2021 Summer Round-Up: Infrastructure, Afghanistan, the Delta Surge, and the Climate Crisis

As teachers welcome students back into the classroom, it is important to establish good habits and routines for the new school year. One important habit is incorporating current issues discussions into civics, social studies, and humanities courses. To help teachers get started on the right foot, we’re offering a round-up of some of the most important news stories of the past month and some discussion questions to engage students.

Infrastructure Bill Moves Forward

President Joe Biden’s administration cleared an important hurdle in its efforts to pass a massive infrastructure bill through Congress with a 69-30 vote in the Senate. Although the $1.2 trillion bill still needs House approval before the president can sign it, it has the potential to be the largest infrastructure investment ever passed by Congress.1

The bill needed at least 60 votes to pass the Senate. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tie-breaking vote. This breakdown, combined with Republicans’ use of the filibuster, means that for virtually any legislation to pass the Senate, Democrats must gain the support of at least 10 Republican senators.2 Given how strong the partisan divide in Congress has been for more than a decade, many Americans were skeptical that the Senate could reach any bipartisan agreement, with some urging senators to abolish the filibuster requirement of 60 votes. To the surprise of many, Senate Democrats were able to secure the support of not just ten but 19 Republican senators.3

LEARN MORE about the infrastructure bill and related issues

With the bill now in the House, it is almost a certainty that it will eventually pass but it remains unclear how long that will take and what the bill will contain by that time. Currently, the bill allocates funding for building new roads, bridges, and railways; repairing existing transportation infrastructure; and expanding broadband internet, clean air and water infrastructure, power systems, and pollution clean-up.4 The bill also represents a significant scaling back of the original $2.6 trillion plan, with the biggest changes being in the removal of many of the environmental initiatives.

House Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they will not support the new infrastructure bill unless much of the removed environmental funding is added to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. Negotiating this process could take weeks if not months. However, since budget reconciliation bills require only 50 votes in the Senate, much of the additional spending could be signed into law with or without Republican support.5

The United States’ Infrastructure Report Card

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Senate was able to reach a bipartisan agreement on the infrastructure bill (keeping in mind that the original bill was $2.6 trillion while the final bill is $1.2 trillion)?
  2. Should Congress continue to pursue bipartisanship? Or should congressional Democrats seek to pass their policies regardless of Republican support?


Afghanistan Withdrawal and the Taliban Offensive 

In April 2021, President Biden announced that he would press ahead with the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a move first sought by President Donald Trump’s administration. President Biden set September 11, 2021, as the deadline for withdrawal, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (which were the impetus for the conflict).6 The United States has had combat troops continuously operating in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, making this conflict the longest continuous military conflict in U.S. history.7

Walik Koshar/AFP/Getty Images - People waiting at Kabul airport to flee Afghanistan as U.S. soldiers stand guard.

In recent weeks, the Taliban, a militant group of Islamic fundamentalists, has launched successful offensives across Afghanistan as U.S. troops and officials have withdrawn. Prior to the war in Afghanistan, the United States assisted the Taliban in its efforts to combat an invasion by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After repelling the Soviets, the Taliban became the ruling authority during the 1990s. The group also forged connections with and harbored al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization controlled by Osama bin Laden that carried out the 9/11 attacks.8

LEARN MORE about the modern history of Afghanistan

The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban in 2001. However, despite U.S. support over the past 20 years, the new government of Afghanistan has struggled to govern the country effectively as it has been plagued by corruption and infighting. The U.S.-trained Afghan military and police forces have not fared any better, offering little resistance to the Taliban’s resurgence. In recent days, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, and declared itself the only legitimate government of the country.9 Many Afghanis who worked with U.S. forces now fear for their lives, as the Taliban is notorious for torturing and executing those whom it considers to be traitors.10 The swift pace of the Taliban takeover, downplayed as “highly unlikely” by President Biden in July, has prompted both the United States and the United Kingdom to deploy thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to protect evacuation efforts out of Kabul.11

LEARN MORE directly from lawmakers about the withdrawal from Afghanistan

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan even if it means surrendering the country back to the Taliban?
  2. What obligation, if any, does the United States have to those who support U.S. troops in countries where those troops are engaged in military action?


The Delta Variant and Mask Mandates

On May 13, 2021, President Biden celebrated an end to nearly all outdoor mask mandates and most indoor mask mandates for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This announcement was heralded as a turning point on the road “back to normal.”12 However, as a vaccination rates began to plateau, it became apparent that a significant portion of the U.S. population (18 percent) had no intention of getting vaccinated.13 Disease experts feared that with such a large cohort of people refusing the vaccines, COVID-19 would continue to mutate and spread.14

There have been dozens of such mutations, with more virulent and contagious strains emerging. Particularly widespread in the United States and abroad is the Delta variant and its subvariants. The Delta variant is estimated to be twice as contagious as other variants, with some data suggesting it might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated persons than previous strains.15 It is important to note that all available data indicates that the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant. Almost all COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have occurred among people who are not vaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated.16 Still, as infection and hospitalization rates rose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for indoor masking and social distancing.

LEARN MORE about the impact of vaccination

In August, Arkansas set a record for hospitalizations, while health officials in Mississippi said that the state’s hospital system could collapse in a matter of days if the current caseload trajectory continues.17 This resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country has prompted some areas to issue new mask mandates and others to refuse to issue new rules that follow federal guidance and CDC recommendations.18 Recently, some schools in Texas, Florida, and other highly impacted states refused to comply with their governors’ bans on mask mandates. And some schools and businesses around the country have begun to mandate vaccination for their employees and patrons.19

HEAR FROM lawmakers about the impacts of COVID-19 on students

Discussion Questions

  1. With the Delta variant on the rise, should schools be allowed to mandate that students and teachers wear masks? Should schools be returning to in-person classes?
  2. Many public schools in the United States already require vaccinations against illnesses such as measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and polio. Some of these illnesses are rarely fatal; others have the potential to be more harmful or deadly than COVID-19. Vaccination against COVID-19 is already available to those 12 or older and it is expected to become available for younger children pending approval. Should public schools be allowed to mandate vaccination against COVID-19 when it becomes available?


