Poor More Likely to Suffer During South Africa’s Dire Drought

Cape Town, South Africa is in the throes of a years-long drought that could earn it a truly alarming distinction: the first major city in the developed world to run out of water.

South Africa as a whole is experiencing its worst drought in a century. The six dams that supply Cape Town’s water have dropped to just 15.2 percent capacity of usable water, according to the Los Angeles Times, down from 77 percent in September 2015. Enforcement of strict water restrictions – which cut permitted daily consumption from 23 gallons per day to just 13.2 gallons – begin February 1.

Shravya K. Reddy, principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development and Climate Reality’s former director of science and solutions, lives in Cape Town and says that while several factors – including relatively rapid population growth, poor planning, and people ignoring previous water restrictions – have all contributed to this crisis, officials’ failure to recognize the role that climate change plays in exacerbating drought has made the situation even more dire.

“Decision-makers well-versed with climate science would have taken it seriously and would have started treating this drought, even in 2015 or 2016, as if it would last longer than usual,” Reddy tells Climate Reality. “Instead, they seemed to never escalate the preparations for additional water supplies or accelerate water augmentation projects in the belief that taking drastic action would be overkill, since the rains would come. If they had taken more concerted action two years ago or early last year, then they would not need to be on such war footing right now.”

Climate change worsens drought because as temperatures rise, evaporation increases. When this evaporation happens over land, soils dry out. Many places are also experiencing both decreases in annual precipitation and longer periods without significant rain, resulting in reduced water levels in streams, rivers, lakes, and (importantly) reservoirs. When rains do come, much of the water runs off the hard ground and is carried back to the ocean before it can fully replenish dams, reservoirs, or the water table.

All of Cape Town’s citizens are feeling the impact of the drought, but the city’s lower-income residents are already bearing the brunt. Should the city, which has a population of more than 4 million people in its greater metropolitan area, run out of water on April 21, as many are predicting, their plight will become truly desperate.

“Socio-economic disparity is evident in both peoples’ access to critical information, as well as in the measures people are taking to prepare for ‘Day Zero,’ the day when the city has to shut off municipal water and taps literally run dry,” Reddy says. “In speaking with people who typically have to work the longest hours just to financially survive, it seems to me that they simply don’t have access to the same levels of information we do, and thus are less empowered to make informed decisions about how they will cope and manage.”

This disparity, she adds, can often be traced back to a lack of computer and internet access among many of South Africa’s lower-income communities.

Another imbalance has become clear: Wealthier citizens have the resources to prepare and safeguard themselves from the worst of the water crisis’ impacts.

“Those with more disposable income can stock up on more bottled water. We can also invest in more water-saving devices,” Reddy explains. “Many of Cape Town’s most under-resourced residents live in what we call townships or informal settlements – what the West would call shanty towns or even slums – and they’re lucky if they have a communal water source amongst eight to 10 families. They certainly cannot buy and hoard bottled water.

“People with means – transportation as well as leisure time – can drive farther out of the city to areas where clean, potable water comes out of natural springs and can collect water to take home. Those who don’t have the luxury of a car and time to drive around are less able to take advantage of such natural springs hours away.”

She notes that some retailers are even taking advantage of the situation, increasing the price of common water conservation tools like buckets, pitchers, and other water storage units because of higher market demand, making them even less accessible to the people who may need them the most.

And beyond the obvious necessity of clean drinking water, Reddy worries that “significant public health challenges will emerge as a result of people not being able to maintain individual and institutional hygiene.” The risk of water-borne diseases and other bacterial infections may also rise sharply, elevating the risk of serious public health issues.

“Money buys other adaptation means too. The wealthy have greater ability to buy more new clothes as a response to less clothes washing, ordering takeout food as a response to less cooking and dishwashing, buying ‘chemical toilets,’ tons of wet-wipes, hand sanitizer, and leaving the city for long stretches of time to escape elsewhere – either by renting places in other cities or staying with friends and family who can afford to accommodate long-term guests,” she continues.

“Based on what several people in my circles have been saying, it is clear that some people will have the ability to temporarily leave the city and move to their second homes out in the countryside, to parts of the province that are not as water stressed. Some may even temporarily move to Johannesburg or leave the country until some semblance of normalcy is restored. The majority of the city’s residents do not have that immense privilege.”

Reddy concludes on a note that has become all too familiar for many already experiencing the climate crisis firsthand: “Certainly in the case of climate change adaptation in any community, anywhere in the world – those with greater means at their disposal will fare better.”

With each new natural disaster, the truth becomes clearer: The most vulnerable among us are on the front lines of a crisis they had the least to do with creating – and if we don’t act now to support solutions and end climate change, we may reach a point of no return.


Fact-Checking Matt Damon’s Clean Water Promise In A Super Bowl Ad


In a new Super Bowl ad, Matt Damon makes a bold promise: Buy a limited-edition Stella Artois chalice and your money will help give a clean water supply to someone in the developing world for five years.

The ad, called “Taps,” reminds viewers that water is something we take for granted. Around the world, 844 million people do not even have a basic service providing water to their homes, according to the World Health Organization.

“If just 1 percent of you watching this buys [a chalice], we can give clean water to 1 million people,” says Damon in the ad.

The 30-second spot was purchased by Stella Artois (estimated price tag: $5 million). It’s part of an ongoing partnership between the beer giant and Damon’s nonprofit group, Water.org, whose mission is to provide access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world.

The chalices are sold on Amazon for $13, with $3.13 in proceeds from each purchase going to Damon’s charity. The beer glasses are imprinted with designs by artists from India, Mexico and the Philippines, countries where Water.org currently works.

Damon’s statement about “1 percent of you watching” would add up to roughly 1 million purchases from the Super Bowl audience. According to Water.org, Stella Artois would donate the $3.13 for “up to 300,000 chalices” sold in the U.S. between January 1 and December 31.

And what exactly does that $3 buy? Can it really bring clean water to one person for half a decade? Skepticism surfaced on Twitter.

Even water specialists weren’t clear on how the numbers were calculated.

To learn more, we interviewed researchers and spokespeople for Water.org

What does Water.org do?

Despite its name, Water.org doesn’t actually provide water to people in the developing world. So your $3 won’t go directly toward, say, the delivery of jugs of water or the building of a well.

To fulfill its mission, the nonprofit has set up a custom microlending system called WaterCredit. The group partners with financial institutions in developing countries to lend people small amounts of money so they can pay to get water. That might mean buying a faucet and hiring a contractor to tap into water supplies or buying containers to catch rainwater.

Children drinking from a makeshift water pipe in a village in the Mindanao island in the Philippines.


Giving people that kind of choice is a good thing, says Annie Feighery, a co-founder of mWater, a digital platform that water nonprofits use to measure the impact of their work. The group has worked with Water.org for four years.

For a long time, charities would try to fix a community’s water problem by digging wells and then leaving, she says. But the wells would often malfunction and become contaminated within a year, and they cost a lot to maintain. Today, wells are seen as an “old-fashioned approach that we now call the dig-and-ditch model,” she says.

Although in some cases, wells are still a reasonable option. Families who live miles away from a clean drinking water source can take out a loan to pay for the construction of a deep borehole well, which siphons clean water deep in the ground, or a large container to catch and store rainwater. According to the World Health Organization, harvesting rainwater generally provides good quality water.

Is $3 enough to cover those kinds of expenses?

Not exactly.

When someone buys the chalice from Stella Artois, $3 does indeed go to Water.org.

According to Water.org’s calculations, that $3 equals five years of clean water for one person in the developing world. To come up with that number, the group counted up the number of people it helped get water from 2014 to 2016 — roughly 3.3 million — and then divided that figure by the sum of the group’s organizational costs in the same time period: $42 million. (The data is available in the charity’s financial statements on their website.)

And the answer is: $12.50 to give one person access to water.

In this formula, the infrastructure for their water would last about 20 years. Based on these calculations, the $3 from the Stella Artois chalice, says Water.org, would provide five years of clean water.

But that doesn’t mean the loans are only $3.

In fact, the average loan taken out by a borrower from local financial institutions, in partnership with Water.org, is about $300.

According to Water.org, 99 percent of the borrowers pay it back. To date, the group says they have given out 2.2 million loans. When people repay the loan, the money gets lent out to others in the community, creating a multiplier effect, says Julie LaGuardia, a spokesperson for Water.org.

“Sometimes in marketing efforts one needs to over-simplify to make reasonable promises to donors, retailers and investors,” says John Oldfield, a principal at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Global Water 2020. “But it’s a good appropriate claim for the start of the conversation around clean water.”

Asked about the discrepancy between the $3 and the $300 figures, Melanie Mendrys, a spokesperson from Water.org, says, “I don’t consider that a discrepancy. I know that the $3 does in fact help a woman or a family get access to the money needed to get water or a toilet.”

She does not think the ad is misleading. “It’s an opportunity for people to learn more and once they do they get really excited,” she says. “We just reached ten million people who received water or sanitation from our efforts. We know what we’re doing is working and we’re excited to reach more.”

And specialists do think the loan is a good approach.

“What’s novel about WaterCredit is that the loan is being provided for a home improvement,” says Jenna Davis, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. She has looked at the evidence around the Water.org’s business model.

A tap or some containers to catch rainwater doesn’t sound like much, but it can have a significant impact for low-income families. “In many parts of the developing world, people were paying more for water in a month, for example, buying bottled water, than would be needed to pay a regular monthly bill if they had a piped connection,” says Davis. Research has shown that for low-income households, the obstacle to installing the hardware or other connections is the cost, she says.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient if Stella Artois just gave a few million to Water.org instead of buying a Super Bowl ad?

