A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.
Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.
Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePass into bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.
tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.
“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”
Some of these companies have been tightening their belts for years. But the pandemic seems to have emptied what was left of the bargain bin. The average Uber and Lyft ride costs 40 percent more than it did a year ago, according to Rakuten Intelligence, and food delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub have been steadily increasing their fees over the past year. The average daily rate of an Airbnb rental increased 35 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared with the same quarter the year before, according to the company’s financial filings.
set up a $250 million “driver stimulus” fund — or doing away with them altogether.
I’ll confess that I gleefully took part in this subsidized economy for years. (My colleague Kara Swisher memorably called it “assisted living for millennials.”) I got my laundry delivered by Washio, my house cleaned by Homejoy and my car valet-parked by Luxe — all start-ups that promised cheap, revolutionary on-demand services but shut down after failing to turn a profit. I even bought a used car through a venture-backed start-up called Beepi, which offered white-glove service and mysteriously low prices, and which delivered the car to me wrapped in a giant bow, like you see in TV commercials. (Unsurprisingly, Beepi shut down in 2017, after burning through $150 million in venture capital.)
These subsidies don’t always end badly for investors. Some venture-backed companies, like Uber and DoorDash, have been able to grit it out until their I.P.O.s, making good on their promise that investors would eventually see a return on their money. Other companies have been acquired or been able to successfully raise their prices without scaring customers away.
Uber, which raised nearly $20 billion in venture capital before going public, may be the best-known example of an investor-subsidized service. During a stretch of 2015, the company was burning $1 million a week in driver and rider incentives in San Francisco alone, according to reporting by BuzzFeed News.
But the clearest example of a jarring pivot to profitability might be the electric scooter business.
Remember scooters? Before the pandemic, you couldn’t walk down the sidewalk of a major American city without seeing one. Part of the reason they took off so quickly is that they were ludicrously cheap. Bird, the largest scooter start-up, charged $1 to start a ride, and then 15 cents a minute. For short trips, renting a scooter was often cheaper than taking the bus.
But those fees didn’t represent anything close to the true cost of a Bird ride. The scooters broke frequently and needed constant replacing, and the company was shoveling money out the door just to keep its service going. As of 2019, Bird was losing $9.66 for every $10 it made on rides, according to a recent investor presentation. That is a shocking number, and the kind of sustained losses that are possible only for a Silicon Valley start-up with extremely patient investors. (Imagine a deli that charged $10 for a sandwich whose ingredients cost $19.66, and then imagine how long that deli would stay in business.)
Pandemic-related losses, coupled with the pressure to turn a profit, forced Bird to trim its sails. It raised its prices — a Bird now costs as much as $1 plus 42 cents a minute in some cities — built more durable scooters and revamped its fleet management system. During the second half of 2020, the company made $1.43 in profit for every $10 ride.
“DoorDash and Pizza Arbitrage,” about the time he realized that DoorDash was selling pizzas from his friend’s restaurant for $16 while paying the restaurant $24 per pizza, and proceeded to order dozens of pizzas from the restaurant while pocketing the $8 difference, stands as a classic of the genre.)
But it’s hard to fault these investors for wanting their companies to turn a profit. And, at a broader level, it’s probably good to find more efficient uses for capital than giving discounts to affluent urbanites.
Back in 2018, I wrote that the entire economy was starting to resemble MoviePass, the subscription service whose irresistible, deeply unprofitable offer of daily movie tickets for a flat $9.95 subscription fee paved the way for its decline. Companies like MoviePass, I thought, were trying to defy the laws of gravity with business models that assumed that if they achieved enormous scale, they’d be able to flip a switch and start making money at some point down the line. (This philosophy, which was more or less invented by Amazon, is now known in tech circles as “blitzscaling.”)
There is still plenty of irrationality in the market, and some start-ups still burn huge piles of money in search of growth. But as these companies mature, they seem to be discovering the benefits of financial discipline. Uber lost only $108 million in the first quarter of 2021 — a change partly attributable to the sale of its autonomous driving unit, and a vast improvement, believe it or not, over the same quarter last year, when it lost $3 billion. Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to become profitable on an adjusted basis this year. Lime, Bird’s main electric scooter competitor, turned its first quarterly profit last year, and Bird — which recently filed to go public through a SPAC at a $2.3 billion valuation — has projected better economics in the years ahead.
Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.
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SAN ANTONIO HUISTA, Guatemala — An American contractor went to a small town in the Guatemalan mountains with an ambitious goal: to ignite the local economy, and hopefully even persuade people not to migrate north to the United States.
Half an hour into his meeting with coffee growers, the contractor excitedly revealed the tool he had brought to change their lives: a pamphlet inviting the farmers to download an app to check coffee prices and “be a part of modern agriculture.”
Pedro Aguilar, a coffee farmer who hadn’t asked for the training and didn’t see how it would keep anyone from heading for the border, looked confused. Eyeing the U.S. government logo on the pamphlet, he began waving it around, asking if anyone had a phone number to call the Americans “and tell them what our needs really are.”
soared in 2019 and is on the upswing once more.
have risen, malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is unbridled and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the United States than anywhere else in the world.
That is the stark reality facing Ms. Harris as she assumes responsibility for expanding the same kind of aid programs that have struggled to stem migration in the past. It is a challenge that initially frustrated her top political aides, some of whom viewed the assignment from Mr. Biden as one that would inevitably set her up for failure in the first months of her tenure.
Her allies worried that she would be expected to solve the entire immigration crisis, irked that the early reports of her new duties appeared to hold her responsible for juggling the recent surge of children crossing the border without adults.
linked to drug traffickers and accused of embezzling American aid money, the leader of El Salvador has been denounced for trampling democratic norms and the government of Guatemala has been criticized for persecuting officials fighting corruption.
Even so, Ms. Harris and her advisers have warmed to the task, according to several people familiar with her thinking in the White House. They say it will give her a chance to dive squarely into foreign policy and prove that she can pass the commander-in-chief test, negotiating with world leaders on a global stage to confront one of America’s most intractable issues.
critics denounced as unlawful and inhumane. Moreover, members of the current administration contend that Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze a portion of the aid to the region in 2019 ended up blunting the impact of the work being done to improve conditions there.
But experts say the reasons that years of aid have not curbed migration run far deeper than that. In particular, they note that much of the money is handed over to American companies, which swallow a lot of it for salaries, expenses and profits, often before any services are delivered.
Record numbers of Central American children and families were crossing, fleeing gang violence and widespread hunger.
independent studies have found.
“All activities funded with U.S.A.I.D.’s foreign assistance benefit countries and people overseas, even if managed through agreements with U.S.-based organizations,” said Mileydi Guilarte, a deputy assistant administrator at U.S.A.I.D. working on Latin America funding.
But the government’s own assessments don’t always agree. After evaluating five years of aid spending in Central America, the Government Accountability Office rendered a blunt assessment in 2019: “Limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security.”
One U.S.A.I.D. evaluation of programs intended to help Guatemalan farmers found that from 2006 to 2011, incomes rose less in the places that benefited from U.S. aid than in similar areas where there was no intervention.
Mexico has pushed for a more radical approach, urging the United States to give cash directly to Central Americans affected by two brutal hurricanes last year. But there’s also a clear possibility — that some may simply use the money to pay a smuggler for the trip across the border.
The farmers of San Antonio Huista say they know quite well what will keep their children from migrating. Right now, the vast majority of people here make their money by selling green, unprocessed coffee beans to a few giant Guatemalan companies. This is a fine way to put food on the table — assuming the weather cooperates — but it doesn’t offer much more than subsistence living.
Farmers here have long dreamed of escaping that cycle by roasting their own coffee and selling brown beans in bags to American businesses and consumers, which brings in more money.
“Instead of sending my brother, my father, my son to the United States, why not send my coffee there, and get paid in dollars?” said Esteban Lara, the leader of a local coffee cooperative.
But when they begged a U.S. government program for funding to help develop such a business, Ms. Monzón said, they were told “the money is not designed to be invested in projects like that.”
These days, groups of her neighbors are leaving for the United States every month or two. So many workers have abandoned this town that farmers are scrambling to find laborers to harvest their coffee.
One of Ms. Monzón’s oldest employees, Javier López Pérez, left with his 14-year-old son in 2019, during the last big wave of Central American migration to the United States. Mr. López said he was scaling the border wall with his son when he fell and broke his ankle.
“My son screamed, ‘Papi, no!’ and I said to him, ‘Keep going, my son,’” Mr. López said. He said his son made it to the United States, while he returned to San Antonio Huista alone.
