Monday, November 30, 2020

I’m a COVID-19 long-hauler and an epidemiologist – here’s how it feels when symptoms last for months by Margot Gage Witvliet, Assistant Professor of Social Epidemiology, Lamar University

Imagine being young and healthy, a nonsmoker with no preexisting health conditions, and then waking up one morning feeling like you were being suffocated by an unseen force. Back in March, this was my reality.

I had just returned from Europe, and roughly 10 days later started having flu-like symptoms. I became weak overnight and had trouble breathing. It felt like jogging in the Rocky Mountains without being in condition, only I wasn’t moving. I went to the hospital, where I was tested for COVID-19.

I was one of the first people in Texas given a non-FDA-approved test. My results came back negative. As a social epidemiologist who deals with big data, I was certain it was a false negative.

More than four months later, the symptoms have not gone away. My heart still races even though I am resting. I cannot stay in the sun for long periods; it zaps all of my energy. I have gastrointestinal problems, ringing in the ears and chest pain.

I’m what’s known as a long-hauler – part of a growing group of people who have COVID-19 and have never fully recovered. Fatigue is one of the most common persistent symptoms, but there are many others, including the cognitive effects people often describe as brain fog. As more patients face these persistent symptoms, employers will have to find ways to work with them. It’s too soon to say we’re disabled, but it’s also too soon to know how long the damage will last.

The frustration of not knowing

What made matters worse in the beginning was that my doctors were not certain I had COVID-19. My test was negative and I had no fever, so my symptoms did not fit into early descriptions of the disease. Instead, I was diagnosed with a respiratory illness, prescribed the Z-pack antibiotic and a low dosage of an anti-inflammatory medication normally used for arthritis patients.

Yale study released in May shows COVID-19 deaths in America do not reflect the pandemic’s true mortality rate. If I had died at home, my death would not have been counted as COVID-19.

By the end of March, I was on the road to recovery. Then I had a seizure. In the ER, the doctor said I had COVID-19 and that I was lucky – tests showed my organs did not have lasting damage. After the seizure, I lay in my bedroom for weeks with the curtains drawn, because light and sound had started to hurt.

The search for answers

I did not understand why I was not recovering. I began searching for answers online. I found a support group for people struggling with COVID-19 long-term. They called themselves long-haulers.

COVID-19 support groups show that there are many people not considered sick enough to be hospitalized – yet they are experiencing symptoms worse than the flu. It is possible COVID-19 is neurotoxic and is one of the first illnesses capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. This might explain why many people like me have neurological problems. Many long-haulers are experiencing post-viral symptoms similar to those caused by mononucleosis and myalgicencephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.

A common frustration is that some medical doctors dismiss their complaints as psychological.

One woman in the support group wrote: “140 days later, so many are hard to breathe, and no doctors will take me seriously as I was diagnosed with a negative swab and negative antibodies.”

Paul Garner was the first epidemiologist to publicly share his COVID status. He described his 7-week fight with the coronavirus in a blog post for the British medical journal The BMJ. In July, I was interviewed by ABC. That month, an Indiana University researcher working with an online community of long-haulers released a report identifying over 100 symptoms, and the CDC expanded its list of characteristics that put people at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. On July 31, the CDC also acknowledged that young people with no prior medical issues can experience long-term symptoms.

It’s still unclear why COVID-19 impacts some people more severely than others. Emerging evidence suggests blood type might play a role. However, data are mixed.

Dutch study found immune cells TLR7 – Toll-like receptor 7 located on the X chromosome – which is needed to detect the virus is not operating properly in some patients. This allows COVID-19 to move unchecked by the immune system. Men do not have an extra X chromosome to rely on, suggesting that men, rather than women, may experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Many COVID-19 survivors report having no antibodies for SARS-CoV-2. Antibody tests have a low accuracy rate, and data from Sweden suggest T-cell responses might be more important for immunity. Emerging evidence found CD4 and CD8 memory T-cell response in some people recovered from COVID-19, regardless of whether antibodies were present. A La Jolla Institute for Immunity study identified SARS-CoV-2-specific memory T-cell responses in some people who were not exposed to COVID-19, which might explain why some people get sicker than others. The complete role of T-cell response is unknown, but recent data are promising.

Looking ahead in an economy of long-haulers

Like many long-haulers, my goal is to resume a normal life.

I still grapple with a host of post-viral issues, including extreme fatigue, brain fog and headaches. I spend the majority of my day resting.

A big challenge long-haulers face may be sustaining employment. Ultimately, it is too early to classify long-haulers as having a disability. Anthony Fauci reported that “it will take months to a year or more to know whether lingering COVID-19 symptoms in young people could be chronic illnesses.”