That was another question raised on Twitter: Why couldn’t Stella just have forked over the money to Water.org?

“It’s important to remember that this is a Stella ad just as much, if not more, than a Water.org ad,” says Jason Wojciechowski, creative director of Corelab, an agency that runs digital campaigns for nonprofits like Oxfam, Save the Children and Global Witness.

Wojciechowski doubts that a Game Day ad alone would rake in a “ton of money” for the charity. The group would need to combine it with aggressive fundraising and social media campaign efforts over a long period of time.

But he does think the ad will provide another service to the Super Bowl audience: planting the seed that change is possible. “Showing people that they have agency, responsibility and a role to play,” he says. “The idea that there’s something people can do to end the water crisis.”

Is Cape Town Thirsty Enough to Drink Seawater?

Cities like Cape Town may now have to rely on desalination to help them survive drought.

Cape Town is withering. If current projections hold, the South African city of 4 million will run out of water on May 11, known as Day Zero. It’s been three long years of drought—we’re talking a once every 1,000 years kind of problem that Cape Town’s water infrastructure just wasn’t built for.

The irony is that a whole sea of water laps at the shores of the coastal city. But if you wanted to drink it, you’d have to build an expensive, energy-intensive desalination facility. Cape Town is indeed rushing to bring such projects online, at least on a temporary basis, and in so doing is exposing a dire reality: Pockets of humanity around the world may have to rely on the sea to survive drought in the very near future. Because it’s likely that climate change is exacerbating this drought.

Models show that for certain parts of the world, things are going to get real hot and real dry. The American South, for instance, could see a tripling of 95-degree-plus days per year by 2050. “Cape Town is a warning shot for us,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley. “What we can see is that it’s very possible for water crises—which emerge all the time around the world—to get close to the point of real, massive human disaster.”

The key to managing water is diversifying. Think of it like stocks—if you’re all in on Enron and Enron implodes, so does your money. But invest in a range of companies and you can hedge against uncertainty. Same goes for water sources. Dams, however ecologically terrible their impacts, let you save up a stock of water. You may even decide to treat wastewater to boost your supply. And you’ll of course want to convince your populace to save water, even in times of plenty.

Cape Town does not have a stellar portfolio. “The diversification of our water sources would have helped a whole lot earlier,” says environmental scientist Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town. “It’s difficult to do that because you need sometimes these triggers to be able to change the budgetary system and be able to think differently about a long-term strategy.”

The city is certainly triggered now. (The local government was unable to provide comment before this story published.) And what it’s been able to do in recent months is pretty remarkable, at least from a public education perspective: A city that once consumed 290 million gallons of water a day now uses 160 million gallons. But that’s still a whole lot of water in a region where rain just refuses to fall.

So Cape Town is turning to desalination to tackle the shortfall. Specifically, temporary reverse osmosis plants that’ll spin up in the coming months and provide fresh water. Not much of it in the grand scheme of things—4 million gallons a day—but still a start.

Desalination is not a new idea. For decades now, researchers have been doggedly exploring the technology, which comes in two flavors. The first you can do at home if you like, just boiling water to collect steam and leave salt behind. The second is reverse osmosis, and involves forcing water through a permeable membrane to filter out the salt. Problem is, boiling water takes a ton of energy, as does pumping water.

The technology is improving. Fancy new materials, like membranes just an atom thick, are making reverse osmosis more efficient. (That is, making it easier to push that water through.) “Desalination technology is going to change considerably in the coming years,” says Winter. “I think what the city is currently doing right now is to go slowly with its experiments and it will start to ratchet those up in time.”

Which has some scientists crying foul. Late last year, a group of researchers published a paper detailing how desalinated water could theoretically be tainted by sewage piping into the waters off Cape Town. In their samples of seawater they found 15 pharmaceutical and household chemicals, as well as nasty microbes like E. coli. These are not things you’d want to suck into a desalination plant and turn into drinking water without some serious testing and purification if necessary.

On top of the potential pollutants coming out of a desalination plant, there’s also the byproduct of brine (lots and lots of salt), which is pumped back out to sea, potentially disrupting ecosystems. That and desalination plants can kill sea critters by hoovering them up. “It doesn’t make sense to me to solve one ecological problem by creating a whole lot more,” says the University of Cape Town’s Lesley Green, co-author of the paper, “which is saltier seawater and not managing the discharge of medicinal compounds and persistent organic pollutants.”

Desalination may also present unexpected social costs in Cape Town, because not every citizen would benefit from it. “At home I have water, it flows out of the tap,” says the University of Cape Town’s Tom Sanya, an architect who specializes in sustainable design. “But we have a significant number of people in the informal settlements of Cape Town who don’t have water flowing in their homes. If the city has up to now failed to supply each individual resident in Cape Town with water, then I can’t be convinced that after investing heavily in technologies we’ll have enough money left to invest in distribution.”

Still, in Cape Town, the ecological and social costs of desalination may pale in comparison to the consequences of not turning to the sea for help. The energy costs of the technology are still huge, but Israel has proven it can be done on a massive scale: The nation now makes more freshwater than it needs. And as certain parts of the world descend into a new era of heat and dryness, desalination is going to look like a mighty tempting solution.

“It kind of depends on how bad you need the water,” says engineer Amy Childress of the University of Southern California. “And that’s exactly where South Africa is, and it’s where California would have been if we didn’t have a rainy last year. It really is pure and simple—how bad you need the water and how unlucky you are with the drought.”

Cape Town has been very, very unlucky. But it’s taking steps to diversify its water portfolio, and the rest of the world would be wise to follow. Otherwise it’ll be Enron for the lot of us.

Silicon Valley’s Tax-Avoiding, Job-Killing, Soul-Sucking Machine

Four companies dominate our daily lives unlike any other in human history: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We love our nifty phones and just-a-click-away services, but these behemoths enjoy unfettered economic domination and hoard riches on a scale not seen since the monopolies of the gilded age. The only logical conclusion? We must bust up big tech.

I’ve benefited enormously from big tech. Prophet, the consulting firm I cofounded in 1992, helped companies navigate a new landscape being reshaped by Google. Red Envelope, the upscale e-commerce company I cofounded in 1997, never would have made it out of the crib if Amazon hadn’t ignited the market’s interest in e-commerce. More recently, L2, which I founded in 2010, was born from the mobile and social waves as companies needed a way to benchmark their performance on new platforms.

Over the past decade, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—or, as I call them, “the Four”—have aggregated more economic value and influence than nearly any other commercial entity in history. Together, they have a market capitalization of $2.8 trillion (the GDP of France), a staggering 24 percent share of the S&P 500 Top 50, close to the value of every stock traded on the Nasdaq in 2001.

How big are they? Consider that Amazon, with a market cap of $591 billion, is worth more to the stock market than Walmart, Costco, T. J. Maxx, Target, Ross, Best Buy, Ulta, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks/Lord & Taylor, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Sears combined.


Meanwhile, Facebook and Google (now known as Alphabet) are together worth $1.3 trillion. You could merge the world’s top five advertising agencies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) with five major media companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, CBS, and Viacom) and still need to add five major communications companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish) to get only 90 percent of what Google and Facebook are worth together.

And what of Apple? With a market cap of nearly $900 billion, Apple is the most valuable public company. Even more remarkable is that the company registers profit margins of 32 percent, closer to luxury brands Hermès (35 percent) and Ferrari (29 percent) than peers in electronics. In 2016, Apple brought in $46 billion in profits, a haul larger than that of any other American company, including JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, and Wells Fargo. What’s more, Apple’s profits were greater than the revenues of either Coca- Cola or Facebook. This quarter, it will clock nearly twice the profits that Amazon has produced in its history.

The Four’s wealth and influence are staggering. How did we get here?

As I wrote in my book, The Four, the only way to build a company with the dominance and mass influence of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple is to appeal to a core human organ that makes adoption of the platform instinctive.


Our brains are sophisticated enough to ask very complex questions but not sophisticated enough to answer them. Since Homo sapiens emerged from caves, we’ve relied on prayer to address that gap: We lift our gaze to the heavens, send up a question, and wait for a response from a more intelligent being. “Will my kid be all right?” “Who might attack us?”


As Western nations become wealthier, organized religion plays a smaller role in our lives. But the void between questions and answers remains, creating an opportunity. As more and more people become alienated from traditional religion, we look to Google as our immediate, all-knowing oracle of answers from trivial to profound. Google is our modern-day god. Google appeals to the brain, offering knowledge to everyone, regardless of background or education level. If you have a smartphone or an Internet connection, your prayers will always be answered: “Will my kid be all right?” “Symptoms and treatment of croup. . .” “Who might attack us?” “Nations with active nuclear-weapons programs . . .”

Think back on every fear, every hope, every desire you’ve confessed to Google’s search box and then ask yourself: Is there any entity you’ve trusted more with your secrets? Does anybody know you better than Google?


Facebook appeals to the heart. Feeling loved is the key to well-being. Studies of kids in Romanian orphanages who had stunted physical and mental development found that the delay was due not to poor nutrition, as suspected, but to lack of human affection. Yet one of the traits of our species is that we need to love nearly as much as we need to be loved. Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist, studied the Italian island of Sardinia, where centenarians are six times as common as they are on mainland Italy and ten times as common as in North America. Pinker discovered that among genetic and lifestyle factors, the Sardinians’ emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions is the key to their superlongevity. Other studies have also found that the deciding factor in longevity isn’t genetics but lifestyle, especially the strength of our social bonds.

Facebook gives its 2.1 billion monthly active users tools to fuel our need to love others. It’s satisfying to rediscover someone we went to high school with. It’s good to know we can keep in touch with friends who move away. It takes minutes, with a “like” on a baby pic or a brief comment on a friend’s heartfelt post, to reinforce friendships and family relationships that are important to us.