His family was then kicked out of their home, which Mr. López had given as collateral to the person who smuggled him to the border. The house they moved into was destroyed by the two hurricanes that hit Guatemala late last year.
Ms. Monzón put Mr. López in one of her relatives’ houses, then got the community to cobble together money to pay for enough cinder blocks to build the family a place to live.
While mixing cement to bind the blocks together, one of Mr. López’s sons, Vidal, 19, confessed that he had been talking to a smuggler about making the same journey that felled his father, who was realistic at the prospect.
“I told him, ‘Son, we suffered hunger and thirst along the way, and then look at what happened to me, look at what I lost,’” Mr. López said, touching his still-mangled ankle. “But I can’t tell him what to do with his life — he’s a man now.”
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In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.
Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.
But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.
In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.
“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”
shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.
But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.
a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.
Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.
“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”
An Idea That Went ‘Way Too Far’
presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.
Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.
“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”
Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.
“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.
Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.
study. These savings helped finance another shareholder-enriching trend — the growth of share buybacks.
In the decade leading up to the pandemic, American companies spent more than $6 trillion to buy their own shares, roughly tripling their purchases, according to a study by the Bank for International Settlements. Companies in Japan, Britain, France, Canada and China increased their buybacks fourfold, though their purchases were a fraction of their American counterparts.
Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares in circulation, lifting their value. But the benefits for investors and executives, whose pay packages include hefty allocations of stock, have come at the expense of whatever the company might have otherwise done with its money — investing to expand capacity, or stockpiling parts.
These costs became conspicuous during the first wave of the pandemic, when major economies including the United States discovered that they lacked capacity to quickly make ventilators.
“When you need a ventilator, you need a ventilator,” Mr. Sodhi said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, my stock price is high.’”
When the pandemic began, car manufacturers slashed orders for chips on the expectation that demand for cars would plunge. By the time they realized that demand was reviving, it was too late: Ramping up production of computer chips requires months.
stock analysts on April 28. The company said the shortages would probably derail half of its production through June.
The automaker least affected by the shortage is Toyota. From the inception of Just In Time, Toyota relied on suppliers clustered close to its base in Japan, making the company less susceptible to events far away.
‘It All Cascades’
In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.
He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.
In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.
The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.
One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.
“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.”
No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.
In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.
Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.
Each time, multinational companies carried on.
The same consultants who promoted the virtues of lean inventories now evangelize about supply chain resilience — the buzzword of the moment.
Simply expanding warehouses may not provide the fix, said Richard Lebovitz, president of LeanDNA, a supply chain consultant based in Austin, Texas. Product lines are increasingly customized.
“The ability to predict what inventory you should keep is harder and harder,” he said.
Ultimately, business is likely to further its embrace of lean for the simple reason that it has yielded profits.
“The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.”
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After China said it would allow couples to have three children, the state news media trumpeted the move as a major change that would help stimulate growth. But across much of the country, the announcement was met with indignation.
Women worried that the move would only exacerbate discrimination from employers reluctant to pay maternity leave. Young people fumed that they were already hard-pressed to find jobs and take care of themselves, let alone a child (or three). Working-class parents said the financial burden of more children would be unbearable.
“I definitely will not have another child,” said Hu Daifang, a former migrant worker in Sichuan Province. Mr. Hu, 35, said he was already struggling, especially after his mother fell ill and could no longer help care for his two children. “It feels like we are just surviving, not living.”
For many ordinary Chinese, the news about the policy change on Monday was only a reminder of a problem they’d long recognized: the drastic inadequacy of China’s social safety net and legal protections that would enable them to have more children.
Pregnancy discrimination is widespread in China, with women reporting being fired or demoted after telling their bosses they were expecting a child. Some women have even reported being forced to sign contracts promising not to get pregnant within a certain period at new jobs.
“As a woman, you’re inherently at a disadvantage in the workplace,” Ms. Li said.
Ms. Li said she was sympathetic to her boss’s concerns. She did believe that as a manager, her absence would be inconvenient for the company. She acknowledged that she herself, when interviewing candidates, would sometimes wonder whether a new hire would soon leave to give birth.
as some other countries do, and mandate paternity leave, so women would not be singled out for being parents.
had already barred employers from asking women about their marital or childbearing status in 2019, and the problem was weak enforcement. The government has often encouraged women to retreat to more traditional gender roles, in an effort to increase the birthrate.
