’t bound to follow. But, she added, the rule could still have significant practical impact because “many workers and employers and courts follow D.O.L. guidance.”


The department’s new rule is in line with a similar proposal by the National Labor Relations Board from 2018 that seeks to make it more difficult for employees of franchisees and contractors to hold parent companies liable for labor law violations, like firing workers because they are trying to unionize.

Under a ruling the labor board handed down during the Obama administration, a company could be considered a joint employer of workers at a contractor or franchisee if it exercised indirect control over them, not just direct control. But under the rule that the board proposed in 2018, the form of control would have to be “substantial, direct and immediate” for the company to be considered a joint employer. That would make it significantly less likely that large companies would be found liable.

The labor board is expected to finalize its own rule in the coming weeks.

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7 days ago
Elections matter, etc...
New York, NY
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Never-before-seen virus may be behind mystery outbreak in China

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A mysterious outbreak of viral pneumonia linked to a wild-animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan may be caused by a never-before-seen virus, according to preliminary reports.

Officials in neighboring areas, meanwhile, are screening travelers for symptoms and planning quarantine zones to try to prevent any potential spread of the mystery disease.

As of Sunday, January 5, Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a total of 59 cases, including seven critically ill patients. There have been no reported deaths.

Those sickened are being held in isolation in medical facilities in Wuhan. Their main symptom is fever, according to the World Health Organization. But some patients have also experienced trouble breathing, and chest X-rays have shown invasive lesions in both lungs.

Though Wuhan health officials are closely monitoring 163 people who had close contact with those sickened, there's no evidence so far that the illness is spreading from person-to-person. No medical staff members have become ill in the outbreak, either. Those are both promising signs for containing the outbreak and stamping out the disease.

Wuhan officials report that the outbreak erupted in the latter half of December. Among the cases identified so far, the earliest onset of symptoms was pinned to December 12 and the latest illness began December 29.

Survey data collected during that window indicated that some patients with the mysterious pneumonia were working at the Wuhan South China Seafood City. The market sold seafood but also chickens, bats, marmots, and other wild animals. According to The Washington Post, it was a 1,000-booth bazaar that state media reports labeled as "filthy and messy."

Officials shut down the market January 1 and reported that it has been thoroughly sanitized.

Shadow of SARS

Such markets are notorious for helping spawn and spread disease. They often cram humans together with a variety of live animals, which may tote their own menageries of pathogens. Such close quarters, meat preparation, and poor hygienic conditions in the markets offer viruses an inordinate number of opportunities to recombine with each other, mutate, and leap to new species, including humans.

After the 2003 SARS outbreak, for instance, SARS-like viruses were found in masked palm civets and raccoon dogs sold for food in live-animal street markets in southern China, where the virus first emerged. Later, researchers also found the viruses circulating in China's horseshoe bat populations.

The outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in humans sparked panic as it spread to more than two dozen countries. It ultimately sickened over 8,000 people worldwide, killing 774.

Determined to keep such an outbreak from spreading like that again, regions near Wuhan are stepping up precautions amid the mystery illnesses. Hong Kong, for instance, has granted authorities quarantine powers for suspected cases, and residents there are stocking up on protective face masks and gowns. Thailand is screening airline passengers arriving from Wuhan, and authorities in Vietnam are tightening health checks at border gates.

Meanwhile, experts in Wuhan are working to figure out exactly what is causing the outbreak. Officials on Sunday said that "respiratory pathogens such as influenza, avian influenza, adenovirus, infectious atypical pneumonia (SARS), and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have been excluded. Pathogen identification and cause tracing are still underway."

Virus más fina

This morning, January 8, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese scientists had identified a novel coronavirus in samples taken from one patient. The virus subsequently matched samples taken from some—but not all—other cases. The report was based on unnamed sources said to be familiar with the health investigation.