What sight is to the eyes and sound is to the ears, the feeling of more, of insatiety, is to the gut. We crave more stuff psychologically just as the stomach craves more sugar, more carbs, after an indulgent meal. Originally this instinct operated in the service of self-preservation: Having too little meant starvation and certain death, whereas too much was rare, a bloat or a hangover. But open your closets or your cupboards right now, and you’ll probably find you have ten to a hundred times as much as you need. Rationally, we know this makes no sense, but society and our higher brain haven’t caught up to the instinct of always feeling like we need more.

Amazon is the large intestine of the consumptive self. It stores nutrients and distributes them to the cardiovascular system of the 64 percent of American households who are Prime members. It has adopted the best strategy in the history of business—“more for less”—and deployed it more effectively and efficiently than any other firm in history.


The second-most-powerful instinct after survival is procreation. As sexual creatures, we want to signal how elegant, smart, and creative we are. We want to signal power. Sex is irrational, luxury is irrational, and Apple learned very early on that it could appeal to our need to be desirable—and in turn increase its profit margins—by placing print ads in Vogue, having supermodels at product launches, and building physical stores as glass temples to the brand.

A Dell computer may be powerful and fast, but it doesn’t indicate membership in the innovation class as a MacBook Air does. Likewise, the iPhone is something more than a phone, or even a smartphone. Consumers aren’t paying $1,000 for an iPhone X because they’re passionate about facial recognition. They’re signaling they make a good living, appreciate the arts, and have disposable income. It’s a sign to others: If you mate with me, your kids are more likely to survive than if you mate with someone carrying an Android phone. After all, iPhone users on average earn 40 percent more than Android users. Mating with someone who is on the iOS platform is a shorter path to a better life. The brain, the heart, the large intestine, and the groin: By appealing to these four organs, the Four have entrenched their services, products, and operating systems deeply into our psyches. They’ve made us more discerning, more demanding consumers. And what’s good for the consumer is good for society, right?


Well, yes and no. The Four have so much power over our lives that most of us would be rocked to the core if one or more of them were to disappear. Imagine not being able to have an iPhone, or having to use Yahoo or Bing for search, or losing years’ worth of memories you’ve posted on Facebook. What if you could no longer order something with one click on the Amazon app and have it arrive tomorrow?

At the same time, we’ve handed over so much of our lives to a few Silicon Valley executives that we’ve started talking about the downsides of these firms. As the Four have become increasingly dominant, a murmur of concern—and even resentment—has begun to make itself heard. After years of hype, we’ve finally begun to consider the suggestion that the government, or someone, ought to put the brakes on.

Not all of the arguments are equally persuasive, but they’re worth restating before we get to the real reason I believe we ought to break up big tech.

Big tech learned from the sins of the original gangster, Microsoft. The colossus at times appeared to feel it was above trafficking in PR campaigns and lobbyists to soften its image among the public and regulators. In contrast, the Four promote an image of youth and idealism, coupled with evangelizing the world-saving potential of technology.

The sentiment is sincere, but mostly canny. By appealing to something loftier than mere profit, the Four are able to satisfy a growing demand among employees for so-called purpose-driven firms. Big tech’s tinkerer- in-the-garage mythology taps into an old American reverence for science and engineering, one that dates back to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program. Best of all, the companies’ vague, high-minded pronouncements—“Think Different,” “Don’t Be Evil”—provide the ultimate illusion. Political progressives are generally viewed as well-meaning but weak, an image that offered the perfect cover for companies that were becoming hugely powerful.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told women to “lean in” because she meant it, but she also had to register the irony of her message of female empowerment, set against a company that emerged from a site originally designed to rank the attractiveness of Harvard undergraduates, much less a firm destroying tens of thousands of jobs in an industry that hires a relatively high number of female employees: media and communications.

These public-relations efforts paid off handsomely but also set the companies up for a major fall. It’s an enormous letdown to discover that the guy who seems like the perfect gentleman is in fact addicted to opioids and a jerk to his mother. It’s even worse to learn that he only hung out with you because of your money (clicks).

In my experience as the founder of several early Internet firms, the people who work for the Four are no more or less evil than people at other successful companies. They’re a bit more educated, a little smarter, and much luckier, but like their parents before them, most are just trying to find their way and make a living. Sure, many of them would be happy to help out humanity. But presented with the choice between the betterment of society or a Tesla, most would opt for the Tesla—and the Tesla dealerships in Palo Alto are doing well, really well. Does this make them evil? Of course not. It simply makes them employees at a for-profit firm operating in a capitalist society.

Our government operates on an annual budget of approximately 21 percent of GDP, money that is used to keep our parks open and our military armed. Does big tech pay its fair share? Most would say no. Between 2007 and 2015, Amazon paid only 13 percent of its profits in taxes, Apple paid 17 percent, Google paid 16 percent, and Facebook paid just 4 percent. In contrast, the average tax rate for the S&P 500 was 27 percent.


So, yes, the Four do avoid taxes . . . and so do you. They’re just better at it. Apple, for example, uses an accounting trick to move its profits to domains such as Ireland, which results in lower taxes for the most profitable firm in the world. As of September 2017, the company was holding $250 billion overseas, a hoard that is barely taxed and should never have been abroad in the first place. That means a U. S. company is holding enough cash overseas to buy Disney and Netflix.

Apple is hardly alone. General Electric also engages in massive tax avoidance, but we’re not as angry about it, as we aren’t in love with GE. The fault here lies with us, and with our democratically elected government. We need to simplify the tax code—complex rules tend to favor those who can afford to take advantage of them—and we need to elect officials who will enforce it.

The destruction of jobs by the Four is significant, even frightening. Facebook and Google likely added $29 billion in revenue in 2017. To execute and service this additional business, they will create twenty thousand new, high-paying jobs.

The other side of the coin is less shiny. Advertising—whether digital or analog—is a low-growth (increasingly flat) business, meaning that the sector is largely zero-sum. Google doesn’t earn an extra dollar by growing the market; it takes a dollar from another firm. If we use the five largest media-services firms (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) as a proxy for their industry, we can estimate that $29 billion in revenue would have required about 219,000 traditional advertising professionals to service. That translates to 199,000 creative directors, copywriters, and agency executives deciding to “spend more time with their families” each year—nearly four Yankee Stadiums filled with people dressed in black holding pink slips.

The economic success stories of yesterday employed many more people than the firms that dominate the headlines today. Procter & Gamble, after a run-up in its stock price in 2017, has a market capitalization of $233 billion and employs ninety-five thousand people, or $2.4 million per employee. Intel, a new-economy firm that could be more efficient with its capital, enjoys a market cap of $209 billion and employs 102,000 people, or $2.1 million per employee. Meanwhile, Facebook, which was founded fourteen years ago, boasts a $542 billion market cap and employs only twenty-three thousand people, or $23.4 million per employee—ten times that of P&G and Intel.


Granted, we’ve seen job destruction before. But we’ve never seen companies quite this good at it. Uber set a new (low) bar with $68 billion spread across only twelve thousand employees, or $5.7 million per employee. It’s hardly obvious that a ride-share company—which requires actual drivers on the actual roads—would be the one to arbitrage the middle class with a Houdini move that would have Henry Ford spinning in his grave.

But Uber managed it by creating a two-class workforce, complete with a new classification: “driver-partners,” in other words, contractors. Keeping them off the payroll means that Uber’s investors and twelve thousand white-collar employees do not share any of the company’s $68 billion in equity with its “partners.” In addition, the firm is not inconvenienced with paying health or unemployment insurance and paid time off for any of its two-million-strong driver workforce.

Big tech’s job destruction makes an even stronger case for getting these firms to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the government can soften the blow with retraining and social services. We should be careful, however, not to let job destruction be the lone catalyst for intervention. Job replacement and productivity improvements—from farmers to factory workers, and factory workers to service workers, and service workers to tech workers—are part of the story of American innovation. It’s important to let our freaks of success fly their flag.

Getting warmer. Having your firm weaponized by foreign adversaries to undermine our democratic election process is bad . . . really bad. During the 2016 election, Russian troll pages on Facebook paid to promote approximately three thousand political ads. Fabricated content reached 126 million users. It doesn’t stop there—the GRU, the Russian military-intelligence agency, has lately taken a more bipartisan approach to sowing chaos. Even after the election, the GRU has used Facebook, Google, and Twitter to foment racially motivated violence. The platforms invested little or no money or effort to prevent it. The GRU purchased Facebook ads in rubles: literally and figuratively a red flag.


If you’re a country club with a beach or a pool, it’s more profitable, in the short run, not to have lifeguards. There are risks to that business model, as there are to Facebook’s dependence on mainly algorithmic moderation, but it saves a lot of money. The notion that we can expect big tech to allocate the requisite resources, of the companies’ own will, for the social good is similar to the idea that Exxon will take a leadership position on global warming. It’s not going to happen.

However, the alarm for trust busting, not just regulation, rang for me in November, when Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr pleaded with the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, “Don’t let nation-states disrupt our future. You’re the front line of defense for it.” This represented a seminal moment in our history, when our elected officials handed over our national defense to firms whose business model is to nag you about the shoes you almost bought, and remind you of your friends’ birthdays.

They should be our front line against our enemies?

Let’s be clear, our front line of defense has been, and must continue to be, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Not the Zuck.

It’s not just federal officials who have folded in the face of big tech. As part of their bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, state and city officials in Chicago proposed to let Amazon keep $1.3 billion in employee payroll taxes and spend this money as the company sees fit. That’s right: Chicago offered to transfer its tax authority to Amazon and trusts the Seattle firm to allocate taxes in a manner best for Chicago’s residents.