The IPCC Climate Report

On August 9, 2021, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of thousands of climate experts from 195 member nations, issued a dire report on the state of Earth’s climate and its implications for humanity’s immediate and long-term survival.20 The report states that human beings are “unequivocally” causing climate change and that the world may inevitably cross the 1.5oC overall temperature increase that has long been cited as a point of no return by climate scientists.21

Drawn from data from over 14,000 studies, the IPCC report details that once-in-50-year heatwaves now occur at least once a decade, and that historic flooding, hurricanes, and drought are to be expected for decades if not centuries to come. UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”22

HEAR FROM lawmakers about their views on climate change and how to address it

Currently, vast stretches of the North American Pacific Coast, Siberia, the Mediterranean, and dozens of other places are experiencing wildfires of unprecedented scope.23 In July, historic flooding occurred in Western Europe, killing more than 200 people with almost 200 more still missing.24 And with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, disease and climate experts warn that climate change will contribute to new outbreaks of illnesses, particularly as mosquito populations spread with warmer weather.25

Leaders from around the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021 for a climate change conference. Climate activists and scientists are hopeful that leaders will be receptive to more aggressive policies to cut down on carbon emissions. The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement in February 2021, but climate advocates now argue that the targets set under that agreement are inadequate.26

VIEW the IPCC report and its implications

Discussion Questions

  1. Should the United States do more to combat climate change? If so, what sorts of actions should it take? If not, how should this challenge be addressed?
  2. The UN is an organization made up of voluntary members. Ultimately, it has little power to compel countries to comply with any resolution or recommendation it makes. This is particularly true of large, economically powerful countries. The United States, Russia, and China, in addition to being among the biggest producers of fossil fuel emissions, are permanent members of the UN Security Council, each with the individual authority to override any decision made by the UN. With the climate threat as imminent as the UN says it is, can the world actually take unified action to address it?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!

Related Blog Posts:

Build it and They Will Come – The Biden Infrastructure Plan

How Can We Overcome Vaccine Skepticism?

Time to Reform the Filibuster?



Featured Image Credit: David Carpio/Shutterstock
[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/10/us/politics/infrastructure-bill-passes.html
[2] CNN News: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2021/05/politics/filibuster-senate-explained/
[4] Ibid.
[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/07/28/upshot/infrastructure-breakdown.html
[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/13/us/politics/infrastructure-deal-budget.html
[6] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/
[7] https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-07-12/the-cost-of-the-afghanistan-war-in-lives-and-dollars#:~:text=The%20nearly%2020%2Dyear%20American,the%20United%20States’%20longest%20war.&text=July%2012%2C%202021%2C%20at%202%3A28%20p.m.&text=KNICKMEYER%2C%20Associated%20Press-,The%20nearly%2020%2Dyear%20American%20combat%20mission%20in%20Afghanistan,the%20United%20States’%20longest%20war.
[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11451718
[9] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/world/taliban-to-declare-islamic-emirate-of-afghanistan-official-297971
[10] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/23/afghanistan-threats-taliban-atrocities-kandahar
[11] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/panic-grips-afghanistan-civilians-flee-taliban-s-relentless-advance-n1276528
[12] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/white-house-celebrates-new-end-mask-requirement-fully-vaccinated-n1267285
[13] https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/07/15/why-wont-americans-get-vaccinated-poll-data
[14] https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/coronavirus-variants-experts-fear-mutations-could-mean-covid-19-reinfections
[15] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/delta-variant.html
[16] https://www.kff.org/policy-watch/covid-19-vaccine-breakthrough-cases-data-from-the-states/
[17] https://www.npr.org/2021/08/12/1027103023/florida-mississippi-arkansas-hospitals-overwhelmed-covid-19-delta
[18] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html
[19] https://floridanewstimes.com/half-a-dozen-school-districts-are-arguing-or-arguing-to-disobey-the-governors-no-mask-mandate-order/320862/
[20] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/ipcc-who-are-they
[21] https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/un-sounds-clarion-call-over-irreversible-climate-impacts-by-humans-2021-08-09/
[22] Ibid.
[23] https://gizmodo.com/here-are-the-5-major-regions-literally-on-fire-right-no-1847389046/slides/8
[24] https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/22/europe/germany-belgium-europe-floods-death-climate-intl/index.html
[25] https://earth.stanford.edu/news/how-does-climate-change-affect-disease#gs.8c0zs7
[26] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56901261



Time to Reform the Filibuster?

Dealing with Filibusters

The Senate is again considering changing its rules regarding the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure that gives individual senators the power to shape—and even block—legislation. The filibuster is “a loosely defined term for action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question.”1

The filibuster is not in the Constitution; rather, it was an accidental byproduct of a rule change in 1806.2 In 1917, the Senate changed its rules so a filibuster could be ended by a two-thirds majority vote of senators; in 1975, the Senate lowered that threshold to three-fifths.3 Filibusters, or the threat of a filibuster, used to be rare. These days, the minority party uses the filibuster as a matter of routine, essentially creating a 60-vote threshold for most bills to pass.

Today, many Senate Democrats are considering removing the filibuster altogether, meaning that any legislation would require a simple majority vote to pass the Senate. It is not guaranteed that Democrats would be able to do this, as at least two members of their party, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.,4 and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., have not endorsed filibuster reform. Almost all Senate Democrats support another position, allowing for a “talking filibuster” in which a member could hold the floor in order to delay or block a vote. Under this proposal, individual senators would have a path to make their voices heard, but not all legislation would require 60 votes to pass the Senate.

WATCH: The history of, and debate about, the filibuster, from the Washington Post

Arguments for Keeping the Filibuster

Those who want to keep the filibuster argue that this procedure empowers each individual senator to have a voice on all legislation, meaning that every state, no matter how small and no matter the party affiliation of its senators, has a say in policymaking.6 In an argument against ending the filibuster, former Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., wrote that the filibuster can do as much to ensure compromise as it does to create division. He pointed out that, because of the threat of the filibuster, he and Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., were able to work together to produce 38 bipartisan bills in 2005 and 2006 alone.7 Supporters of the filibuster also note that the Senate is intended to be a deliberative body that cools the passions of the House of Representatives.8 In other words, the House majority is able to act quickly—sometimes too quickly—and it is up to the Senate to weigh all matters carefully and deliberately and to build a 60-vote consensus.

Arguments for Ending the Filibuster

Advocates of ending the filibuster argue that this procedure was never intended to be commonplace, and that it was only a clerical error that allowed it to exist at all.9 Critics note that the filibuster was a rarely used tool until recent years, and that its use exploded during the administration of President Barack Obama. As such, they argue that the founders never intended the Senate to be so gridlocked.10 Some proponents of ending the filibuster argue that it has been a tool of racism and white supremacy, with Princeton historian Kevin Kruse saying “it’s been a tool used overwhelmingly by racists” to protect slavery and Jim Crow segregation.11

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think are the strongest arguments for keeping the filibuster? What are the strongest arguments for getting rid of it?
  2. Do you support keeping the filibuster? Why or why not?
  3. How would you urge your senators to vote on this matter?