Economics is a big driver of health, and the link between employment and health care in America further exacerbates the need to maintain employment to protect health. Employers need to be ready to make accommodations to keep long-haulers working. The stress of being sick long-term, combined with the possibility of job loss, can also contribute to mental health issues.

To effectively fight COVID-19 and understand the risks, these patients with continuing symptoms must be studied. Online support groups, meanwhile, are helping long-haulers feel understood. (The Conversation).




“The photo of Dr. Joseph Varon and the patient was taken in the ICU at United Memorial Medical Center…

“‘I truly believe that the next six to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest weeks in modern American medical history,’ Varon said… I have nurses who, in the middle of the day, are crying because, you know, they keep on getting patients, and there are just not enough nurses that can help us.’ Varon [stated] the [Thanksgiving] holiday was his ‘252nd workday in a row…’

With more than half the United States recording record-high daily hospitalizations this past week, significant restrictions are on the way…” (ABC News).

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Do You Think You’re Getting a Good Deal?


30 Tricks Sellers Use to Make You Pay Too Much

Shop around. That’s Checkbook’s Golden Rule. The only way to make sure you’re not paying too much for anything is to compare prices from several sellers.

For more than 40 years, our undercover shoppers have obtained more than one million prices for everything from alternators to zucchini from hundreds of types of retailers and service providers—all types of home improvement contractors, auto repair shopsstores selling big-ticket productsdentistsveterinarianstravel sitesgrocery stores, and many more.

This research constantly reveals huge company-to-company price differences: Some places charge more than double what their nearby competitors charge for the exact same work or products. And we find you don’t have to pay more to get good service and the best products. Companies rated highest in our surveys of consumers are just as likely to offer low prices as those that get lousy ratings. In other words, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.

One reason for big price differences is that, because companies know most customers won’t bother to shop around, they can offer whatever prices they want. Sometimes consumers don’t shop around because it’s a pain to scour the internet for the lowest price on a TV or to schedule four or five roofers to bid on a reroofing job. But often we find buyers don’t compare prices because they’ve been duped into thinking they’re already getting a great deal.

Companies use an arsenal of marketing tricks to convince customers they’re scoring bargains, often duping them into spending more or paying right away without checking the competition. While many of these tactics have been used for centuries, we’re finding that the methods are increasingly sophisticated and the dishonest claims are bolder.

Here are 30 sneaky pricing and selling strategies to guard against. Be aware that some companies employ more than one.

Fake Sales

“SALE! 60% OFF!!”

Many retailers constantly advertise big savings. But these promotions usually aren’t discounts at all—they’re attempts to mislead.
Our researchers tracked prices of big-ticket items sold at 19 major retailers for 10 months. They found that sale prices at 17 of the stores were bogus, with supposedly lower prices being offered more than half the time. At some stores the fake sales never end: For several chains, Checkbook found most items we tracked were offered at a false discount every week or almost every week we checked. In other words, the “regular price” shown on price tags is seldom—if ever—what customers actually pay.

While some stores employ more egregious fake-sale practices than others, nearly all those we reviewed were guilty of some sales-price chicanery. Of the 19, only Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond consistently conducted legitimate sales. The other 17 retailers—including Best Buy, Gap, Home Depot, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Target, Sears, Walmart, and others—as a group marked their items “on sale” 57 percent of the time, meaning that they were promoting fake deals more than half of the time.

These special-but-not-really-special discounts, holiday sales, and red-dot-spring/summer/whatever events are meant to manipulate you into buying items right away while “on sale” lest you soon face higher prices. It dissuades you from shopping around—after all, if something is “60 percent off,” what’s the point of comparing prices elsewhere? All this good-deal euphoria is also designed to make you snap up more stuff while you’re at it.

By constantly offering items at sale prices—and rarely or ever at regular prices—retailers are using illegal advertising. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission has chosen not to enforce its own rules against such deceptive pricing.

Inflated Anchor Prices

Fake “regular” prices, referred to in the industry as “anchor prices,” enable misleading sales. Most sellers now show prices that are crossed out with lower “sale” prices splashed nearby. Those crossed-out higher “list” prices are rarely if ever charged by the store or its competitors; they’re gimmicks to make that day’s prices seem like bargains.

Few retailers prominently disclose the sources of anchor prices they display. Amazon labels any crossed-out price on its site a “List price”; if you search for the fine print, it says that’s the “suggested retail price of a product as provided by a manufacturer, supplier, or seller.”

All car dealers inflate each vehicle’s value by prominently displaying MSRP [manufacturer suggested retail price] or a “sticker” price—rarely what buyers pay.