The surrender of our government only gets worse from there. If you want to manufacture and sell a Popsicle to children, you must undergo numerous expensive FDA tests and provide thorough labeling that outlines the ingredients, calories, and sugar content of the treat. But what warning labels are included in Instagram’s user agreement? We’ve now seen abundant research indicating that social- media platforms are making teens more depressed. Ask yourself: If ice cream were making teens more prone to suicide, would we shrug and seat the CEO of Dreyer’s next to the president at dinners in Silicon Valley?

Anyone who doesn’t believe these products are the delivery systems for tobacco- like addiction has never separated a seven- year-old from an iPad in exchange for a look that communicates a plot to kill you. If you don’t believe in the addictive aspects of these platforms, ask yourself why American teenagers are spending an average of five hours a day glued to their Internet- connected screens. The variable rewards of social media keep us checking our notifications as though they were slot machines, and research has shown that children and teens are particularly sensitive to the dopamine cravings these platforms foster. It’s no accident that many tech companies’ execs are on the record saying they don’t give their kids access to these devices.

All of these are valid concerns. But none of them alone, or together, is enough to justify breaking up big tech. The following are reasons I believe the Four should be broken up.

The Purpose of an Economy

Ganesh Sitaraman, professor at Vanderbilt Law School, argues that the U. S. needs the middle class, that the Constitution was designed for a balanced share of wealth for our representative democracy to work. If the rich have too much power, it can lead to an oligarchy. If the poor have too much power, it can lead to a revolution. So the middle class needs to be the rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.

 believe that the primary purpose of the economy, and one of its key agents, the firm, is to create and sustain the middle class. The U. S. middle class from 1941 to 2000 was one of the most ferocious sources of good in world history. The American middle class financed, fought, and won good wars; took care of the aged; funded a cure for polio; put men on the moon; and showed the rest of the world that self-interest, and the consumption and innovation it inspired, could be an engine for social and economic transformation.

The upward spiral of an economy depends on the circular flow between households and companies. Households offer resources and labor, and companies offer goods and jobs. Competition motivates the invention and distribution of better offerings (happy hour, rear-view camera, etc.), and the big wheel spins round and round. Big tech creates enormous stakeholder value. So why are we witnessing, for the first time in decades, other countries grow their middle class while ours is declining? If an economy is meant to sustain a middle class, and the social stability it fosters, then our economy is failing.

Without a doubt, there have been tremendous gains in productivity in the U. S. over the past thirty years. It would be hard to deny that the American consumer, at every level, has become the envy of the free world. Yet the productivity boost and the elevation of the consumer to modern-day nobility have created a dystopia in which we’ve traded well- paying jobs and economic security for powerful phones and coconut water delivered in under an hour.


How did that happen? Since the turn of the millennium, firms and investors have fallen in love with companies whose ability to replace humans with technology has enabled rapid growth and outsize profit margins. Those huge profits attract cheap capital and render the rest of the sector flaccid. Old-economy firms and fledgling start-ups have no shot.

The result is a winner-takes-all economy, both for companies and for people. Society is bifurcating into those who are part of the innovation economy (lords) and those who aren’t (serfs). One great idea will make a twenty- something the darling of venture capital, while those who are average, or even just unlucky (most of us), have to work much harder to save for retirement.

It’s never been easier to be a billionaire or harder to be a millionaire. It’s painfully clear that the invisible hand, for the past three decades, has been screwing the middle class. For the first time since the Great Depression, a thirty-year-old is less well-off than his or her parents at thirty.

Should we care? What if these icons of innovation are the disrupters we need to keep our economy fit? Isn’t there a chance we’ll come through the other end of the tunnel with a stronger economy and higher wages? Already there’s evidence that this isn’t happening. In fact, the bifurcation effect seems to be gaining momentum. It’s likely the biggest threat to our society. Many will argue it’s the world we live in. But isn’t the world what we make of it? And we have consciously shifted the mission of the U. S. from producing millions of millionaires to producing one trillionaire. Alexa, is this a good thing?

Markets Are Failing, Everywhere

Right now we are in the midst of a dramatic market failure, one in which the government has been lulled by the public’s fascination with big tech. Robust markets are efficient and powerful, yet just as football games don’t work without referees who regularly step in, throw flags, and move one team backward or forward, unfettered capitalism gave us climate change, the mortgage crisis, and U. S. health care.

Monopolies themselves aren’t always illegal, or even undesirable. Natural monopolies exist where it makes sense to have one firm achieve the requisite scale to invest and offer services at a reasonable price. But the tradeoff is heavy regulation. Florida Power & Light serves ten million people; its parent company, NextEra Energy, has a market cap of $72 billion. However, pricing and service standards are regulated by people who are fiduciaries for the public.

The Four, by contrast, have managed to preserve their monopoly-like powers without heavy regulation. I describe their power as “monopoly-like,” since, with the possible exception of Apple, they have not used their power to do the one thing that most economists would describe as the whole point of assembling a monopoly, which is to raise prices for consumers.

Nevertheless, the Four’s exploitation of our knee-jerk antipathy to big government has been so effective that it’s led most of us to forget that competition—no less than private property, wage labor, voluntary exchange, and a price system—is one of the indispensable cylinders of the capitalist engine. Their massive size and unchecked power have throttled competitive markets and kept the economy from doing its job—namely, to promote a vibrant middle class.

Air Supply

How do they do it? It’s useful here to remember how Microsoft killed Netscape in the 1990s. The process starts innocently enough, as a firm builds an outstanding product (Windows) that becomes a portal to an entire sector—what we’d now call a platform. To sustain its growth, the company points the portal at its own products (Internet Explorer) and bullies its partners (Dell) to shut out the competition. Even though Netscape had the more popular browser, with over 90 percent market share, it couldn’t compete with Microsoft’s implicit subsidies for Internet Explorer.

It’s happening everywhere across the Four, whether it’s the slow takeover of the entire first page of search results that Google can better monetize, substandard products on your iPhone’s home screen (like Apple Music), coordinating all assets of the firm (Facebook) to arrest and destroy a threat (Snap), or information-age steel dumping via fulfillment build-out and predatory pricing no other firm can access the capital to match (Amazon).

(Un)Natural Monopolies

Maybe the consumer is better off with these “natural” monopolies. The Department of Justice didn’t think so. In 1998, the federal government filed suit against Microsoft, alleging anticompetitive practices. During the trial, one witness reported that Microsoft executives had said they wanted to “cut off Netscape’s air supply” by giving away Internet Explorer for free.

In November 1999, a district court found that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws and subsequently ordered the company to be broken into two. (One company would sell Windows; the other would sell applications for Windows.) The breakup order was overruled by an appeals court, and ultimately Microsoft agreed to a settlement with the government that sought to curb the company’s monopolistic practices by less stringent means.

The settlement was criticized by some for being too lenient, but it’s worth asking whether Google—today worth $770 billion and the object of affection for any free-market evangelist—would exist if the DOJ hadn’t put Microsoft on notice regarding the infanticide of promising upstarts. In the absence of the antitrust case, Microsoft likely would have leveraged its market dominance to favor Bing over Google, just as it had used Windows to euthanize Netscape.

Indeed, the DOJ’s case against Microsoft may have been one of the most market-oxygenating acts in business history, one that unleashed trillions of dollars in shareholder value. The concentration of power achieved by the Four has created a market desperate for oxygen. I’ve sat in dozens of VC pitches by small firms. The narrative has become universal and static: “We don’t compete directly with the Four but would be great acquisition candidates.” Companies thread this needle or are denied the requisite oxygen (capital) to survive infancy. IPOs and the number of VC-funded firms have been in steady decline over the past few years.

Unlike Microsoft, which was typecast early on as the “Evil Empire,” Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have combined savvy public-relations efforts with sophisticated political lobbying operations—think Oprah Winfrey crossed with the Koch brothers—to make themselves nearly immune to the scrutiny endured by Microsoft.

The Four’s unchecked power manifests most often as a restraint of competition. Consider: Amazon has become such a dominant force that it’s now able to perform Jedi mind tricks and inflict pain on potential competitors before it enters the market. Consumer stocks used to trade on two key signals: the underlying performance of the firm (Pottery Barn’s sales per square foot are up 10 percent) and the economic macro-climate (more housing starts). Now, however, private and public investors have added a third key signal: what Amazon may or may not do in the respective sector. Some recent examples:

The day Amazon announced it would enter the dental-supply business, dental-supply companies’ stock fell 4 to 5 percent. When Amazon reported it would sell prescription drugs, pharmacy stocks fell 3 to 5 percent.

Within twenty-four hours of the Amazon– Whole Foods acquisition announcement, large national grocery stocks fell 5 to 9 percent.

When the subject of monopolistic behavior comes up, Amazon’s public-relations team is quick to cite its favorite number: 4 percent—the share of U. S. retail (online and offline) Amazon controls, only half of Walmart’s market share. It’s a powerful defense against the call to break up the behemoth. But there are other numbers. Numbers you typically won’t see in an Amazon press release: • 34 percent: Amazon’s share of the worldwide cloud business

44 percent: Amazon’s share of U. S. online commerce

64 percent: U. S. households with Amazon Prime

71 percent: Amazon’s share of in-home voice devices

$1.4 billion: Amount of U. S. corporate taxes paid by Amazon since 2008, versus $64 billion for Walmart. (Amazon has added the entire value of Walmart to its market cap in the past twenty-four months.)