Further Reading and Resources

    • The Heritage Foundation: “The Filibuster Protects the Rights of All Senators and the American People”
    • Watch: Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, makes the case to keep the filibuster in a Federalist Society policy brief
    • Wall Street Journal: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argues that ending the filibuster would create a “scorched-earth Senate”
    • Watch: Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argues for ending the filibuster
    • Rashad Robinson writes in USA Today and Zach Beauchamp writes on Vox.com about the filibuster and race
    • Politico: “‘They Are, in Effect, Supporting Racism’: Black Leaders Zero in on Dems’ Filibuster Holdouts”
    • Rolling Stone: “The Filibuster’s Ugly History and Why It Must Be Scrapped”
    • #CloseUpConversations: Join Close Up on Thursday, April 8, at 6 pm EST for a conversation with Adam Jentleson, the author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, to discuss what the filibuster is, how it works, and what reform would mean. Jentleson is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a guest on numerous podcasts, including NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” and “Why Is This Happening with Chris Hayes.”

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!


Featured Image Credit: RWT/AP
[1]. Senate.gov: https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture.htm
[2] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/justthefaqs/2021/03/08/filibuster-what-how-could-affect-bidens-agenda-senate/4626598001/
[3] Senate.gov: https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture.htm
[4] National Review: https://www.nationalreview.com/news/sinema-calls-on-senators-to-change-their-behavior-instead-of-eliminating-filibuster/
[5] Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/2021/3/20/22341271/feinstein-filibuster-reform-talking-joe-manchin-kyrsten-sinema-joe-biden-senate-60-votes
[6] Politico: https://www.politico.com/story/2011/01/against-ending-the-filibuster-048019
[7] Ibid.
[8] The Heritage Foundation: https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/the-filibuster-protects-the-rights-all-senators-and-the-american-people
[9] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/justthefaqs/2021/03/08/filibuster-what-how-could-affect-bidens-agenda-senate/4626598001/
[10] Brennan Center for Justice: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/case-against-filibuster
[11] Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/3/25/22348308/filibuster-racism-jim-crow-mitch-mcconnell


A Bumpy Transition: Where Do We Go From Here?

Thousands of people celebrate on Saturday, November 7 in New York City and across the country when Biden is declared the winner. Image Credit: Chang W. Lee/New York Times

Thousands of supporters of President Trump rallied in Washington, DC for the “Million MAGA March” on Saturday, November 14. Image Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

On Saturday, November 7, most major media outlets declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.1 While the Biden team has already begun its informal transition, it has not yet been granted access to intelligence briefings, office space, or other elements of a formal transition.2 This formal transition cannot happen until the General Services Administration issues a “letter of ascertainment.”3 President Donald Trump has not formally conceded the election, as his campaign is continuing to file lawsuits, so far unsuccessfully, around the country.4

WATCH: “What Is the GSA, and What Role Does It Play in the Presidential Transition?” from CBS News

Biden’s inauguration will take place on January 20, 2021.5 While the outcome of the election is all but certain,6 much can still happen between November and January to shape the early months of the Biden administration. The presidential transition to a new administration is a significant undertaking, involving every federal agency, staff members in the current administration, and staff members in the incoming administration. In the midst of an economic downturn, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an effort to develop, produce, and distribute a vaccine, a smooth transition may be even more difficult and necessary in 2020.7

What Happens During a Transition?

In order to be ready to hit the ground running, there are many things that a president-elect must accomplish during the transition. According to the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, these are the primary goals of a new president during this important time:

  • Staffing the White House and the Executive Office of the President.
  • Making more than 4,000 presidential appointments, more than 1,200 of which require Senate confirmation.
  • Getting up to speed on more than 100 federal agencies and organizing and training leadership teams for each one.
  • Building a policy platform for the new administration based on campaign promises, and planning executive actions, a management agenda, a budget proposal, and potential legislation.
  • Preparing a 100-to-200-day plan for executing the policies laid out during the campaign to help the new administration get off to a quick start.
  • Developing a strategy for communicating with the American people, Congress, the media, political appointees, the federal agencies, and other stakeholders.8

While this list seems manageable, it relies heavily on the cooperation of the outgoing administration. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials are raising alarms over the decision by the Trump administration to block or delay transition efforts.9 Some experts are also concerned that the Trump administration’s behavior could harm national security.10 However, President Trump’s national security advisor has promised a professional transition.11

LISTEN: “How Presidential Transitions Usually Happen and What Could Be Different This Time,” from NPR

The weeks ahead may be pivotal to ensuring a smooth transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. The transition is an aspect of government that many people take for granted, and, except for the appointment of officials who require Senate confirmation, transitions take place largely out of the public eye. However, it seems that this transition will be closely watched for evidence of cooperation between political rivals.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was your personal reaction to the news that Biden won the election? What did your friends and family think?
  2. What discussions have you had with others about the election since Election Day?
  3. What issues do you hope the Biden administration prioritizes after the inauguration? What would you like to see done?
  4. How involved/engaged were you during the election? Did you read/watch the news? Talk with friends, family, and classmates? Post on social media? Volunteer for a campaign?
  5. How will you stay engaged after the election?

Further Reading:


Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
[1] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-wins-presidency-trump-fox-news-projects
[2] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-transition-team-charging-ahead-but-calls-for-more-access-for-president-elect
[3] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/live-blog/2020-11-13-trump-biden-transition-n1247607/ncrd1247740#blogHeader
[4] BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54724960
[5] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/11/12/joe-biden-barrels-toward-inauguration-trump-mounts-legal-challenges/6236070002/
[6] Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/this-election-result-wont-be-overturned-11605134335
[7] Center for Presidential Transition: https://presidentialtransition.org/blog/pandemic-impact-transition/
[8] Center for Presidential Transition’s The Presidential Transition Guide: https://presidentialtransition.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2018/01/Presidential-Transition-Guide-2020.pdf
[9] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/15/fauci-coronavirusbiden-transition-team-436588
[10] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/sunday/transition-national-security.html  NPR: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/14/934920708/the-rocky-transition-of-power-between-biden-and-trump-may-affect-national-securi CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/12/politics/transition-pentagon-chaos-intelligence-national-security-threat/index.html
[11] The Hill: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/526112-trump-national-security-adviser-there-will-be-a-professional

Universal Basic Income: Pipe Dream or Proactive Policy?