Coronaviruses are a species of virus named for the halo-like (corona) appearance they have under a microscope. Species members are known to cause common, mild-to-moderate respiratory infections in humans as well as rare, severe infections. SARS and MERS are both caused by coronaviruses. The species also causes respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver, and neurologic disease in animals, such as cats, dogs, mice, and birds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the WSJ, the coronavirus found during the current outbreak was similar to SARS-precursor viruses found in bats. But the report notes that Wuhan investigators haven't concluded that the novel virus is behind the outbreak.

Regardless of the cause, health experts in China are optimistic that the outbreak will be contained and that response efforts will be better than they were during the SARS outbreak. Xu Jianguo, a former top Chinese public health official, noted to The Washington Post in a report today that "More than a decade has passed. It's impossible for something like SARS to happen again."

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11 days ago
If I wanted to find a way to get pathogens to cross from species to species this is how I would make it happen: "The market sold seafood but also chickens, bats, marmots, and other wild animals."
New York, NY
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New York Governor vetoes bill that would have made electric scooters legal

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On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a widely supported bill that would have legalized electric bicycles and scooters. The bill was the result of extensive negotiations and compromises that sought to balance a set of competing interests. But in vetoing the bill, Cuomo cited an interest that he felt hadn't been properly considered: public safety, specifically the lack of a helmet requirement.

By waiting until the end of the year to veto the bill, Cuomo has left the legislature without an opportunity to override this veto, meaning the whole process will have to start again next year.

The whole situation has been extremely complex due to the number of technologies and constituencies involved. On the tech front, there are several types of vehicles, including the pedal-assist e-bikes

we test rode

earlier this year. These require the user to pedal before the motor will act and are typically limited to speeds of just under 30mph. Separately, there are electric bikes where the motor will operate without the user doing anything other than operating a throttle, which have become favorites of the legions of food delivery people in New York City.

Technically, however, the latter are motorized vehicles, and therefore subject to vehicle registration rules—or they would be, if the state's vehicle registration rules allowed that. This has enabled the police to fine delivery riders at will, leading to accusations that the lack of policy was anti-immigrant and/or a form of class warfare.

Finally, there are scooters and related items like motorized skateboards and balance boards, which also fall into the motorized vehicle category. Here, the push for legalization came largely from the scooter rental companies. But a feature central to their business model—store the scooters in public spaces—raised fears of chaos on the already crowded New York City sidewalks. These would also compete with the popular citi-bike program that rolled out with heavy government support.

In addition to the question of what you can ride, there's the issue of where you can ride it. New York City has put a lot of effort into producing space for bicyclists to ride free of the dangers provided by motorized vehicles, putting in physically separated bike lanes on streets, in parks, and across many of the city's iconic bridges. In the absence of any rules, these lanes have become free-for-alls, leaving bicyclists dodging powered vehicles that could travel well in excess of 20 miles an hour uphill.

Balancing all of these complications probably explains why the legalization process has been so slow in the Empire State. But this year, the legislature managed to forge a number of compromises. All of the vehicles would be legalized without requiring state registration. Electric scooter rentals would be prohibited in Manhattan; access to the remaining markets in the state was enough to get the rental companies on board. And, while electric vehicles would be allowed in most bike lanes, they'd be kept off the popular loop around the Manhattan waterfront.

Food deliveries would occur without incident.

But nearby Elizabeth New Jersey had legalized scooters earlier in the year, only to see a rider killed in a collision with a tow truck shortly after. That may have helped motivate Cuomo's demand for mandatory helmet use to be included with any bill. (The state mandates helmets for bicyclists under the age of 14.) The relatively high speeds achievable on some bikes and scooters would provide further motivation.

Still, that doesn't explain Cuomo's decision to hold his veto until after it was too late for the legislature to modify the bill during this year's legislative session. Due to the wide support it achieved (it passed the state Senate by a 56-5 vote) and the number of constituencies interested in seeing something pass, it will almost certainly be back in 2020.

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22 days ago
Clearly this is a failure of the NY legislative process if the governor can veto bills at the last minute where a veto isn't possible. What a laughing stock the separation of powers is in NY state.
New York, NY
22 days ago
Washington, DC
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