What about Facebook? Eighty-five percent of the time we spend on our phones is spent using an app. Four of the top five apps globally—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger—are owned by Facebook. And the top four have allied, under the command of the Zuck, to kill the fifth—Snap Inc. What this means is that our phones are no longer communications vehicles; they’re delivery devices for Facebook, Inc.

Facebook even has an internal database that tells it when a competitive app is gaining traction with its users, so that the social network can either acquire the firm (as it did with Instagram and WhatsApp) or kill it by mimicking its features (as it’s trying to do with Stories and Bonfire, which are aimed at Snapchat and Houseparty).

Google, for its part, now commands a 92 percent share of a market, Internet search, that is worth $92.4 billion worldwide. That’s more than the entire

advertising market of any country except the U. S. Search is now a larger market than the following global industries:

paper and forest products: $81 billion

construction and engineering: $79 billion

real estate management and development: $76 billion

gas utilities: $58 billion

How would we feel if one company controlled 92 percent of the global construction and engineering trade? Or 92 percent of the world’s paper and forest products? Would we worry that their power and influence had breached a reasonable threshold, or would we just think they were awesome innovators, as we do with Google? And then there’s Apple, the most successful firm selling a low-cost product at a premium price. The total material cost for the iPhone 8 Plus is $288, a fraction of the $799 price tag.

Put another way, Apple has the profit margin of Ferrari with the production volume of Toyota. Apple’s users are among the most loyal, too. It has a 92 percent retention rate among consumers, compared with just 77 percent for Samsung users. In February 2017, 79 percent of all active iOS users had updated to the most recent software, versus just 1.2 percent of all active Android devices.

Apple uses its privileged place in consumers’ lives to instill monopoly-like powers in its approach to competitors like Spotify. In 2016, the firm denied an update to the iOS Spotify app, essentially blocking iPhone users’ access to the latest version of the music-streaming service. While Spotify has double the subscribers of Apple Music, Apple makes up the discrepancy by placing a 30 percent tax on its competition.


Apple is not shy about using its popularity among consumers to its advantage. It was recently discovered that Apple has been purposely slowing down performance on outdated iPhone models, a strategy that is likely to entice users to upgrade sooner than they would have otherwise. This is the confidence of a monopoly.

In the late nineteenth century, the term trust came into use as a way to describe big businesses that controlled the majority of a particular market. Teddy Roosevelt gained a reputation as the original “trust buster” by breaking up the beef and railroad trusts, and filing forty more antitrust suits during his presidency. Fast-forward a hundred years, to 2016, and we find candidate Trump announcing that a Trump administration would not approve the AT&T–Time Warner merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” A year later, his Justice Department sued to block it.

So our presidents are still fighting the good fight, right? Well, let’s break this down. AT&T has 139 million wireless subscribers, sixteen million Internet subscribers, and twenty-five million video subscribers, about twenty million of which were acquired from DirecTV. Time Warner owns content-producing brands such as HBO, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS, and CNN. A vertical merger between the two companies could, in theory, create a megacorporation capable of creating and distributing content across its network of millions of wireless-phone, Internet, and video subscribers.

Too much power in the hands of too few? Maybe. But if content-and-distribution heft is what we’re worried about, then Teddy would have been knocking on Jeff’s, Tim’s, Larry’s, and Mark’s doors a decade ago. Already each of the Four has content and distribution that dwarfs a combined AT&T–Time Warner:

• Amazon spent $4.5 billion on original video in 2017, second only to Netflix’s $6 billion. Prime Video has launched in more than two hundred countries and recently struck a $50 million deal with the NFL to stream ten Thursday-night games. Amazon controls a 71 percent share in voice technology and has an installed distribution base of 64 percent of American households through Prime. Name a cable company with a 64 percent market share—I’ll wait. In addition, Amazon controls more of the market in cloud computing than the next five largest competitors combined. Alexa, does this foster innovation?

• Apple is set to spend $1 billion on original content this year. The company controls 2.2 million apps and set a record in 2013 when the number of songs it sold on iTunes hit twenty- five billion. Apple’s library now includes forty million songs, which can be distributed across the company’s one billion active iOS devices, and that’s not even mentioning its television and video offerings. But AT&T needs to sell Cartoon Network?

• Facebook owns a torrent of content created by its 2.1 billion monthly active users. Through its site and its apps, the company reaches 66 percent of U. S. adults. Facebook plans to spend $1 billion on original content. It’s the world’s most prolific content machine, dominating the majority of phones worldwide. Now “what’s on your mind?”

• Four hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which means that Google has more video content than any other entity on earth. It also controls the operating system on two billion Android devices. But AT&T needs to divest Adult Swim?

Perhaps Trump is right that the merger of AT&T and Time Warner is unreasonable, but if so, then we should have broken up the Four ten years ago. Each of the Four, after all, wields a harmful monopolistic power that leverages market dominance to restrain trade. But where is the Department of Justice? Where are the furious Trump tweets? Convinced that the guys on the other side of the door are Christlike innovators, come to save humanity with technology, we’ve allowed our government to fall asleep at the wheel.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, is the only government official in a Western country whose testicles have descended—who is not afraid of, or infatuated with, big tech. Last May, she levied a $122 million fine against Facebook for lying to the EU about its ability to share data between Facebook and WhatsApp, and a month later she penalized Google $2.7 billion for anticompetitive practices.

This was a good start, but it’s worth noting that those fines are mere mosquito bites on the backs of elephants. The Facebook fine represented 0.6 percent of the acquisition price of WhatsApp, and Google’s amounted to just 3 percent of its cash on hand. We are issuing twenty-five-cent parking tickets for not feeding a meter that costs $100 every fifteen minutes. We are telling these companies that the smart, shareholder-friendly thing to do is obvious: Break the law, lie, do whatever it takes, and then pay a (relatively) anemic fine if you happen to get caught.

The monopolistic power of big tech serves as a macho test for capitalists. The embrace of the innovation class makes us feel powerful. We like success, especially outrageous success, and we’re inspired by billionaires and the incredible companies they founded. We also have a gag reflex when it comes to regulation, one that invites unattractive labels. Since I started suggesting that Amazon should be broken up, Stuart Varney of Fox News, a charming guy, has taken to introducing me on-air as a socialist. Any day now, I suspect he’ll start calling me European.

There’s no question that the markets sent a strong signal in 2017 that our economy is sated on regulation. But there’s a difference between regulation and trust busting. What’s missing from the story we tell ourselves about the economy is that trust busting is meant to protect the health of the market. It’s the antidote to crude, ham-handed regulation. When markets fail, and they do, we need those referees on the field who will throw a yellow flag and restore order. We are so there.

The tremendous success of the Four—which alone accounted for 40 percent of the gains in the S&P 500 for the month of October—wallpapers over the fact that, as a whole, the markets in which they operate are not healthy. Late last year, Refinery29 and BuzzFeed, two promising digital-marketing fledglings, announced layoffs, while Criteo, an ad-tech firm, shed 50 percent of its market capitalization. Why? Because there is Facebook, there is Google, and then there is everyone else. And all of those other firms, including Snap Inc., are dead; they just don’t know it yet.

Are we sure all these companies deserve to die? Or is it the case that our markets are failing and preventing the development of a healthy ecosystem with dozens of digital-marketing firms growing, hiring, and innovating?

Search…Your Feelings

Imagine two markets. One that includes the firms below:

Amazon | Apple | Facebook | Google

And another that includes these independent firms:


As Darth Vader urged his son, I want you to “search your feelings” and answer which market would:

Create more jobs and shareholder value.

While trust busting is typically bad for stocks in the short run, busting up Ma Bell unleashed a torrent of shareholder growth in telecommunications. Similarly, Microsoft, despite its run-in with the DOJ in the 1990s, just hit an all-time high. In addition, it’s reasonable to believe that Amazon and Amazon Web Services may be worth more as separate firms than they are as one.

Inspire more investment.

There are half as many publicly traded U. S. firms than there were twenty-two years ago, and most firms in the innovation economy understand that their most likely—or only—path to exist is to be acquired by big tech. An absence of buyers makes for an economy in which the two options are to go big (become Google) or go home (go out of business). While home runs provide good theater, the doubles and triples of acquisitions by medium-sized firms are likely a stronger engine of growth.

Broaden the tax base.

The aggregation of power has resulted in firms that have so much political clout and resources that they can bring their effective tax rates well below what midsize companies pay, creating a regressive tax system.

Why should we break up big tech? Not because the Four are evil and we’re good. It’s because we understand that the only way to ensure competition is to sometimes cut the tops off trees, just as we did with railroads and Ma Bell. This isn’t an indictment of the Four, or retribution, but recognition that a key part of a healthy economic cycle is pruning firms when they become invasive, cause premature death, and won’t let other firms emerge. The breakup of big tech should and will happen, because we’re capitalists. It’s time.

‘Fake News’: Wide Reach but Little Impact, Study Suggests

Fake news evolved from seedy internet sideshow to serious electoral threat so quickly that behavioral scientists had little time to answer basic questions about it, like who was reading what, how much real news they also consumed and whether targeted fact-checking efforts ever hit a target.

Sure, surveys abound, asking people what they remember reading. But these are only as precise as the respondents’ shifty recollections and subject to a malleable definition of “fake.” The term “fake news” itself has evolved into an all-purpose smear, used by politicians and the president to deride journalism they don’t like.

But now the first hard data on fake-news consumption has arrived. Researchers last week posted an analysis of the browsing histories of thousands of adults during the run-up to the 2016 election — a real-time picture of who viewed which fake stories, and what real news those people were seeing at the same time.

The reach of fake news was wide indeed, the study found, yet also shallow. One in four Americans saw at least one false story, but even the most eager fake-news readers — deeply conservative supporters of President Trump — consumed far more of the real kind, from newspaper and network websites and other digital sources.