On November 6, 2017, businessman Andrew Yang began a presidential campaign centered on a signature policy, Universal Basic Income (UBI).1 If put in place, this UBI or “Freedom Dividend” would give every adult American $1,000 a month, no questions asked.2 The idea captured some voters’ imaginations; although Yang ultimately suspended his campaign after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, UBI has never been more popular.3

What Is UBI?

UBI is a form of government assistance wherein every adult citizen is automatically entitled to regular payment from the government. In most proposed UBI systems, this money does not have to be spent on specific goods or services; it can be used by recipients for anything they deem necessary.4 Some UBI systems call for replacing basic income entirely, making full-time employment largely optional. Others favor a more modest approach, which would supplement rather than replace individual income.

How Would Yang’s Model Work?

The current median annual individual income in the United States is approximately $33,000; the poverty line stands at just under $13,000 per year.5 At $12,000 per year, Yang’s UBI would still fall below the poverty line and therefore would not replace the need for employment for most people. However, for an individual living in poverty, an additional $1,000 a month would essentially double their income. Yang also argues that entitling adults to $1,000 per month would mean that unpaid jobs, such as stay-at-home parenting and volunteering, would no longer necessitate the same sacrifice.6 Yang also suggests that UBI could be a means of enabling people to make more time in life for personal development and interests, as they would not have to focus so much on acquiring money.7

According to Yang’s policy briefs, his UBI policy would cost $2.8 trillion per year, which is roughly 70 percent of the federal government’s current annual budget.8 Yang’s policy proposal takes other factors into account, which he claims would bring the net cost down to $320.5 billion per year. His policy would raise additional revenue by imposing a new value-added tax (VAT, a type of tax on products that consumers buy).9 However, economic experts do not agree that the cost of the program could be offset sufficiently.10

Why Is Yang Advocating for UBI?

Yang has tied the need for UBI to the threat of automation in what he calls “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”11 Unlike previous revolutionary changes owed to technology, Yang suggests that advancements in artificial intelligence will result in jobs being lost at a higher rate than they can be replaced. On his policy site, Yang argues that in the next 12 years, one in three Americans are at risk of not just losing their jobs but having their profession itself cease to exist.12 For example, Yang believes that driverless vehicles will render trucking jobs obsolete and leave truckers with a skill set and job history that is no longer relevant when they need to find new employment. UBI could be a way to offset the harm of job loss and provide individuals with a safety net as they find new jobs or learn new skills.

What Is the Criticism of UBI?

Beyond the high cost of implementing UBI, criticisms tend to center on the implications that such a system would have on the economy. Some have suggested that UBI would disincentivize hard work and undermine the American work ethic.13 Others point to studies which show that people receiving unemployment benefits devote more time to leisure than job-hunting.14 Participants in similar smaller-scale programs were shown to be less productive and less motivated to work.15 Finally, some economists argue that prices on everything from food to rent would increase, reflecting the extra money that people would have. Therefore, little would change other than the imposition of new government spending.16

The Future of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is unlikely to come before Congress anytime soon, especially with its best-known advocate no longer in the race for president. However, prior to Yang’s candidacy, a minority of voters supported or had even heard of UBI, whereas recent polling indicates that a slim majority of voters favor the idea.17 UBI is being piloted in several U.S. cities and is far more popular in Europe, with pilot programs already underway in several countries. While this is far from the first time UBI has been promoted, it is not outside the realm of possibility that with changing economic realities, the policy could continue to gain support among policymakers.18

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that UBI would have more positive or negative effects on how Americans lead their everyday lives?
  2. Some proponents have suggested that UBI could eliminate the need for programs like unemployment benefits or food stamps. Do you think that would be a reasonable compromise? Or would those programs need to remain in place even with UBI?
  3. Think about your own family. What would an extra $1,000 per month per adult enable your family to afford what it otherwise struggles to afford or cannot currently afford? Do you think it should be the responsibility of the government and taxpayers to provide for those expenses?
  4. What are some additional or alternative programs to UBI that could be initiated to meet the challenges presented by automation and the potential loss of employment that could result?



Featured Image Credit: https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/universal-basic-income-faces-sceptics-yang-gang-fans-190522185947811.html
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/28/us/andrew-yang-fast-facts/index.html
[2] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[3] America: The Jesuit Review: https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/10/02/universal-basic-income-having-moment-can-advocates-convince-skeptical
[4] The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/09/who-really-stands-to-win-from-universal-basic-income
[5] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines
[6] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[7] Ibid
[8] National Priorities Project: https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/
[9] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[10] Vox: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/2/13/18220838/universal-basic-income-ubi-nber-study
[11] Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/andrew-yang-trump-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-1465649
[12] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[13] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[14] Independent Women’s Forum: https://www.iwf.org/blog/2809515/Why-Universal-Basic-Income-Will-Ruin-Lives
[15] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[16] Medium: https://medium.com/discourse/would-a-universal-basic-income-cause-a-major-spike-in-rent-prices-50fca12b06ab
[17] The Hill: https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/463055-more-voters-support-universal-basic-income
[18] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-10-08/canadians-and-the-british-show-more-support-for-basic-income-than-americans



Is It a Crime When Politicians Lie?

“There’s a clear difference between politics and a crime,” Michael Levy told the Supreme Court in January,1 when he made arguments in a case about New Jersey’s “Bridgegate” scandal. As the justices considered whether or not a public official commits fraud by obfuscating the “real reason”2 behind a decision, they asked both sides tough questions and did not split along ideological lines.3 The Court’s decision could narrow or expand corruption prosecutions against politicians. So we explore the questions, do politicians lie? And is it a crime?

The Bridgegate Scandal

The George Washington Bridge is the world’s busiest, carrying 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles daily.4 In 2013, after Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., would not endorse the reelection bid of then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, officials on Christie’s staff concocted a fake traffic study to shut down all but one bridge lane dedicated to Fort Lee.5 Unbeknownst to local officials, closures took effect on the first day of school, resulting in massive traffic backups that included public safety vehicles seeking a missing child and responding to a cardiac arrest.6 The Bridgegate scandal lasted four days.7 At trial, Bridget Anne Kelly and William E. Baroni Jr. were convicted on the basis of evidence that included Kelly’s now-infamous email announcing it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”8

Politics or a Crime?