We have problems with all false regular-price claims, but the approach used by Amazon and car dealers seems almost reasonable compared to Kohl’s. Buried in the legalese section of its website, it outrageously explains its anchor prices: “The ‘Regular’ or ‘Original’ price of an item is the former or future offered price for the item or a comparable item by Kohl’s or another retailer. Actual sales may not have been made at the ‘Regular’ or ‘Original’ prices.”

That’s right: Kohl’s is telling you that its competitors might at some point in the future charge the imaginary prices it uses to anchor its misleading “discounts.”

Like fake sales practices, this is illegal. By law, sellers are prevented from displaying crossed-out “regular” prices if they’re not actually their normally offered prices. Unfortunately, use of fake anchor prices is a standard tactic for many types of businesses now.

Scarcity Warnings

Demand is high! Supply is low! Act quickly or they won’t have anything left to sell you. Usually, it’s a ruse to push you into buying.
For example, Checkbook’s researchers spent weeks searching various hotel booking websites. At Agoda,, Expedia,, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity, we were often warned in search results about sold-out hotels or “Only 1 Left.” The design of each website constantly indicated that unless we quit our shopping around and booked right away, there would be no rooms at the inns.

But our investigation found most dire warnings about low availability were dishonest: Most hotels still had plenty of rooms left. We conducted 80 searches for hotel stays in major cities across these eight websites, and all spit out misleading messages. We repeated these searches three times over three weeks. Each time our shoppers got alerts about shortages that typically didn’t exist.

Don’t let warnings like these deter you from shopping around. Even if someone else buys that last discontinued sofa, salespeople are always happy to find something else to sell you.

Fake Competition

Many consumers assume they’re enjoying low prices due to fierce competition among Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other mega-retailers, plus easy-to-compare prices using Google and other search engines.

Unfortunately, as we've discussed in a previous report, that’s usually not the case. In fact, there is little price competition for many big-ticket items like appliances, TVs, computersbikes, and more. That’s because sellers, in collaboration with manufacturers and online search engines, work hard to limit price competition. It’s one reason the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and 50 state attorneys general are now investigating Amazon, Google, and other tech giants.

A common way manufacturers and retailers avoid price wars is by using a “minimum advertised price” (MAP), prohibiting retailers from advertising products for prices below preset minimums. If a product’s MAP is $499, that’s the lowest price retailers can advertise. While it’s still worth shopping around, this means there’s little price competition for many products.

Another way companies with dominant market share present an illusion of competition is by operating several different brands. While it seems like there are dozens of travel-booking websites fighting for your dough—Agoda,, Expedia, HomeAway,, Hotwire, Kayak, momondo, Mundi, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, Trivago, Vrbo—all of these and others are owned by either Expedia Group or Booking Holdings.

Lack of competition usually results in higher prices. With hotel bookings, it has led to price agreements between hotels and travel websites that require them to charge the same price for the same room no matter where you shop.

Sellers should set their own prices without agreements or constraints.


When travel websites like Vrbo/HomeAway and FlipKey show you per-night rates that don’t include hundreds of dollars in mandatory service fees, cleaning fees, “owner fees,” penalties for “additional guests,” and other poorly disclosed charges, it’s a bait-and-switch. Ditto for hotels that display per-night rates that don’t include their “resort” or facility fees. Although laws and FTC rules prohibit such schemes, enforcement is rare.

The travel industry is awash in hidden fees costing consumers billions each year. Hotels increasingly charge poorly disclosed mandatory “resort” and “facility” fees, padding profits and making price comparisons harder. These extra charges—usually $20–$40 per night—aren’t shown in the per-night rates displayed in search results on travel booking websites, making cheapest-to-most-expensive sorting meaningless. These fees also aren’t disclosed on the initial pricing shown on hotels’ own sites. When Checkbook looked at 205 hotel stays in a dozen U.S. destinations, we found more than two-thirds had mandatory resort fees. On average, these junk fees added $29—an extra 13 percent—per night.

And many vacation-rental sites charge even higher hidden fees. Checkbook’s shoppers pulled 600 listings for a three-night stay on Vrbo/HomeAway and found, on average, hidden fees inflated prices by more than 25 percent, adding an extra $231 for our stay. At one-fourth of the listings, hidden fees added more than $300 to the total cost. We found these types of hidden fees were also commonplace on FlipKey.

Drip Pricing

Similar to bait-and-switch, some companies tout only part of a total price you must pay. Cable TV operators have long promised new customers low prices of $79 a month, but once they add in fees, taxes, and rental fees for things you’d think would be standard—routers, remotes, DVRs, converter box for a second TV, etc.—you’ll pay $150 a month.