While the research can’t settle the question of whether misinformation was pivotal in the 2016 election, the findings give the public and researchers the first solid guide to asking how its influence may have played out. That question will become increasingly important as online giants like Facebook and Google turn to shielding their users from influence by Russian operatives and other online malefactors.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about the effect of fake news and a lot of numbers thrown around out of context, which get people exercised,” said Duncan Watts, a research scientist at Microsoft who has argued that misinformation had a negligible effect on the election results. “What’s nice about this paper is that it focuses on the actual consumers themselves.”

In the new study, a trio of political scientists — Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (a regular contributor to The Times’s Upshot), Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter — analyzed web traffic data gathered from a representative sample of 2,525 Americans who consented to have their online activity monitored anonymously by the survey and analytic firm YouGov.

The data included website visits made in the weeks before and after the 2016 election, and a measure of political partisanship based on overall browsing habits. (The vast majority of participants favored Mr. Trump or Hillary Clinton.)

The team defined a visited website as fake news if it posted at least two demonstrably false stories, as defined by economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow in research published last year. On 289 such sites, about 80 percent of bogus articles supported Mr. Trump.

The online behavior of the participants was expected in some ways, but surprising in others. Consumption broke down along partisan lines: the most conservative 10 percent of the sample accounted for about 65 percent of visits to fake news sites.

Pro-Trump users were about three times more likely to visit fake news sites supporting their candidate than Clinton partisans were to visit bogus sites promoting her.

Still, false stories were a small fraction of the participants’ overall news diet, regardless of political preference: just 1 percent among Clinton supporters, and 6 percent among those pulling for Mr. Trump. Even conservative partisans viewed just five fake news articles, on average, over more than five weeks.

There was no way to determine from the data how much, or whether, people believed what they saw on these sites. But many of these were patently absurd, like one accusing Mrs. Clinton of a “Sudden Move of $1.8 Billion to Qatar Central Bank,” or a piece headlined “Video Showing Bill Clinton With a 13-Year-Old Plunges Race Into Chaos.”

“For all the hype about fake news, it’s important to recognize that it reached only a subset of Americans, and most of the ones it was reaching already were intense partisans,” Dr. Nyhan said.

“They were also voracious consumers of hard news,” he added. “These are people intensely engaged in politics who follow it closely.”

Given the ratio of truth to fiction, Dr. Watts said, fake news paled in influence beside mainstream news coverage, particularly stories about Mrs. Clinton and her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Coverage of that topic appeared repeatedly and prominently in venues like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

The new study does not rule out the possibility that fake news affected the elections, said David Rand, an associate professor of psychology, economics and management at Yale University.

Americans over age 60 were much more likely to visit a fake news site than younger people, the new study found. Perhaps confusingly, moderately left-leaning people viewed more pro-Trump fake news than they did pro-Clinton fake news.

One interpretation of that finding, Dr. Rand said, may be that older, less educated voters who switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were particularly susceptible to fake news.

“You can see where this might have had an impact in some of those close swing states, like Wisconsin,” Dr. Rand said. “But this of course is a matter of conjecture, reasoning backward from the findings.”

The study found that Facebook was by far the platform through which people most often navigated to a fake news site. Last year, in response to criticism, the company began flagging stories on its site that third-party fact-checkers found to make false claims with a red label saying “disputed.”

Most people in the new study encountered at least some of these labels, but “we saw no instances of people reading a fake news article and a fact-check of that specific article,” Dr. Nyhan said. “The fact-checking websites have a targeting problem.”

In December, Facebook announced a change to its monitoring approach. Instead of labeling false stories, Facebook will surface the fact-checks along with the fake story in the user’s news feed.

What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State

Imagine that this is your daily life: While on your way to work or on an errand, every 100 meters you pass a police blockhouse. Video cameras on street corners and lamp posts recognize your face and track your movements. At multiple checkpoints, police officers scan your ID card, your irises and the contents of your phone. At the supermarket or the bank, you are scanned again, your bags are X-rayed and an officer runs a wand over your body — at least if you are from the wrong ethnic group. Members of the main group are usually waved through.

You have had to complete a survey about your ethnicity, your religious practices and your “cultural level”; about whether you have a passport, relatives or acquaintances abroad, and whether you know anyone who has ever been arrested or is a member of what the state calls a “special population.”

This personal information, along with your biometric data, resides in a database tied to your ID number. The system crunches all of this into a composite score that ranks you as “safe,” “normal” or “unsafe.”Based on those categories, you may or may not be allowed to visit a museum, pass through certain neighborhoods, go to the mall, check into a hotel, rent an apartment, apply for a job or buy a train ticket. Or you may be detained to undergo re-education, like many thousands of other people.

A science-fiction dystopia? No. This is life in northwestern China today if you are Uighur.

China may no longer be the bleak land of Mao suits, self-criticism sessions and loudspeakers blaring communist slogans. It boasts gleaming bullet trains, luxury malls and cellphone-facilitated consumer life. But when it comes to indigenous Uighurs in the vast western region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has updated its old totalitarian methods with cutting-edge technology.

The party considers Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking ethnic group native to the nominally autonomous region of Xinjiang, to be dangerous separatists. The Qing Empire conquered Xinjiang in the 18th century. The territory then slipped from Beijing’s control, until the Communists reoccupied it with Soviet help in 1949. Today, several Central Asian peoples, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrghyz, make up about half of the region’s population; the remainder are Han and Hui, who arrived from eastern China starting in the mid-20th century.

Over the past several years, small numbers of Uighurs have violently challenged the authorities, notably during riots in 2009, or committed terrorist acts. But the C.C.P. has since subjected the entire Uighur population of some 11 million to arbitrary arrest, draconian surveillance or systemic discrimination. Uighurs are culturally Muslim, and the government often cites the threat of foreign Islamist ideology to justify its security policies.

I have researched Xinjiang for three decades. Ethnic tensions have been common during all those years, and soon after 9/11, Chinese authorities started invoking the specter of “the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism” as a pretense to crack down on Uighurs. But state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017, when Chen Quanguo, the C.C.P.’s new leader in the region, began an intensive securitization program.

Mr. Chen has brought to Xinjiang the grid system of checkpoints, police stations, armored vehicles and constant patrols that he perfected while in his previous post in Tibet. The C.C.P. credits him with having quieted there a restive ethnic group unhappy with its rule. In his first year governing Xinjiang, Mr. Chen has already recruited tens of thousands of new security personnel.

As multiple news outlets have reported, he has also deployed high-tech tools in the service of creating a better police state. Uighurs’ DNA is collected during state-run medical checkups. Local authorities now install a GPS tracking system in all vehicles. Government spy apps must be loaded on mobile phones. All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content. When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code.

This digitized surveillance is a modern take on conventional controls reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. Some Uighurs report getting a knock on their door from security agents soon after receiving a call from overseas. Last autumn one Uighur told me that following several such intimidating visits over the summer, his elderly parents had texted him, “The phone screen is bad for our old eyes, so we’re not using it anymore.” He had not heard from them since.

Xinjiang authorities have recently enforced a spate of regulations against Uighur customs, including some that confound common sense. A law now bans face coverings — but also “abnormal” beards. A Uighur village party chief was demoted for not smoking, on grounds that this failing displayed an insufficient “commitment to secularization.” Officials in the city of Kashgar, in southwest Xinjiang, recently jailed several prominent Uighur businessmen for not praying enough at a funeral — a sign of “extremism,” they claimed.

Any such violation, or simply being a Uighur artist or wealthy businessman, can lead to indefinite detention in what the government euphemistically calls “political training centers” — a revival of punitive Maoist re-education camps — secured by high walls, razor wire, floodlights and guard towers. A revered Uighur Islamic scholar is said to have died in one of those centers this week.

According to Radio Free Asia, a county official and a police officer in southern Xinjiang were instructed by superiors to lock up 40 percent of the local Uighur population. Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, estimates that 5 percent of the Uighur population across Xinjiang has been or is currently detained — more than 500,000 people in all. Local orphanages overflow with the children of detainees; some children reportedly are sent to facilities in the eastern parts of China.

Why are so many Uighurs subjected to these harsh policies? A Chinese official in Kashgar explained: “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one — you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.” The C.C.P., once quite liberal in its approach to diversity, seems to be redefining Chinese identity in the image of the majority Han — its version, perhaps, of the nativism that appears to be sweeping other parts of the world. With ethnic difference itself now defined as a threat to the Chinese state, local leaders like Mr. Chen feel empowered to target Uighurs and their culture wholesale.

Some people in the Chinese bureaucracy and Chinese academic circles disagree with this approach. They worry that locking down an entire province and persecuting an entire ethnic group will only instill long-lasting resentment among Uighurs. Or they note that Mr. Chen’s policies are so burdensome and so costly that they will be difficult to sustain: Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang also complain about the inconvenience and cost of living in such a police state.

Then there are the international repercussions. Blanket repression in Xinjiang can only hurt China’s bid for the world’s respect, just when the Trump administration’s chaotic foreign policy offers Beijing an opportunity to enhance its own standing. Forget the image of President Xi Jinping as a responsible internationalist at Davos. Nothing shreds soft power abroad like coils of razor wire at home.

There’s an old Chinese joke about Uighurs being the Silk Road’s consummate entrepreneurs: When the first Chinese astronaut steps off his spaceship onto the moon, he will find a Uighur already there selling lamb kebabs. And so even as Mr. Chen cracks down in Xinjiang, the Chinese government touts the region as the gateway for its much-vaunted “one belt, one road” initiative, Mr. Xi’s signature foreign policy project. The grand idea combines a plan to spend billions of dollars in development loans and transport investment across Eurasia with a strategic bid to establish China’s diplomatic primacy in Asia.