The deceptive study misused $5,4009 worth of Port Authority employee resources.10 Kelly’s attorney thinks prosecutors incorrectly applied fraud statutes11 since the officials reallocated public resources to another public use12 and did not “receive payments or kickbacks.”13 Government lawyers countered that Baroni commandeered resources14 because he lacked authority to realign lanes.15

Kelly’s attorney, Jacob Roth, says that if a hidden political lie or motive or lie could send a public official to prison,16 it “casts a pall over routine political conduct.”17 Roth offered hypothetical examples, such as a police chief publicly stating concerns about crime to advocate for more officers, while the real goal is to gain favor with a police union.18 “We don’t want public officials acting for personal … partisan or political reasons,” said Roth. “But … the remedy for that is not the federal property fraud statutes.”19 Roth’s preferred remedy is political consequences: Bridgegate damaged Christie’s in-state popularity and his 2016 presidential bid.20

Prosecuting Corruption

The Supreme Court seemed to apply this reasoning in 2016 with an 8-0 unanimous vacating of former Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R-Va.) corruption conviction,21 limiting bribery laws by deciding that McDonnell’s acceptance of $175,000 in money and luxury items (including a Ferrari)22 was not criminal since, as McDonnell’s lawyers said, he only provided “routine political courtesies,”23 such as setting up meetings, in exchange for the items. McDonnell’s lawyers argued, “Mere ingratiation and access are not corruption.”24 Responding to the ruling, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder,”25 and that “if you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up.”26

The McDonnell case reflected many justices’ concerns over “prosecutors’ overly expansive interpretation of federal fraud and corruption laws,”27 concerns echoed in recent decisions that protected “small-time criminal defendants swept up by large-scale prosecutions.”28 Kelly, a single mother of four,29 says she is being scapegoated,30 claiming that Christie (who has called this case politically motivated) knew of the scheme.31

Former federal prosecutor Frank O. Bowman III sees this judicial trend as the Supreme Court “taking ‘an unduly protective view of official misconduct.’”32 Bowman adds, “The notion that what is otherwise plainly a crime becomes permissible because it has a political motive strikes me as just daft.”33  Bowman believes prosecutors need reasonable leeway with fraud statues “to keep up with the crooks, particularly the crooks in public office.”34

A decision in Kelly v. United States is expected in June.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it acceptable for public officials to hide true political motives and offer alternative public explanations for their actions? Why or why not?
  2. Should a head public official, like a mayor, governor, senator, or president, always be held accountable for the actions of their staff members? Why or why not?
  3. When filing their appeal to the Supreme Court, Kelly’s attorneys warned of how expanded government prosecutorial power might be used in the current partisan environment. They wrote, “If there is one thing this country does not need right now, it is a rule of law allowing a public official to be locked up based on a jury determination that she ‘lied’ by purporting to act in the public interest or by concealing her ‘political’ purposes.”35 Based on that quote, discuss the following questions:
    • How large a factor do you think partisanship will be in prosecutors’ decisions over which corruption cases to pursue?
    • How concerned are you that prosecutors would pursue corruption cases mostly or entirely for political retribution against their rivals?
    • How involved should courts be in trying to curb political corruption issues?
  4. If a government official acts for political or personal reasons, should they be subject to fines and jail time, or should their fate be left to voters in the next election? Read the following statements and quotes and decide which you agree with more and why:
    • The best remedy for dishonesty or graft in government is to make the public aware so they can vote on the basis of the potentially offensive actions. From the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ amicus brief: “If state decision makers deprive the electorate of the candid reasons for policy choices, the solution is at the ballot box, not the jury box.”36
    • If government officials act dishonestly or in their own personal interest or in that of a friend, the remedy should be criminal fraud or corruption charges with accompanying fines and jail time. From Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) amicus brief: “The founders empowered the public to protect the public sphere against corruption, including through the jury box.”37
  5. Respond to the following questions after reading this quote from Whitehouse: “In the same way that a fish may not be aware that it’s swimming in the water, because swimming in water is so much its natural state, I think we have become a little bit desensitized to the extent to which we are now swimming in corruption.”38
    • How prevalent are political corruption issues in the U.S.?
    • How can citizens best address government corruption?




Featured Image Credit: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-cas
[1] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[2] Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-1059
[3] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[4] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[8] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[9] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[10] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[11] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1343
[12] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[13] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[14] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/a-view-from-the-courtroom-the-bridge-and-tunnel-crowd/
[15] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/news/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-supreme-court-chris-christie-20200114.html
[16] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[17] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[18] Ibid
[19] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[20] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[21] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[22] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/former-virginia-governor-robert-mcdonnell-spared-prison-sentence-n599506
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[26] Ibid
[27] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[28] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/politics/2020/01/13/bridgegate-supreme-court-chris-christies-lane-closers/4420543002/
[29] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[30] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case
[31] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/20b73a43e891ad63caac459cdc604a0e
[32] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[33] Ibid
[34] Ibid
[35] NJ.com: https://www.nj.com/news/2019/06/bridget-kelly-is-unbelievably-happy-as-us-supreme-court-agrees-to-hear-bridgegate-case-attorney-says.html
[36] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[37] Ibid
[38] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case




Primary Voting Begins: Iowa and New Hampshire

From left: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg

What Should You Watch for in the Democratic Primaries? 

The next month features four nominating contests: the Iowa caucuses (February 3), the New Hampshire primary (February 11), the Nevada caucuses (February 22), and the South Carolina primary (February 29).1 A great deal of polling has been done to determine voters’ favorites in these contests, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, looking at current aggregate polling for those two states, the probable outcome is anything but clear:

Iowa New Hampshire
Source: Real Clear Politics3

At first glance, the numbers above indicate that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has an edge in both New Hampshire and Iowa primary elections, but there are several potential confounding factors. For one, these rankings have alternated for months, with Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all having occupied the top spot in each state at least once since primary season began in 2019.4, 5

Second, a number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have not yet decided on a candidate. Recent polling indicates that as many as 60 percent of voters in those states are undecided, and that at the very least, a sizable minority of voters still remain uncommitted.6

READ: Close Up In Class examines the presidential nominating process and the early voting status of Iowa and New Hampshire

What about the Republican Party? 

As the sitting president, President Donald Trump is all but guaranteed to be the Republican nominee (no sitting president has lost the nomination since President Franklin Pierce in 1852).7 Several states have even decided not to have Republican primaries or caucuses at all, despite the fact that several candidates are technically running against President Trump.8

How Does 2020 Compare to Other Primary Seasons? 

In 2016, polling showed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with a small but clear lead over Sanders in Iowa; in New Hampshire, Sanders was much further in front of Clinton. When the time came for voting, Clinton barely beat Sanders in Iowa (by 0.25%); in New Hampshire, Sanders handily beat Clinton and even did slightly better than the pre-election polls had suggested.