Airlines’ prices also appear artificially low since basic economy fares may not include baggage fees, carry-on allowances, seat selection, ability to accrue frequent flyer miles, or the right to cancel or change your trip (even for a fee). The carriers use basic economy prices to lure you in before piling on extra charges for services most travelers want.

Price Line-ups and Decoys

Most consumers, when presented with a line-up of product models with an array of features and price points, will select one in the middle. Stores often use this tendency to upsell shoppers by showing them seemingly less-desirable or budget options; they know they’ll likely splurge a bit more for a higher-priced model.

Price decoys are a similar tactic to groom shoppers to pay higher prices. Retailers often display a significantly more expensive option—say, a $1,700 necklace—right next to a $500 one to make the lower price tag seem more affordable. Apple, for example, does this with its watches: You likely won’t pony up $1,400 for its top-end Hermes Series 5 model, but that price makes spending $299–$699 on a more popular model seem like a decent value.

Often, when you browse or search retail websites, it looks like products are displayed by default in a somewhat random order, but there’s often no randomness to it at all: The site is designed to show you a few choices to help you feel good about the price you’re willing to pay.

People Also Bought…

A cardinal rule for salespeople is to always have something to sell. If you decide the item you’re considering isn’t for you, websites and stores keep on hand lots of other options you might buy instead.

And sites like Amazon are masters at showing you stuff related to what you’ve searched for to motivate you to keep adding items to your shopping cart.


Our loss-aversion tendencies also make us ripe for paying extra to “protect” purchases or our finances. At checkout, sellers often warn about big risks—expensive repairs for breakdowns or accidental damage; natural disasters affecting travel—and then offer to sell you a solution in the form of insurance to protect against these losses.

Checkbook has evaluated these mini “peace of mind” policies, including home warrantiesextended product warrantiestravel insurancerental car coverage, and more. We find these plans help their sellers make moolah, but don’t provide much value to consumers. Buy insurance to protect against risks that could be financially catastrophic—house fires, auto accidents, medical care—and not to pay for repairs or replacement products you could easily afford.

Not-So-Independent Referrals

Many companies promise to connect you to the best deals or the best companies. But these arrangements often exist to serve sellers with sales leads and not necessarily help you find the best businesses or lowest prices.

For example, alongside its vehicle reviews Consumer Reports’ website displays prominent messaging such as “Ready to Buy? Save Money with Build & Buy Car Buying Service! Members have seen an average savings of $3,016 off MSRP.” Not-so-prominently disclosed: These links take you to TrueCar, which makes its money by providing sales leads to car dealers. It partners with Consumer Reports, AARP, and many other membership groups and companies that get a cut of fees paid by car dealers to TrueCar when their referrals are used to close deals with affiliated dealers.

TrueCar advertises “Car buying at its easiest,” but when we tested it, multiple car dealers were unleashed on us. After five months, one near-daily emailer even sympathized: “You’re probably saying to yourself...‘Please leave me alone!’”

And TrueCar likely won’t net you the lowest price for your new ride. Although it displays price commitments from participating dealers, we usually find far better deals elsewhere. We advise car shoppers that the best way to get the lowest price is to make dealers bid competitively, which bypasses negotiation hassles and forces dealerships to offer their lowest prices. Here at, we provide a step-by-step guide on how to do this. And for more than 25 years, we’ve offered our CarBargains service to consumers who want to pay our experts to do this shopping for them.

We find that the prices our CarBargains service obtains beat the lowest ones offered by dealers via TrueCar by an average of more than $1,500 per car—which indicates Consumer Reports’ special “Member Pricing” supplied by TrueCar isn’t really so special.

Renewal Discounts

As we detail in our coverage of auto insurance rates, many drivers pay too much for auto insurance because they stick with the same company year after year. Often it’s because they think they’re getting big price breaks for their loyalty. Don’t assume the rate you’ve paid in the past is still a good price; every few years, shop around.

For a Limited Time Only!

Another selling technique is to claim a discount is available for only a short time. Want the lower price? Better get moving as it’s only good on Black Friday or end-of-the-year clearance or Presidents’ Day or Valentine’s Day or Memorial Day or 4th of July weekend… But really, there’s no rush: At most stores, the supposedly temporary “discounts” never end.

Deadlines show up in other high-pressure sales environments: gyms offering to waive hundreds of dollars in initiation fees if you sign up that day; free upgrades that won’t be around after you leave the room.