“Our government is very good at empty talk,” said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist. “It’s meaningless to just look at a few things they said.”
Ms. Lu expected workplace discrimination against women to get worse. Employers might fear that women would want to have a third child — even if, she added, that was unlikely to be the case, given broader trends.
The lack of social support may discourage those who would otherwise want more children, but a more fundamental issue may be a lack of interest among younger, better educated women who have declared a preference for small families. Even if the government did offer more benefits, Ms. Li said, she would not want to have a third child.
“Two is pretty good,” she said. “There’s no point to having too many.”
Joy Dong contributed research.
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CARACAS, Venezuela — From within his presidential palace, President Nicolás Maduro regularly commandeers the airwaves, delivering speeches intended to project stability to his crumbling nation.
But as the Venezuelan state disintegrates under the weight of Mr. Maduro’s corrupt leadership and American sanctions, his government is losing control of segments of the country, even within his stronghold: the capital, Caracas.
Nowhere is his weakening grip on territory more evident than in Cota 905, a shantytown that clings to a steep mountainside overlooking the gilded halls from which Mr. Maduro addresses the nation.
policing, road maintenance, health care and public utilities, to pour dwindling resources into Caracas, home of the political, business and military elites who form his support base.
Hunkered down in his fortified Caracas residences, Mr. Maduro crushed the opposition, purged the security forces of dissent and enriched his cronies in an effort to eliminate challenges to his authoritarian rule.
In remote areas, swathes of national territory fell to criminals and insurgents. But gang control of Cota 905 and the surrounding shantytowns, which lie just two miles from the presidential palace, is evidence that his government is losing its grip even on the center of the capital.
Across the city, other armed groups have also asserted territorial control over working-class neighborhoods.
“Maduro is often seen as a traditional strongman controlling every aspect of Venezuelans’ lives,” said Rebecca Hanson, a sociologist at the University of Florida who studies violence in Venezuela. “In reality, the state has become very fragmented, very chaotic and in many areas very weak.”
As the government’s reach in Caracas’s shantytowns withered, organized crime grew, forcing Mr. Maduro’s officials to negotiate with the largest gangs to limit violence and maintain political control, according to interviews with a dozen residents, as well as police officers, officials and academics studying violence.
In the process, the most organized gangs began supplanting the state in their communities, taking over policing, social services and even the enforcement of pandemic measures.
Police officers say the gang that controls Cota 905 now has around 400 men armed with the proceeds from drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, and that it exerts complete control over at least eight square miles in the heart of the capital.
Gang members with automatic weapons openly patrol the shantytown’s streets and those of the surrounding communities, and guard entry points from rooftop watchtowers. The first checkpoint appears just a few minutes’ drive from the headquarters of Mr. Maduro’s secret police.
As the Venezuelan economy went into a tailspin, the Cota gang began offering financial support to the community, supplanting Mr. Maduro’s bankrupt social programs, which once offered free food, housing and school supplies for the poor.
After monopolizing the local drug trade, the Cota 905 gang imposed strict rules on the residents in return for stopping the once endemic violence and petty crime. And many residents welcome its hard line on crime.
“Before, the thugs robbed,” said Mr. Ojeda, a Cota 905 resident who, like others in the community, asked that his full name not be published for fear of crossing the gangsters. “Now, they are the ones who come to you, without fail, with anything that goes missing.”
During his tenure, Mr. Maduro has veered from brutal suppression of organized crime groups to accommodation in an attempt to check rising crime.
In 2013, he withdrew security forces from about a dozen troubled spots, including Cota 905, naming them “Peace Zones,” as he tried to placate the gangs. Two years later, when the policy failed to check crime, he unleashed a wave of brutal police assaults on the shantytowns.
The police operations resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings, according to the United Nations, earning Mr. Maduro charges of committing crimes against humanity and the hatred of many shantytown residents. Faced with the onslaught, the gangs closed ranks, creating ever larger and more complex organizations, according to Ms. Hanson and her colleague, the researcher Verónica Zubillaga.
Unable to defeat the Cota gang, Mr. Maduro’s government returned to negotiations with its leaders, according to a police commander and two government officials who held talks with the gang and worked to put the agreements in place.