But while Mr. Xi’s government promises the world a new Silk Road through Muslim Central Asia and the Middle East, the Xinjiang authorities attempt to contain a purported “Uighur problem” by incarcerating many good citizens and spying from every street corner and mobile phone. The C.C.P.’s domestic policies contradict its international aspirations.

How does the party think that directives banning fasting during Ramadan in Xinjiang, requiring Uighur shops to sell alcohol and prohibiting Muslim parents from giving their children Islamic names will go over with governments and peoples from Pakistan to Turkey? The Chinese government may be calculating that money can buy these states’ quiet acceptance. But the thousands of Uighur refugees in Turkey and Syriaalready complicate China’s diplomacy.

Tibetans know well this hard face of China. Hong Kongers must wonder: If Uighur culture is criminalized and Xinjiang’s supposed autonomy is a sham, what will happen to their own vibrant Cantonese culture and their city’s shaky “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing? What might Taiwan’s reunification with a securitized mainland look like? Will the big-data police state engulf the rest of China? The rest of the world?

As China’s profile grows on the international stage, everyone would do well to ask if what happens in Xinjiang will stay in Xinjiang.

Data is the new lifeblood of capitalism – don’t hand corporate America control

Data has become the world’s most important resource. Now Silicon Valley giants want to keep government from standing in the way of profits


One hundred and sixty years ago, the first transatlantic telegram traveled from Britain to the United States along a rickety undersea wire. It consisted of 21 words – and took seventeen hours to arrive.

Today, the same trip takes as little as 60 milliseconds. A dense mesh of fiber-optic cables girdles the world, pumping vast quantities of information across the planet. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 543 terabits of data are flowing across borders every second. That’s the equivalent of roughly 13 million copies of the complete works of Shakespeare.

The velocity and the volume of global communication aren’t the only things that have changed. So has its economic significance. Telegrams were useful for businessmen. But data is nothing less than the lifeblood of global capitalism.

The flow of data now contributes more to world GDP than the flow of physical goods. In other words, there’s more money in moving information across borders than in moving soybeans and refrigerators.

This is a big shift – and one that has yet to fully sink in for most people. Corporate America, on the other hand, understands it well. Which is why the tech and financial industries are pushing hard for international agreements that prohibit governments from regulating these flows. The most recent example is Nafta: representatives from the US, Mexico, and Canada just concluded another round of talks on renegotiating the treaty. American companies are lobbying for changes that would deregulate data across the three countries.

The corporate crusade against data governance is only getting started. If it succeeds, the world’s most important resource will be entrusted to the private sector and the profit motive, and the rest of us will have even less power to participate in the decisions that most affect our lives.

Over the past year, a growing number of people have come to realize that data has a dark side. The information revolution has turned out to be something less than total liberation. The digital sphere is not intrinsically democratic; rather, what matters is who owns it and how it’s organized.

The digitization of everything has made this abundantly clear. As more of our lives are made into data, the companies that control that data have grown rich and powerful. It’s not merely that they know so much about us, from our favorite type of toilet paper to our favorite type of porn. It’s that they use what they know to inform algorithmic decisions that have a significant impact on society as a whole –decisions like what kind of news (if any) we consume, or how long we go to prison.

But the stakes are even higher. The emphasis on personal data has obscured the fact that data is not just personal – it’s commercial, industrial, financial. The reason that corporations are so concerned about who controls the packets that flow through the world’s fiber-optic cables is because a vast array of profit-making activities now depends on them.

The global circulation of data, then, is really about the global circulation of capital. And it has enormous consequences for the global organization of wealth and work.

Data flows enable employers in higher-wage countries to outsource more tasks to workers in lower-wage countries. They help firms coordinate complex supply chains that push manufacturing jobs to the places with the cheapest labor costs. They empower a handful of big companies to dominate markets and monopolize digital infrastructure all over the world.

For these reasons, countries may want to make rules about how information travels across their borders. But corporate America disagrees. Such laws would amount to “digital protectionism” – an irrational regression to a more bordered world. Innovation, efficiency, and prosperity would suffer.

So corporations are demanding international agreements that lock in the total liberalization of data flows. The Internet Association, a major lobby that represents Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, is one of the industry groups leading the effort to “modernize” Nafta by making it the gold standard for data deregulation.

According to the Internet Association, governments should be prohibited from requiring that certain kinds of data, such as sensitive personal information, be stored or processed in the country where it’s acquired. They should be banned from treating platforms like Facebook and Google as publishers and holding them responsible for the content that appears on their sites. They should be forbidden from requiring companies to disclose the secrets of their algorithms, such as the all-powerful Facebook News Feed. They should be prevented from regulating online services as public utilities, or imposing tariffs on digital trade.

The audacity of these demands is impressive. At a time of rising public concern about the power wielded by tech companies, those same companies want to sharply constrain our capacity to govern data in the public interest.

Of course, data governance isn’t always in the public interest. It often serves a different purpose: to protect a ruling regime. China, for instance, restricts data flows in order to help the government control the information available to its citizens and watch them more closely.

The Chinese regulations aren’t just about repression, however – they also play a valuable economic role. By building a fence around the Chinese internet, the government has nurtured a homegrown tech industry, in much the same way that restricting imports of manufactured goods can nurture a homegrown manufacturing industry. It’s hard to imagine that China would have a booming local tech sector, centered on big firms like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, without such measures.

The Chinese example is a useful one, because it shows that the main justification for data liberalization – that it will enrich the world as a whole – is false. For decades, the United States has been lecturing developing countries on the importance of free trade and free markets. Yet, as the economist Ha-Joon Chang has explained, nearly all of today’s rich countries became rich by doing the exact opposite: they used tariffs, subsidies, and other protectionist policies to promote their own industries. Indeed, for nearly a century, the United States was the most protectionist country in the world.

This isn’t to say that everyone can follow the Chinese model. Yet regulating data flows for the purposes of economic development is certainly a legitimate use of state power. And it represents just one of many reasons that governments may want to actually govern data, rather than surrendering it to investors.

Letting capital run wild across the globe hasn’t exactly produced the best of all possible worlds. It’s strange to think that letting data do the same would yield a different result.

Reducing High Drug Prices a ‘Top Priority,’ Trump Says

But no mention of full ACA repeal or replacement in State of the Union speech

WASHINGTON — One of the Trump administration’s “greatest priorities” will be to bring down drug costs, President Trump said in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

“In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States,” Trump said. “That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of my top priorities for the year. Prices will come down substantially — watch.”

Healthcare also came up in several other places during the speech. “We eliminated an especially cruel tax that fell mostly on Americans making less than $50,000 a year — forcing them to pay tremendous penalties simply because they could not afford government-ordered health plans,” said Trump. “We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare — the individual mandate is now gone.”

But that was all Trump had to say about the Affordable Care Act. He made no mention of pushing for full ACA repeal or replacement. Nor did he promise action on other aspects of rising healthcare costs besides drug prices.

The president did urge Congress to pass laws allowing patients with life-threatening illnesses to try experimental drugs. “We also believe that patients with terminal conditions should have access to experimental treatments that could potentially save their lives,” he said. “People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure — I want to give them a chance right here at home. It is time for the Congress to give these wonderful Americans the ‘right to try.'”

Veterans’ healthcare also came up during the speech, which ran for an hour and 22 minutes. “We are serving our brave veterans, including giving our veterans choice in their healthcare decisions,” said Trump, referring to the Veterans Choice program, which provides insurance coverage for veterans who see providers who are not part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system.

In addition, “Last year, the Congress passed, and I signed, the landmark VA Accountability Act,” he noted. “Since its passage, my administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve — and we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do. I will not stop until our veterans are properly taken care of, which has been my promise to them from the very beginning of this great journey.”

The opioid epidemic also got a mention during the address. “Never before has it been like it is now; it’s terrible,” he said in ad-libbed remarks. “We have to do something about it.”

“In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour,” Trump continued, returning to his prepared remarks. “We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge. My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will succeed, we will prevail.”

He then spotlighted Ryan Holets, an Albuquerque, N.M. police officer who, with his wife Rebecca, adopted a child whose mother was a heroin addict. “Ryan and Rebecca: you embody the goodness of our nation,” said Trump.

The president also said his administration has “taken historic actions to protect religious liberty,” a possible reference to his administration’s launch of a Conscience and Religious Freedom division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In the Democratic response, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) argued that the administration was guilty of presenting the American people with false choices. “They’re turning American life into a zero-sum game, where for one to win, another must lose, where can guarantee America’s safety if we slash our safety net, where we can guarantee healthcare in Mississippi if we gut it in Massachusetts … where we can take care of sick kids if we sacrifice Dreamers.”

“So here is the answer the Democrats offer tonight — we choose both,” Kennedy said. “The greatest, strongest, richest nation in the world should not have to leave anyone behind … We choose a living wage, paid leave, and affordable child care … a good education you can afford, and a healthcare system that offers you mercy whether you suffer from cancer, depression, or addiction.”

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who was sworn in on Monday, lauded the president’s remarks. “I commend President Trump for delivering a speech that celebrated the economic boom we have seen under his leadership, which has brought new opportunity and prosperity to the American people,” Azar said in a statement. “A healthier economy means a healthier America, and we look forward to more such success in the coming year, including through reforms to make healthcare more affordable and accessible for all Americans.”

“The president also deserves tremendous credit for his leadership in addressing the opioid crisis that’s hitting communities all across America,” he continued. “During his first year in office, President Trump has brought a new level of awareness and commitment to this cause, and I look forward to expanding and enhancing our aggressive approach to this scourge of addiction and overdose.”