Salespeople know that if you walk out of the store or their pressure-cooker presentation, you probably won’t return. By setting immediate deadlines, they hope you’ll stop your pesky contemplation and buy already.


If a seller knows its customers will balk at paying a big price, it might split it into smaller, more acceptable slices. So when QVC wants to sell you, well, just about anything, it offers it for “5 Easy Pays of $22!”

Lots of non-infomercial retailers also make their prices seem more manageable by offering smaller payments. Kayak even offers to let you make monthly payments for trips.

By Design

Online and brick-and-mortar stores spend millions consulting with behavioral psychologists to get you in the mood to buy. Certain colors and fonts can play huge roles in framing products as affordable or as luxury necessities. Piping in slow or classic tunes makes you linger as you browse; many restaurants play fast-beat music so you’ll chew quickly. Department stores change up flooring materials to slow your gait. Some shops even spray scents formulated to move merchandise.

Sssshhhh…Just for You

“Because you’ve been a great customer...” “Because we have a crew working nearby…” “Because we have leftover materials…” “Because you’re a parent or a senior…” “Because you belong to the Moose Lodge…” Salespeople know if they can convince you that you’re getting special treatment, you’ll feel good about their offers—and might not shop around to find better prices or terms.

Payment Mediums

Many companies have taken a cue from casinos’ use of chips by pushing alternative payment methods. For example, using Starbucks’ app to pay for daily $5 lattes feels like you’re not spending real money.

Loss Leaders

Grocery stores excel at advertising a small number of items at steep discounts to make customers think they’re getting low prices. Of course, once you’re in the store you’ll pick up several other things in addition to that BOGO ice cream.

We find most other sales are really fake discounts off “regular” prices that you’ll rarely pay. And even legit price reductions are often just a way to get you in the door. Although most Black Friday prices now aren’t really special, some stores still throw out deals like 50 laptops for $199 and splash that price across their ads—and perhaps even get some free publicity for it (for some reason, news media treat misleading after-Thanksgiving marketing campaigns as breaking news). But their real strategy is to create the impression that all their prices are super-low, luring you in to buy other stuff.

Store Layout

There’s a reason you have to walk a mile for milk at most grocery stores: You’ll pass by impulse items, free samples, baked goods, and other displays designed to make you pause and pick up other stuff while there.

Non-supermarkets also carefully display products. High-profit items are usually at eye level. And the best bargains are usually right at the entrance, so you’ll get the impression that the deals continue as you travel deeper into the store.

Free Gifts and Cross Promotions

For some reason, most of us would much rather avoid losing something than pay for something, even if the two things are of equal value: For example, losing a $100 bill feels far more painful than buying something for $100. Marketing pros take advantage of this “loss-aversion” tendency by presenting sales prospects with offers to make customers feel like they’ll lose money or an opportunity if they don’t act. A common ploy is offering gift cards for future purchases, rather than discounting the thing you’re buying. Those “gifts” are engineered to put you back in the store, spending money—usually more than the value of the gift card.

Bundles and Package Deals

Package deals work on our tendency to pay one price for several different products or services rather than spring for each separately. Vacation packages, for example, are attractive because of their simplicity: In our minds a single all-inclusive price “shrinks” the price of the whole deal, making it seem more affordable.

Online retailers often offer bundles, especially for electronics. Once you’ve agreed to pay $1,500 for a new laptop, you’re easy prey for them to push a docking station, printer, or software. After all, one of these extras will only cost another $100, which is not much money compared to the $1,500 you’re already forking over.

Loyalty Programs

Airline miles, credit card points and rebates, hotel status tiers, Starbucks stars, buy-10-get-one-free offers, platinum-level memberships, school rewards from supermarkets—all are carefully designed to manipulate you to spend often and more.

Low-price Guarantees

Many sellers promise to reduce a price if you later find the items for less, and Checkbook’s researchers easily got stores to honor price-matching policies. But though these promises seem customer friendly, they often serve only to provide customer confidence in prices, or even cover for a store’s high initial prices. One study found that 75 percent of tire sellers with price-matching guarantees charged higher prices than direct competitors without such guarantees, according to Utpal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University.


We often read advice that argues there’s a best time of the year to buy something because sellers need to clear out old inventory—for example, wait until the end of summer to buy a new grill or lawnmower. We find these claims are generally without merit. Often our shoppers find “clearance” items available for the same price from the same sellers months later.

Word Play

Marketing experts avoid adjectives near price displays that might conjure a feeling of high cost. So instead of using “Big savings” or “Highly rated” or “Great performer,” they’ll say “Sale” or “Best seller” or “As advertised.”