Security forces are once again banned from entering the community, according to the police commander, who is not authorized to discuss state policy and did so on condition of anonymity.
Under the deal with the government, the Cota gang has reduced kidnappings and murders, and began carrying out some state policies. During the pandemic, gang members strictly enforced lockdown rules and mask wearing, local residents said. And the gang is working with the government to distribute the scant remaining food and school supplies to the residents, residents and the two officials said.
“The gang is focused on the community,” said Antonio Garcia, a shantytown resident. “They make sure we get our bag of food.”
Mr. Ojeda said he received $300 from the gang the last Carnival season to buy toys and sweets for his family, a fortune in a country where the minimum monthly wage has collapsed to about $2. Residents said young people in the community are offered jobs as lookouts or safe house guards for between $50 and $100 a week, more than most doctors and engineers make in Venezuela.
Taking these jobs is easier than leaving them. Soon after the oldest son of Ms. Ramírez — who did not want to give her full name out of fear of the gang — began serving as a lookout in Cota 905, he discovered that his life now belonged to the gang.
“He had new clothes, new shoes, but he couldn’t stop crying,” Ms. Ramírez said. “He wanted to go back and couldn’t.”
Anti-government protests are banned in the shantytown, and gang members summon residents to the polling stations on elections, said the residents.
The members “tell us that if the government is toppled, we would be affected too, because the police would return,” said Ana Castro, a Cota resident. “The ‘Peace Zone’ would end, and we would all suffer.”
In private, some government officials defend the nonaggression pacts with the biggest gangs, saying the policy has drastically reduced violence.
Violent deaths in Caracas shantytowns have halved since the mid-2010s, when the Venezuelan capital was one of the world’s deadliest cities, according to figures from a local nonprofit, Mi Convive.
But academics and analysts studying crime in the city say the drop in homicides points to the growing power of Caracas’s gangs against an increasingly weak government. The imbalance, experts said, puts the government and the population in an increasingly dangerous and vulnerable position.
The power shift was evident in April, when the Cota gang shot up a police patrol car and took over a section of highway running through Caracas. The area was a five-minute drive from the presidential palace, and the blockade paralyzed the capital for several hours.
But the government stayed silent through it all. The security forces never came to retake the highway. Once the gang left, officers quietly cleared out the blasted patrol car.
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Famine is now knocking on the door of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a civil war that erupted last year has drastically cut the food supply and prevented relief workers from helping the hungry, the top U.N. humanitarian official has warned.
In a confidential note to the United Nations Security Council, the official, Mark Lowcock, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said sections of Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people, are now one step from famine — in part because the government has obstructed aid shipments.
The note, seen by The New York Times, was submitted Tuesday under a Security Council resolution requiring such notification when conflicts cause famine and widespread food insecurity.
“These circumstances now arise in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia,” Mr. Lowcock said in the note. While below-average rain, locusts and the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to food scarcity, he said, “the scale of the food crisis Tigray faces today is a clear result of the conflict and the behavior of the parties.”
since last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea ordered their military forces into the region to crush Mr. Abiy’s political rivals and strengthen his control.
What Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, predicted would be a short operation has instead become a quagmire that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities in Tigray that amount to war crimes.
While the United Nations and international relief organizations have achieved some cooperation from the Ethiopian authorities in gaining access to deprived areas of Tigray, Mr. Lowcock said in his note, such cooperation has deteriorated in recent months. “Humanitarian operations are being attacked, obstructed or delayed in delivering lifesaving assistance,” he wrote, and at least eight aid workers have been killed.
“As a result of impediments and the effect of restrictions, not nearly enough support is being provided,” he wrote. He urged Security Council members “to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring.”
His warning was echoed by Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the main U.S. government provider of humanitarian assistance to needy countries. Ms. Power, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that one of the aid workers killed had worked for the agency she now runs.
took the unusual step of penalizing Ethiopia over growing American exasperation with Mr. Abiy’s actions in Tigray. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced visa restrictions on officials linked to the conflict, preventing their travel to the United States.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, calling the restrictions “extremely regrettable” and suggesting they would “seriously undermine this longstanding and important bilateral relationship.”
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This morning, I am going to tell you another story about the C.D.C. and its approach to Covid-19 behavioral guidelines. It’s a story that highlights the costs of extreme caution.
When Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, appeared before a Senate committee this month and defended the agency’s description of how often Covid-19 is transmitted outdoors, she cited a single academic study.
She was responding to a question from Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who had asked why some C.D.C. guidelines seemed inconsistent with the available data. Collins quoted from that day’s edition of this newsletter and argued that the C.D.C. was exaggerating the risk of outdoor activities by claiming that “less than 10 percent” of Covid transmission occurred outside.
Anything close to 10 percent would mean that outdoor infections were a huge problem. Yet the true share appears to be closer to 0.1 percent.
a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. The study was “a meta-analysis,” she explained, which means it synthesized data from other studies. “The topline result of all studies that were included in the systematic review said less than 10 percent of cases were transmitted outdoors,” she said.
Her answer made the study sound definitive. Walensky did not mention any other studies or offer any logical argument for why she believed outdoor transmission was a significant risk. She implied that the C.D.C. was simply listening to The Journal of Infectious Diseases, which, as she noted, is a top journal.
Later that day, one of the study’s authors posted several messages on Twitter, and the story got more complicated.
‘An amazing resource’
The tweets came from Dr. Nooshin Razani, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. In them, she emphasized that the study’s results suggested that the share of Covid occurring outdoors was “much lower than 10 percent.” The central message of the paper, Razani wrote, was the relative safety of the outdoors:
in her testimony, had used the two terms interchangeably.)
Singapore construction workers who probably transmitted it in enclosed spaces.)
The actual share occurring outdoors is “probably substantially less than 1 percent,” Razani told me. “The outdoors is an amazing resource,” she added. “What we really should be focused on is how to transition more activities to be outdoors.”
Masks for all campers
Yet the C.D.C.’s guidance continues to treat outdoor activities as a major risk — as if the truth were closer to 10 percent than 0.1 percent.
The agency advises unvaccinated people to wear masks outdoors much of the time, and many communities still impose strict guidelines on outdoor activities. The C.D.C. has also directed virtually everyone attending summer camp this year — counselor or camper, vaccinated or not — to wear a mask at almost all times. The camp guidelines use the word “universal.”
It’s true that for many people, masks are a minor nuisance. For others, though, masks bring real costs. Some children find it harder to breathe while wearing one during, say, a game of soccer or tag. Many adults and children find it more difficult to communicate. That’s especially true for people without perfect hearing and for young children, both of whom rely heavily on facial movements to understand others.
has written, is often “like talking on your phone in a zone with weak cell service.”
No free lunch
For unvaccinated adults indoors or in close conversation outdoors, the costs of a mask are vastly lower than the risks from Covid. But the trade-offs are different in most outdoor settings, and they are different for children. The Covid risks for children are similar to those from a normal flu (as these charts show).
There does not appear to be much scientific reason that campers and counselors, or most other people, should wear a mask outdoors all summer. Telling them to do so is an example of extreme caution — like staying out of the ocean to avoid sharks — that seems to have a greater cost than benefit.
The C.D.C., as I’ve written before, is an agency full of dedicated people trying their best to keep Americans healthy. Walensky, a widely admired infectious-diseases expert, is one of them. Yet more than once during this pandemic, C.D.C. officials have acted as if extreme caution has no downsides.
Everything has downsides. And it is the job of scientific experts and public-health officials to help the rest of us think clearly about the benefits and costs of our choices.
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OREFIELD, Pa. — From his office in an old barn on a turkey farm, David Jaindl watches a towering flat-screen TV with video feeds from the hatchery to the processing room, where the birds are butchered. Mr. Jaindl is a third-generation farmer in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. His turkeys are sold at Whole Foods and served at the White House on Thanksgiving.
But there is more to Mr. Jaindl’s business than turkeys. For decades, he has been involved in developing land into offices, medical facilities and subdivisions, as the area in and around the Lehigh Valley has evolved from its agricultural and manufacturing roots to also become a health care and higher education hub.
Now Mr. Jaindl is taking part in a new shift. Huge warehouses are sprouting up like mushrooms along local highways, on country roads and in farm fields. The boom is being driven, in large part, by the astonishing growth of Amazon and other e-commerce retailers and the area’s proximity to New York City, the nation’s largest concentration of online shoppers, roughly 80 miles away.