On the Republican side in 2016, now-President Trump slightly led Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in polling, but Cruz ultimately beat Trump by 3.3%. In New Hampshire just over a week later, Trump had a significant lead in the polls and did slightly better than the polls predicted when votes were cast.

Iowa New Hampshire 2
Source: Real Clear Politics 9, 10

In many ways, the 2020 Democratic primary season is more similar to the 2016 Republican primary season. In each, the party had a large field of candidates at first; by the time primary voting began, there were still several viable candidates. Republicans in 2016 also had a clear sense of running against Clinton in the same way that Democrats in 2020 know they will be running against President Trump.

So, Why Does All of This Matter? 

A victory in Iowa or New Hampshire does not guarantee a candidate’s victory overall. However, a strong performance or an unexpected result sometimes makes or breaks a campaign. Winning the first contest in Iowa grants legitimacy to a candidate, especially if that candidate has never run in a presidential primary (like Buttigieg or Warren). Winning one or both contests would prove that a candidate could compete with more established candidates, like Biden or Sanders. For example, people cite the relatively unknown Senator Barack Obama’s win over the widely known Clinton in Iowa in 2008 as a turning point in the race between them.11

Alternatively, a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire for Biden or Sanders could help solidify their positions and signal to other candidates that the time has come to rally around them. On the other hand, losing, or even just barely winning, in Iowa and New Hampshire could have negative consequences for their arguments, especially if they lose out to newcomers like Buttigieg or Warren.

Of course, it’s also possible that the results of Iowa and New Hampshire could have little significance at all. The two remaining contests in February can also reinvigorate a campaign. Governor Bill Clinton (D-Ark.) famously lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992, but his large margin of victory in South Carolina less than a month later earned him the nickname “The Comeback Kid” and helped propel him to the nomination.12 In addition, March sees many more contests dealing with much larger populations, and the results of those primaries and caucuses will likely make a frontrunner clear.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having many candidates to choose from in a primary or caucus?
  2. In February 2020, there will be four contests for Democrats: in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Each of these states is intended to represent a different part of the country. Do you agree with these choices?
  3. Under New Hampshire law, the state is required to hold the first primary in the country; Iowa state law similarly mandates that the Iowa caucuses be held at least eight days before any other nominating contest. Are these good enough reasons for Iowa and New Hampshire to be the first states to cast votes?
  4. Some have suggested that instead of state-by-state/week-to-week contests, all primaries should be held on one date, similar to the general election. Do you agree/disagree with this idea? Why?




Featured Image Credit: https://people.com/politics/top-democratic-candidates-2020-list-poll-numbers-names-fundraising/
[1] People: https://people.com/politics/top-democratic-candidates-2020-list-poll-numbers-names-fundraising/
[2] 270toWin.com: https://www.270towin.com/2020-election-calendar/
[3] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/ia/iowa_democratic_presidential_caucus-6731.html
[4] Ibid
[5] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/nh/new_hampshire_democratic_presidential_primary-6276.html
[6] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-01-16/iowa-caucus-nears-undecided-voters-feel-the-pressure
[7] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/politicaljunkie/2009/07/a_president_denied_renominatio.html
[8] Fortune: https://fortune.com/2019/10/10/trump-2020-republican-primaries-cancelled/
[9] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/ia/iowa_democratic_presidential_caucus-3195.html
[10] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/nh/new_hampshire_republican_presidential_primary-3350.html
[11] BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7171282.stm
[12] IdeaStream.org: https://www.ideastream.org/news/with-a-month-to-go-before-iowa-and-new-hampshire-anything-can-happen



U.S.-Iranian Relations Following the Death of Qasem Soleimani

On January 2, 2020, it was announced that an air strike ordered by President Donald Trump had successfully targeted and killed Qasem Soleimani, chief of the Quds Force, at Baghdad International Airport. The Quds Force is regarded as the elite unit of Iran’s military; it handles overseas operations and is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Soleimani and his troops have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members, as well as the wounding of thousands more.1

Soleimani’s killing follows an Iranian attack on December 27, 2019, against a U.S. military base in Iraq, and a coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Both of these attacks were commanded by Soleimani.2 In a statement, the Department of Defense explained that the strike was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”3 The day after Soleimani’s death, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was an imminent threat of attack, plotted by Soleimani, that would have put many American lives at risk.4

The news of President Trump’s order to kill Soleimani has received both praise and criticism from members of Congress. Republican lawmakers have largely applauded the strike, arguing that it brought justice to many American military families; they also insist that the Quds Force would be to blame for any escalation that comes.5 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has stated that the administration’s action risks provoking further escalation of violence around the world.6 Many Democrats fear that the consequences of the strike could lead to another war in the Middle East.7 The divided response from Congress on the legality of the attack has also reignited a debate on presidential war powers.

There has been criticism from congressional Republicans as well. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that the administration’s effort to explain the attack was “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” Senator Lee added, “What I found so distressing about the briefing is one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran,’ and that if you do, ‘You will be emboldening Iran.’”8 Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) added, “I think it’s sad when people have this fake sort of drape of patriotism, and anybody that disagrees with them is not a patriot. … For him to insult and say that somehow we’re not as patriotic as he is—he hasn’t even read the Constitution … he insults the Constitution, our Founding Fathers, and what we do stand for in this republic by making light of it and accusing people of lacking patriotism.”9

Even with those questions and critiques from President Trump’s fellow Republicans, it is unlikely that the Senate will take actions to curb the president’s authority. On January 9, the House of Representatives passed a concurrent resolution to restrict the administration’s authority to strike Iran without congressional approval. The resolution now heads to the Senate, but it is less likely to pass in that chamber. Meanwhile, House leadership is considering further action to reduce the president’s authority to act without the input of Congress.10

While U.S.-Iran relations have long been tense and unsettled, those relations have become have become increasingly contentious in recent years. With the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the reinstatement of sanctions in 2018, and Iran’s recent attacks on U.S. personnel, the hope for improved relations still seems distant.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think the United States was right to kill Soleimani? Why or why not?
  2. Was the attack on Soleimani a proper response to the December attacks on Americans? Why or why not?
  3. Why do you think members of Congress are so divided in their response?
  4. How does this impact U.S. troops abroad?
  5. Do you think the killing of Soleimani has lessened or heightened the risk of an Iranian attack against the United States?
  6. What should the balance of power be between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action?