Prestige Pricing

While some stores and brands offer continuous fake sales, others—usually luxury lines of perfume, luggage, jewelry, etc.—rarely if ever allow any discounting. The idea is to make you think it’s okay to pay exorbitant prices for their products. Many luxury brands also de-emphasize prices as much as possible. For example, Tiffany’s desktop website doesn’t show you prices until you click on or hover over individual items, and even then its prices are displayed in a tiny light font, as if what you’ll pay is unimportant.

Buying in Bulk

We’re conditioned to believe buying in bulk saves money—and sometimes it does. But often buying more means we’ll spend more than planned, or that we’ll waste savings when throwing out 40 fish sticks no one ate.

Even non-warehouse stores motivate buyers to buy in volume. A popular tactic is setting thresholds shoppers can meet to qualify for discounts. If a store offers you an extra $25 in savings if you buy $100 of stuff, you’ll likely keep adding items to your cart to reach that goal.

Charm Prices

We all know that stores display prices ending in 99, 98, or 95 to make prices appear lower—$9.99 is perceived as “$9 and change,” rather than $10. It’s actually not the “99” or “95” at the end of the price that affects us—it’s that shoppers pay most attention to the left-most numbers in a price; $199 seems a lot better than $200.

Also effective is pricing using seemingly random amounts—say “$328.46.” This makes it look like prices were carefully set so they are as low as possible.


Easy Math

Some sellers, especially those with pricey products, advertise discounts as nice round dollar savings (“Save $100”), rather than as a percentage off. The idea is that you’ll more easily absorb the supposed deal.

4 for $10

We all fall for this. You’ll buy four of them, even if you can buy just one for $2.50.

Invading Your Privacy

We saved the worst for last. Your phone, web browser, internet service provider, cable TV operator, software, mapping apps, vehicle, social media accounts, credit card companies, grocery stores, favorite retailers, smart home devices, and others scoop up a slew of info about where you go, what you search for, who you interact with, what you buy, how you buy it, how much you spend, what you read, how much you borrow, what you watch, how fast you drive, and more. They then sell and trade it for marketing purposes. Search the web for a new sweater and for days afterward you’ll likely get an onslaught of targeted sweater ads.

There’s no clear disclosure of what data these companies collect and what they can do with it. When you agreed to its terms of use, did you realize your phone would collect and sell where you traveled every day? Likely not. And lots of companies are making lots of money buying and selling our data that’s being used in ways we never really agreed to.

Worse, there’s not much we can do to stop it.

On January 1, 2020, the California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect, which gives its residents some rights over their data collected by Google, Facebook, brokers, and the like. It’s similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and is a victory for U.S. consumers—even non-Californians. The law requires businesses to explain what info they collect and why; and because it’s easier to implement systems just once, many offer the same opt-out rights that they do for customers in California.

But because the law requires consumers to take charge of their data, it won’t have much impact unless most consumers advocate for themselves—and businesses that collect and sell these data are counting on that not happening.

Companies are increasingly finding ways to collect data that most of us don’t want them to have. When you submitted your spit to learn about your ethnic heritage, did you think that 23andMe would also sell your entire genome to researchers? Are you comfortable that several companies pay to know your exact whereabouts at all times? If laws are changed and health insurance companies are once again allowed to use pre-existing conditions to set their rates, will they buy data available from brokers—that you unwittingly supplied for free—to deny you coverage?

Our lack of privacy rights isn’t just about ads for sweaters.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

What happens if he won't leave the White House?


“…Federal law says that the states have to finalize their choices of electors on Dec. 8 of the year of elections. And on Dec. 14, the electoral college casts their votes — typically with each group of electors meeting separately in their own state. [According to Professor Robert Shapiro and former acting director of Columbia University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy], at that point, the matter is settled. If more electors vote for Trump, he will get a second inauguration. If more vote for Biden, he will be the legal president-elect, beyond the reach of a court challenge. U.S. presidential candidates have always accepted election results.  Still, what if Trump still refuses to leave?


“It's worth saying again that while Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he hasn't explicitly said he would reject results even at this point. And it would be a true first in American history. Asked if any president had ever hinted at refusing to accept election results, Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University, said no. ‘There is no such precedent or anything really like it,’ Schulman told Live Science. Twice, in 1824 and 1876, presidential elections have ended in the House of Representatives after no candidate managed to secure a majority of the electoral college, he pointed out.


“In 1824, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William Crawford all ran for the presidency, none won an electoral college majority, and the House selected Adams as president. The 1876 congressional contest ended when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes promised congressional Democrats that he would end Reconstruction in return for their votes. That remains one of the most significant events in American history, as The Atlantic reported. But in each case, the loser accepted the final result. (The 1860 election, though it led to a civil war, did not spark any disputes about who had been legitimately elected President, Schulman noted.)