“They are certainly good for our area,” said Mr. Jaindl, who is developing land for several new warehouses. “They add a nice tax base and good employment.”
promotional video posted on the economic development agency’s website, there are images of welders, builders and aerial footage of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, which closed in the 1990s. The narrator touts the Lehigh Valley’s ethos as the home of “makers” and “dreamers.”
“We know the value of an honest day’s work,” the narrator intones. “We practically wrote the book on it.”
Jason Arias found an honest day’s work in the Lehigh Valley’s warehouses, but he also found the physical strain too difficult to bear.
Mr. Arias moved to the area from Puerto Rico 20 years ago to take a job in a manufacturing plant. After being laid off in 2010, Mr. Arias found a job packing and scanning boxes at an Amazon warehouse. The job soon started to take a toll — the constant lifting of boxes, the bending and walking.
“Manufacturing is easy,” he said. “Everything was brought to you on pallets pushed by machines. The heaviest thing you lift is a box of screws.”
One day, walking down stairs in the warehouse, Mr. Arias, 44, missed a step and felt something pop in his hip as he landed awkwardly. It was torn cartilage. At the time, Mr. Arias was making $13 an hour. (Today, Amazon pays an hourly minimum of $15.)
In 2012, Mr. Arias left Amazon and went to a warehouse operated by a food distributor. After a few years, he injured his shoulder on the job and needed surgery.
“Every time I went home I was completely beat up,” said Mr. Arias, who now drives a truck for UPS, a unionized job which he likes.
Dr. Amato, the regional planning official, is a chiropractor whose patients include distribution workers. Manufacturing work is difficult, but the repetitive nature of working in a warehouse is unsustainable, he said.
“If you take a coat hanger and bend it back and forth 50 times, it will break,” he said. “If you are lifting 25-pound boxes multiple times per hour, eventually things start to break down.”
Dennis Hower, the president of the local Teamsters union, which represents drivers for UPS and other companies in the Lehigh Valley, said he was happy that the e-commerce boom was resulting in new jobs. At the same time, he’s reminded by the empty storefronts everywhere that other jobs are being destroyed.
“Every day you open up the newspaper and see another retail store going out of business,” he said.
Not everyone can handle the physicality of warehouse work or has the temperament to drive a truck for 10 hours a day. In fact, many distribution companies are having a hard time finding enough local workers to fill their openings and have had to bus employees in from out of state, Mr. Hower said.
“You can always find someone somewhere who is willing to work for whatever you are going to pay them,” he said.
A slave’s final resting place
Two years ago, there were no warehouses near Lara Thomas’s home in Shoemakersville, Pa., a town of 1,400 people west of the Lehigh Valley. Today, five of them are within walking distance.
“It hurts my heart,” said Ms. Thomas. “This is a small community.”
A local history buff, Ms. Thomas is a member of a group of volunteers who regularly clean up old, dilapidated cemeteries in the area, including one in Maxatawny that is about two miles from her church.
The cemetery, under a grove of trees next to a wide-open field, is the final resting place of George L. Kemp, a farmer and a captain in the Revolutionary War. Last summer, the warehouse developer Duke Realty, which is based in Indianapolis, argued in county court that it could find no living relatives of Mr. Kemp and proposed moving the graves to another location. A “logistics park” is planned on the property.
Meredith Goldey, who is a Kemp descendant, was not impressed with Duke’s due diligence. “They didn’t look very hard.”
Ms. Goldey, other descendants and Ms. Thomas pored through old property and probate records and found Mr. Kemp’s will.
The documents stipulated that a woman enslaved by Mr. Kemp, identified only as Hannah, would receive a proper burial. While there is no visible marker for Hannah in the cemetery, the captain’s will strongly suggests she is buried alongside the rest of the family.
“This is not the Deep South,” Ms. Thomas said. “It is almost unheard-of for a family to own a slave in eastern Pennsylvania in the early 19th century and then to have her buried with them.”
Several descendants of Mr. Kemp filed a lawsuit against Duke Realty seeking to protect the cemetery. A judge has ordered the two sides to come up with a solution by next month. A spokesman for Duke Realty said in an email that the company “is optimistic that the parties will reach an amicable settlement in the near future.”
Ms. Thomas worries that if the bodies are exhumed and interred in another location, they will not be able to locate Hannah’s remains and they will be buried under the warehouse.
“She will be lost,” she said.
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