Featured Image Credit: https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200102230543-qassem-soleimani-file-2016-restricted-exlarge-169.jpg
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/03/asia/soleimani-profile-intl-hnk/index.html
[2] The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/476632-soleimani-is-dead-but-the-enemy-still-stands
[3] Department of Defense: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2049534/statement-by-the-department-of-defense/
[4] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-blast-target/iranian-commander-soleimani-had-been-in-pompeos-sights-for-years-idUSKBN1Z21UT
[5] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/us/politics/us-iran-war.html
[6] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/world/middleeast/iranian-general-qassem-soleimani-killed.html
[7] Ibid.
[8] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/08/most-disturbing-part-mike-lees-broadside-against-trump-administrations-iran-briefing/
[9] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/09/why-dont-mike-lee-rand-paul-have-support/
[10] CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/war-powers-resolution-house-votes-to-limit-trumps-ability-act-against-iran/


The Death Penalty: A Just Punishment?

On November 15, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals suspended the execution of Rodney Reed and sent his case back to trial, due to new witness testimony that pointed to his innocence and raised concerns about how evidence was handled during the initial trial.1 Since 1977, at least 166 inmates have been released from death row after new evidence came forward or problems were found in the trial procedures.2  

Currently, 29 states have death penalty laws, and the federal government recently announced that it would resume executions after a 16-year hiatus. Attorney General William Barr has scheduled five death sentences to be carried out by the end of the year, all in cases involving horrifying murder (and, in some cases, sexual assault as well). Seven states have carried out 20 executions this year,3 the lowest number since 1976, when the Supreme Court found in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.4 Among the factors hindering the pace of federal executions are the difficulty of obtaining the drugs necessary for lethal injection, as well as declining support for the death penalty among the public,5 possibly due to lower rates of violent crime and the recent exoneration of some death row inmates.6

On November 25, 2019, Gallup released the results of a new survey indicating for the first time that Americans now prefer life in prison with no possibility of parole over the death penalty when a person is convicted of murder. Support for life in prison rose from 45 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in the most recent survey; support for the death penalty dropped from 50 percent to 36 percent. However, 56 percent of Americans still broadly support the death penalty, even if they prefer life in prison as a just punishment for convicted murderers.7 

Although capital punishment has been a controversial issue for decades, researchers from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks death penalty statistics, noted that “[t]his year has had an extraordinarily high percentage of cases in which there is very serious evidence that people who did not commit the killing are being subjected to death warrants.”8 As such, policymakers are considering and reconsidering whether or not the death penalty is an appropriate way to deliver justice. 

Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty are vehemently opposed to any innocent person being put to death. But supporters insist that some crimes are so terrible that death is the only suitable punishment. They also argue that the possibility of a death sentence helps prevent crime from happening in the first place.9 In response to Attorney General Barr’s decision to schedule executions for five federal prisoners, victims’ advocates pointed out that some families find it extremely painful to wait years or decades for an execution that they see as closure and justice for their loved one(s).10 For his part, President Donald Trump supports the death penalty and has called for using capital punishment for mass shooters and drug traffickers.11 

Opposing opinions on the death penalty point to inmates like Reed, who was convicted and sentenced to death even though his blood did not match the blood found under the victim’s fingernails and observers have contested the legitimacy of the central evidence in his case.12 Critics argue that the justice system can be flawed, and that there is always a risk that an innocent person could be executed. Opponents also note that even when guilt is certain—as it was in the case of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of murdering a couple and their child—judgments of who receives the death penalty can be arbitrary and unfair. For example, Lee’s co-conspirator, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence even though most accounts point to Kehoe as instigating the violence.13

For further reading on the death penalty, please see Close Up in Class’ Controversial Issue in the News on the subject.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Do you support the death penalty? Why or why not? 
  2. What type(s) of crime, if any, should warrant the death penalty? 
  3. How should policymakers respond to the problem of potentially innocent people serving on death row? 
  4. How should public opinion factor into death penalty decisions made by judges and justices? 



Featured Image Credit: Associated Press 
[1] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/rodney-reed-texas-execution.html
[2] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/us/death-penalty-rodney-reed-crimes.html
[3] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-executions/ex-judges-families-of-murder-victims-call-for-halt-to-us-federal-death-penalty-idUSKBN1XN046
[4] Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1975/74-6257
[5] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-executions/ex-judges-families-of-murder-victims-call-for-halt-to-us-federal-death-penalty-idUSKBN1XN046
[6] Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/poll/268514/americans-support-life-prison-death-penalty.aspx
[7] Ibid.
[8] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/us/death-penalty-rodney-reed-crimes.html
[9] BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/for_1.shtml
[10] The Gazette: https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/execution-for-iowa-mass-killer-dustin-honken-on-hold-20191121
[11] WhiteHouse.gov: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-mass-shootings-texas-ohio/
[12] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/rodney-reed-texas-execution.html
[13] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-12/rod-reed-ray-cromartie-kardashian-injustice-capital-punishment


Political Ads on Social Media

Twitter blog postOn October 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that, effective November 22, Twitter would ban all political advertising on its platform. Dorsey justified the decision by explaining that political ads present “entirely new challenges to civic discourse.”1 Twitter’s sweeping decision was not an arbitrary one; it was the result of a new wave of scrutiny and criticism over the way social media companies manage political advertising, especially when the ads in question are false or misleading.

This past month, President Donald Trump’s campaign ran ads baselessly accusing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, of a corruption conspiracy in Ukraine. The videos were viewed millions of times and allowed to stay up on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media websites.2 When the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the ads, the company refused, citing the “newsworthiness” of the political statements, even though they were not supported by evidence.3  Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy, explained, “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”4

Facebook was previously reluctant to police content back in May, when it allowed a doctored video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—one that was slowed down and made her appear drunk—to remain on the website. The company has also faced intense criticism for its failure to both prevent and acknowledge the distribution of Russian propaganda during the 2016 election. Russian state agents were able to buy thousands of ads, target specific users, and spread fake news to sow confusion, discord, and division.5 Facebook responded with fact-checks to accompany dubious posts and made ad information—such as the purchaser, the amount paid, and the audience reach—publicly accessible. Still, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he sees the value of not moderating ad content, noting, “In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians, or the news.”6

Twitter blog post
To criticize Facebook’s ad policies, Senator Elizabeth Warren ran an intentionally false ad on the website, claiming that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump.

Twitter’s ban on political advertising includes all “ads that refer to an election or a candidate” and “ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance.” However, the site will still allow ads that promote voter registration information.7 While Facebook does not require political ads to be accurate, it has removed several ads by the campaigns of President Trump, Biden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) due to unrelated policy violations, such as the use of profanity, misleading links, and/or fake buttons.8 This shows a willingness by Facebook, however small, to regulate and reject ads by using some standardized criteria.