“A more relevant precedent, said Noah Rosenblum, a legal historian at Columbia University in New York City, may be the election of 1800, between President John Adams (a Federalist) and Vice President Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican). ‘That election, as you may know, pitted the Federalists against the Democratic-Republicans, and the contest was fierce,’ Rosenblum said. ‘Each side expressed its sense that, if the other won, it would mean the end of the Republic. And the Federalists, who were in power, took action explicitly designed to weaken their Democratic-Republican opponents, including passing the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts under which they imprisoned Democratic-Republican newspaper editors.’

“In other words, democracy was on the ballot. ‘Nevertheless, after the Federalists lost the (very close) election, John Adams peacefully stepped down in favor of Thomas Jefferson,’ Rosenblum said. So, a scenario where Trump refuses to accept a decided election result would be outlandish, even by the rough and tumble standards of the 19th century. But still, what if?  ‘You're talking about the situation where the vote has been counted, all legal challenges to the vote have been taken care of, the electors meet on the 14th and cast their votes,’ Shapiro said.

“The procedure then is clear. ‘At that point it gets passed on to Congress [usually by Dec. 23] and certified in Congress on Jan. 6 by the [outgoing] vice president,’ Shapiro said. ‘Now, on the 6th, let's say that the House and the Senate accept that the new president of the United States is Joe Biden. At that juncture, if Trump doesn't want to vacate the White House, this is very easy.’

“In legal terms, there's little Trump could do to hold on to power. ‘Somebody swears [Biden] in as president. It could be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It could be his grandmother. As of noon, on the 20th [of January], he's the president of the United States. The entire Secret Service reports to him,’ Shapiro said. ‘Donald Trump as the outgoing president has a contingent of Secret Service. Biden goes to the White House and the Secret Service escorts Trump out. That's what happens. All the civil service of the government, every employee of the United States reports to Joe Biden at that juncture.’

“This story of a straightforward resolution comes with its own assumptions: That the electors are able to vote and have their votes certified; that institutions of the federal government — including Congress, with its roll in certifying results — function as expected; and that the Secret Service (as well as other armed federal agents) follow the law. There are places in the world and moments in history where transfers of power have broken down along similar lines. But never before in the United States. 

“As Jonathan Gienapp, a Stanford University historian, noted in October, Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power calls the strength of American institutions into question. The constitution itself has no direct safeguards to ensure peace, and instead assumes that everyone involved in an election shares a commitment to abiding by the outcome. ‘We have institutions that can be called upon to arbitrate disputes or deny unlawful usurpations of power, but the safeguards that will decide matters are more political than constitutional,’ he wrote. ‘It may fall to elected political leaders, as it did in 1876-77, to work out some sort of compromise. Or, if necessary, the people will need to exercise their fundamental right to assemble and protest in an attempt to bring about resolution.’

“Still, Shapiro said he expects America's multi-century streak of turning over the presidency according to the rules to continue, if everything goes right up until that point. ‘That's the easiest scenario,’ he said. ‘I think the Secret Service is going to report to the new president of the United States. The harder scenario is getting the agreed-upon vote count and the agreed-upon electors.’

“All that said, a recalcitrant Trump could do plenty in the months between today and inauguration to make trouble for Biden…”

Originally published on Live Science, November 3.