Rare Disease Finds Fertile Ground In Rohingya Refugee Camps

Patients are treated at the Samaritan’s Purse diphtheria clinic in the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Chittagong district, Bangladesh.

Diphtheria poses one more threat to already beleaguered Rohingya refugees.

The outbreak started in the sprawling camps in Bangladesh in November soon after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya arrived. It appeared to have peaked around New Year’s but now there is renewed concern as the potentially fatal disease continues to spread.

“Yesterday was a very busy day for us,” Dr. Andy Doyle said earlier this week at the Samaritan’s Purse diphtheria treatment center in the Balukhali refugee camp. “We saw 117 patients come in to be screened [for diphtheria]. That’s the most we’ve seen in any given day.”

By mid-January, there had been nearly 5,000 reported cases of diphtheria in the camps and 33 deaths.

Doyle is the medical director of the tented field hospital.

The waiting area, which is just some benches under a tarp roof, is jammed with people waiting to be checked for diphtheria. Doyle says it looks as if they could have a record number of patients for a second day in a row.

Doyle and his team only treat diphtheria at this facility. So the very first thing the staff members do is screen the patient for the disease and make sure it’s not just a bad cold.

Patients with diphtheria have a high fever, a sore throat, often a runny nose and severe inflammation in the back of the throat.

“[Diphtheria] is not something we see in the West,” Doyle says of the airborne bacterial infection. “Most of us from the West that are working here never saw this disease until we got here a week or two ago. And now we’re experts on it.”

“Sometimes they get swelling in their necks, especially in the younger children, and their neck itself will get really big,” he says. “It’s called bull neck. And those are the signs that the airway is in impending danger. So that’s what we look for.”

That’s how diphtheria kills: The neck swells up and a membrane develops in the throat that blocks breathing.

One day this past week, 117 patients came into the clinic to be screened for diphtheria.

As of the middle of January there’d been nearly 5,000 reported cases of diphtheria in the camps and 33 deaths. This is a far lower fatality rate than in past diphtheria outbreaks. That’s probably because patients get access to health care quickly in the half a dozen clinics that have sprung up in the camps.

Simple cases of diphtheria can be treated with antibiotics. But if the airway is in danger of being blocked, an anti-toxin is administered via an intravenous drip to wipe out a poison that the bacteria makes. But the anti-toxin has the potential to spark a fatal reaction.

Nur Aysia Begum is examined by Mollie McCully while her mother, Nayna Khatun, looks on. When her daughter got sick, Khatun was afraid she didn’t have money to pay for a doctor or medicine. But the Samaritan’s Purse clinic is free.

Her mother, Nayna Khatun, who’s sitting by her side, says they feared they’d be killed by the soldiers if they stayed. Now her family depends on international food aid to survive. When her daughter got sick, Khatun was worried because she didn’t have any money to pay for a doctor or medicine.

All of the treatment at this clinic is free.

Doyle says administering the anti-toxin is difficult and time-consuming.

“That nurse,” he says pointing to the nurse at Begum’s bedside, “will sit at that bedside watching for the slightest hint that an allergic reaction is about to start.”

Public health officials are very concerned how vulnerable the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are to diphtheria and other infectious diseases. The refugees are packed together in makeshift shelters. Toilets and water wells have been randomly dug all over the camps, often side by side. Marcella Kraay, a project coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, says another key factor putting the Rohingya at risk is that back in Myanmar they lacked access to even the most basic immunizations.

Humanitarian groups have launched a campaign to try to immunize nearly a million people in and around the refugee camps against diphtheria and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

“We’ve had a big measles outbreak and we’ve also had the biggest diphtheria outbreak that the world has seen in a long time,” she says.

Health care isn’t the only thing the long-persecuted Rohingya lacked in Myanmar.

Myanmar doesn’t consider the Rohingya to be citizens. The Muslim minority have faced discrimination in schools and the workforce. They need permission from the government to leave their villages. Some were forced to live in camps. And this was all before the military started attacking them and burning their villages to the ground last year.

Myanmar denies harassing the Rohingya. Myanmar officials say the military was conducting a cleanup operation against terrorists at the time that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the border in to Bangladesh.

Kraay with Doctors Without Borders says the Rohingya had very little access to health care. Some had never been to a clinic or seen a doctor.

Humanitarian groups have launched a massive campaign to try to counter that long history of medical neglect. Health workers from international nonprofits and the Bangladesh ministry of health are trying to immunize nearly a million people in and around the refugee camps against diphtheria and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

The diphtheria vaccine, however, is a difficult one to administer. It requires three shots spaced usually several months apart. Health officials here did a first round of diphtheria vaccinations at the end of December and hope to cram in the final two rounds in the coming weeks.

Until then diphtheria has hundreds of thousands of susceptible targets in the camps.

The diphtheria outbreak in the refugee camps is the biggest the world has seen in some years, says Marcella Kraay, a project coordinator with Doctors Without Borders.

EPA orders cleanup at St. Louis nuclear waste site. What does it mean for the nation’s other toxic messes?

Potential airborne debris and gases are covered and trapped on a portion of the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis. Radioactive waste was illegally dumped at the site decades ago. 
Potential airborne debris and gases are covered and trapped on a portion of the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis. Radioactive waste was illegally dumped at the site decades ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered a long-awaited cleanup of a Superfund site northwest of St. Louis, saying residents living near the landfill contaminated with World War II-era nuclear waste deserve action after waiting 27 years for federal regulators to issue a decision.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to partially excavate tons of radioactive material from the West Lake Landfill over five years — at an expected cost of $236 million to the liable companies — goes beyond a 2008 solution proposed by the George W. Bush administration to cover and monitor the waste.

“The people of the St. Louis region deserve clarity and answers,” Pruitt said in a statement Thursday. “I promised them an answer, and today I am making good on that commitment.” He added that he sought a remedy at the site that would “protect public health, comply with the law, and hold potentially responsible parties accountable.”

Thursday’s announcement also was intended to be Exhibit A in demonstrating Pruitt’s commitment to revitalizing the agency’s Superfund program, which includes the nation’s most polluted sites, by streamlining and accelerating cleanups. But it underscored how few Superfund sites have simple answers, though nearly all of them generate intense emotions.

“We were hoping for full, 100 percent excavation. But we know that would be difficult to accomplish,” said Dawn Chapman, a founder of Just Moms STL, an activist group that has long pushed for an extensive excavation with relocation of families near the landfill.

Chapman said her group views the outcome as a hard-fought victory but one that is far from guaranteed, given the public-comment and cleanup process likely to unfold over years. “We have to stay here and watch it and see it through,” she said. “I look ahead, and I see these other big battles coming. We’re not going to blink because you can’t. … We will continue to fight to get even more [radioactive waste] removed.”

Pruitt’s decision goes further than the action sought by Republic Services and Exelon, whose subsidiaries are responsible for the cleanup at West Lake along with the federal Department of Energy. The companies have argued that the agency’s own science shows capping the waste is the safer option and that excavating the toxic material could create serious public health risks.

While the $236 million price tag of the EPA plan is significantly higher than what the firms hoped to spend, it is well below the cost, projected at nearly $700 million, of a full excavation.

In a statement, Republic Services said it was “pleased that the EPA has finally ended decades of study and again is issuing a proposed plan for the site.” But the company cautioned that a final decision could take years.

What remains to be seen is whether the decision on West Lake represents how Pruitt is likely to approach other Superfund sites.

In recent months, Pruitt has promised aggressive Superfund cleanups and made a public show of butting heads with corporate interests — something he has rarely done on other issues during his first year at the EPA. Yet aside from creating a list of 21 targets needing “immediate and intense” attention, as well as forming a task force to recommend ways to expedite cleanups and “reduce the burden” on companies involved, Pruitt has explained very little about how he intends to deal with the hundreds of other toxic-waste sites around the country.


“What’s the plan for the other sites that aren’t on [Pruitt’s] priority list?” asked Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. She said Pruitt’s decision at West Lake might be “a positive step” but added, “It raises the question of whether Superfund is being used to showcase a few projects without actually doing more to clean up contamination at all 1,300 sites.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed cutting the Superfund program’s budget by 30 percent, or about $330 million annually. And while there are responsible companies that the EPA can legally force to pay for cleanups at many of the locations Pruitt has mentioned, many others are “orphan” sites where the polluters have gone bankrupt or are no longer legally liable for remedying the problem. At those, the federal government still shoulders most of the tab — and the pot of available dollars keeps shrinking.

“I am concerned about orphan sites across the country in the Superfund portfolio,” Pruitt told lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week. “I think there are greater challenges beyond money. But money matters in that side of our responsibilities.”

Pruitt highlighted West Lake early in his tenure at the EPA.

“The past administration honestly just didn’t pay attention to [it],” he said on a local radio show in April. “We’re going to get things done at West Lake. The days of talking are over.” In May, Pruitt took to television to say a plan was coming “very soon.”

Eight months have passed since then. But families in the shadow of West Lake, which was added to the Superfund program in 1990, are no strangers to waiting. The site’s 200 acres include not just the radioactive waste illegally dumped in 1973, but also a former sanitary landfill. Decomposing trash is smoldering underground in what scientists call a “subsurface burning event.” There are concerns about the fire reaching the radioactive waste, though the companies there have taken numerous steps to prevent that.

Over the years, residents have complained of quality-of-life and health problems, including a periodic stench in the air and anecdotal tales of cancers, autoimmune disorders and miscarriages in adjacent neighborhoods. At the same time, numerous air, water and soil tests from the EPA and other government agencies have shown no link to such conditions.

Pruitt’s plan will now be open for a period of public comment before it is finalized.

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