Social media has become an increasingly effective tool for politicians to reach and influence voters. According to Advertising Analytics, about $152 million has been spent on digital ads by the 2020 presidential candidates thus far, with online advertising making up 57.5 percent of their total ad spending.9 This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that people increasingly rely on their social media accounts as sources of news and information. Twitter has approximately 126 million daily users, while Facebook has over 1.2 billion daily users worldwide.10

The decisions of Twitter and Facebook have highlighted the tensions regarding content regulation and the partisan divide that accompanies them. Warren has derided Facebook as a “disinformation-for-profit machine,” and her campaign even created a purposely false Facebook ad to underscore the point.11 Facebook’s inaction concerns those who fear a repeat of what happened in 2016.

Likewise, Twitter has attracted criticism for banning political ads altogether. Brad Parscale, the manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign, called it “yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”12 Many lesser-known candidates at the grassroots level are also concerned that they may be inadvertently suppressed, as they often turn to online advertising for its broad reach and relatively small costs.


Discussion Questions

  1. How frequently do you see political ads online?
  2. How pressing of an issue do you believe fake news and disinformation on social media to be?
  3. Should politicians be required to make sure everything they post is accurate?
  4. What action(s) should social media companies take regarding political ads? (Banning them completely like Twitter, allowing them to say anything like Facebook, something in between?)
  5. Should there be laws or campaign regulations that hold candidates’ advertising to a standard of truth?



Featured Image Credit: WFAE/Twitter
[1] Twitter: https://twitter.com/jack/status/1189634369016586240
[2] Vox: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/9/20906612/trump-campaign-ad-joe-biden-ukraine-facebook
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/technology/elizabeth-warren-facebook-ad.html
[4] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/technolog y/facebook-trump-biden-ad.html
[5] House Intelligence Committee: https://intelligence.house.gov/social-media-content/
[6] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/technology/facebooks-earnings-and-revenue-jump-topping-forecasts.html?module=inline
[7] Twitter: https://twitter.com/vijaya/status/1189664481263046656
[8] BuzzFeed News: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/facebook-warren-biden-trump-ads-take-down-profanity
[9] Axios: https://www.axios.com/2020-presidential-campaign-advertising-online-tv-8e036c37-68cc-48e4-861e-52ab26b42b6d.html
[10] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/02/07/twitter-reveals-its-daily-active-user-numbers-first-time/
[11] Elizabeth Warren via Twitter: https://twitter.com/ewarren/status/1183019880867680256
[12] Trump Campaign via Twitter: https://twitter.com/parscale/status/1189656652250845184


Vaping: Free Market vs. Consumer Safety

Vaping products

On September 11, 2019, President Donald Trump told reporters that his administration was considering a ban on flavored vaping products.1 This announcement came after a sometimes-fatal, vaping-related illness began appearing across the United States. On November 18, the Trump administration seemed to reverse course under pressure from constituents2 and corporate donors,3 announcing that no new regulations would be put in place at this time.

Vaping is the use of electronic cigarettes (often stylized as e-cigarettes). E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid into a vapor that is inhaled.4 E-cigarettes can contain an assortment of substances, including nicotine and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active compound in marijuana). E-cigarettes can also come in various flavors that mimic candies, soft drinks, or fruits. The flavoring of e-cigarettes has sparked nationwide discourse about the free market and consumer safety principles.

Opponents of flavored e-cigarettes claim that such products add to the influx of adolescents becoming addicted to nicotine. Prior to the rise of e-cigarettes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported downward trends in tobacco consumption. However, “since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among U.S. middle and high school students. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of youth who used e-cigarettes went up by 1.5 million. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has called e-cigarette use by youth an ‘epidemic,’ and warned that it threatens decades of progress toward making sure fewer young people use tobacco.”5

Supporters, on the other hand, view e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to cigarettes—one that has helped many people break their addiction to smoked tobacco products. Proponents of flavored e-cigarettes believe that banning flavors would not discourage people from the risks of vaping; rather, it would make them turn to the black market, where they could come into contact with unregulated, potentially dangerous products.6 Advocates of flavored e-cigarettes also argue that over-regulation of flavored tobacco products would hurt small businesses. Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a conservative advocacy group, noted, “Eliminating all but one or two of these options [of e-cigarette flavors] for adults would destroy thousands of small businesses, force many adult vapers to return to smoking, and force some to seek out products on the black market.”7

However, as a result of the vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths, state governments and some private businesses have begun implementing new restrictions. Juul Labs Inc., one of the largest e-cigarette providers in the United States, announced on October 17, that it would suspend sales of all non-tobacco- and non-menthol-based flavors of its e-cigarette products.8 As of October 28, the state governments of Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington have issued temporary bans on flavored vaping products, and other states are considering implementing bans. Massachusetts has instituted the most restrictive ban—a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products, regardless of whether or not products are flavored.9

As the conversation about flavored e-cigarettes continues, individuals on both sides of the debate are taking a closer look at this social phenomenon and its impact on American society.

For further reading on e-cigarette bans, please see Close Up in Class’ Controversial Issue in the News on the subject.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How much have you heard about the addictiveness of nicotine and other stimulants?
  2. Should companies be allowed to knowingly cause addiction in consumers? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think vaping is a health crisis? Why or why not?
  4. Who should be responsible for managing the risks of using e-cigarettes: government or consumers?
  5. Is limiting access to flavors a legitimate way to discourage vaping? Why or why not?
  6. When do government regulations begin to encroach on individual liberties?



Featured Image Credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters via theatlantic.com
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/11/politics/donald-trump-vape-e-cigarette-flavors/index.html
[2] Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/11/trump-reversal-flavored-e-cigarette-vape-ban.html
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/health/trump-vaping-ban.html
[4] National Institutes of Health: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2019/02/vaping-rises-among-teens
[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/features/back-to-school/e-cigarettes-talk-to-youth-about-risks/index.html
[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulhsieh/2019/09/30/dont-make-the-vaping-crisis-worse-with-hasty-new-regulations/#1fca1e53169f
[7] Forbes: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/464470-trump-takes-heat-from-right-over-vaping-crackdown
[8] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/10/17/771098368/juul-suspends-sales-of-flavored-vapes-and-signs-settlement-to-stop-marketing-to-
[9] Associated Press: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/27/washington-joins-other-states-in-flavored-vaping-ban.html#targetText=New%20York%2C%20Michigan%20and%20Rhode,vaping%20products%20%E2%80%94%20flavored%20or%20not.