Friday, November 27, 2020

How the president could invoke martial law


“Throughout 2020, America has faced a global pandemic, civil unrest after the death of George Floyd and a contentious election. As a result, an influx of fear about the possibility of the invocation of martial law or unchecked military intervention is circulating around the internet among scholars and civilians alike. ‘The fear is certainly understandable, because as I’m sure you know, martial law isn’t described or confined or limited, proscribed in any way by the Constitution or laws,’ Bill Banks, a Syracuse professor with an expertise in constitutional and national security law, told Military Times. ‘If someone has declared martial law, they’re essentially saying that they are the law.’
What is ‘martial law’
“In short, martial law can be imposed when civil rule fails, temporarily being replaced with military authority in a time of crisis. Though rare, there have been a number of notable U.S. cases where martial law came into play, including in times of war, natural disaster and civic dispute — of which there has been no shortage in 2020. While no precise definition of martial law exists, a precedent for it exists wherein, ‘certain civil liberties may be suspended, such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom of association, and freedom of movement. And the writ of habeas corpus [the right to a trial before imprisonment] may be suspended,’ according to documents from JRANK, an online legal encyclopedia.
“Martial law may be declared by both the president and by Congress. State officials may also declare martial law, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, however, ‘their actions under the declaration must abide by the U.S. Constitution and are subject to review in federal court.’ ‘Notorious examples include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent during World War II and George W. Bush’s programs of warrantless wiretapping and torture after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,’ the Atlantic reported. ‘Abraham Lincoln conceded that his unilateral suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War was constitutionally questionable, but defended it as necessary to preserve the Union.’ Throughout the course of U.S. history, federal and state officials have declared martial law at least 68 times, according to Joseph Nunn, an expert with the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Martial law does have limits. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed on June 18, 1878, prevented federal troops from supervising Confederate state elections during Reconstruction. Though initially it only applied to the Army, it has been amended to include the Defense Department and, of course, the other service branches. That act prevents troops from enforcing domestic law, preventing such actions as searching and seizing property or dispersing crowds. However, National Guard units, which take their direction from state governors, are exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act.
“One exception to Posse Comitatus, however, is the Insurrection Act, which allows the use of active-duty or National Guard troops for federal law enforcement in cases when ‘rebellion against the authority of the U.S. makes it impracticable to enforce the laws of the U.S. by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings,’ according to U.S. Northern Command.
“The text of the Act reads: ‘Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect.’
“But activating the National Guard even under federal Title 32 status, in which the federal government helps pay for Guard troops under state control, does not fall under the Insurrection Act, nor does it equate to martial law in ordinary circumstances. ‘Governors call the National Guard all the time to respond to a storms or power outages, delivering medical supplies, stuff going on even during COVID,’ Banks said. ‘That’s not extraordinary, nor would it be if the President federalized the National Guard for similar reasons, responding to a need to disseminate vaccines next winter, for example, would be perfectly appropriate, lawful, not martial law.’
Should we be worried?
“‘The sort of hellish scenarios that some people talk about is one where the president orders or regular military armed forces the United States to take over cities that he believes are engaged in an unlawful election, disruption or protests in the wake of an unresolved presidential election in the days after November 3,’ Banks noted.
“Though purely a hypothetical, Banks notes that the way it would happen would be through the Insurrection Act. In order to invoke the Insurrection Act, the president ‘must first issue a proclamation ordering the insurgents to disperse within a limited time, 10 U.S.C. § 334.4. If the situation does not resolve itself, the President may issue an executive order to send in troops,’ according to a 2006 Congressional Research Service report. ‘One of the important things to remember about the Insurrection Act is that it’s not martial law,’ Banks said. ‘The purpose of utilizing the mechanisms of insurrection act is to enforce the law, not replace it.’
“In June, at the height of the protests surrounding the death of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of a white Minnesota police officer, President Donald Trump alluded to the Insurrection Act as a means of calling up active duty troops to quell civil unrest as protest erupted across the country. ‘If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,’ Trump said in a White House statement on June 1 — just before he posed for a photo opportunity outside Washington, D.C.'s St. John’s Church with a bible amid an entourage, which included Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.
Milley publicly apologized for his appearance in Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square to pose for photos in front of a church partially burned during protests. ‘My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,’ Milley said. ‘As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.’
“But while the Insurrection Act is law, the fact that martial law is not codified lands its use in a distinctly grey legal area. ‘One of the problems, of course, is that there’s nothing to prevent the president or a military commander from declaring martial law,’ Banks noted. ‘They can just do it. It’s not sanctioned by law.’ Banks noted that the civilian in charge of the military — in this case, Defense Secretary Mark Esper — is the key to ensuring the military is kept out of the 2020 elections. ‘Secretary Esper is in a in a really critical role here,’ Banks noted.
“Esper addressed this in a memo to the force. ‘As citizens, we exercise our right to vote and participate in government,’ he wrote. ‘However, as public servants who have taken an oath to defend these principles, we uphold DoD’s longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical as we carry out our official responsibilities.’
“Milley too feels strongly about the necessity of keeping the U.S. military out of politics and the election. ‘We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to an individual, a king, a queen, a president or anything else,’ he said in an interview with NPR. ‘We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to a country, for that matter. We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to a flag, a tribe, a religion or any of that. We swear an oath to an idea, or a set of ideas and values, that are embedded in our Constitution.’
“As a result of these comments, Banks is optimistic that the worst case election scenario in the event of disputed election results might just be lawsuits in certain states where the outcomes are murky. ‘A really important limitation in the event that there is martial law is that it’s highly unlikely to be tolerated in a situation where our civilian institutions are working,’ Banks noted. ‘Martial law requires a complete meltdown. It requires the inability of our civilian institutions to manage government. It’s hard to imagine that’” (Military Times, October 23, 2020).