In Brief: July 30, 2020

Misinformation on coronavirus proving highly contagious

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.

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The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.

Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.

US expects a record-breaking economic plunge

WASHINGTON — Having endured what was surely a record-shattering slump last quarter, the U.S. economy faces a dim outlook as a resurgent coronavirus intensifies doubts about any sustained recovery the rest of the year.

A huge plunge in consumer spending as people stayed home and avoided shopping, traveling or gathering in crowds as the virus raged is estimated to have sent the economy sinking at a roughly 32% annual rate in the April-June quarter. That would be more than triple the previous worst quarterly economic fall, a 10% drop set in 1958. Depressed activity in such areas as business investment, home construction and government spending also likely contributed to the worst quarterly contraction on records dating to 1947.

From wire sources

On Thursday, the government will issue its first of three estimates of economic activity, as measured by the gross domestic product, for the April-June quarter.

So dizzying was the contraction last quarter that most analysts expect the economy to manage a sharp bounce-back in the current July-September quarter, perhaps of as much as 17% or higher on an annual basis. Yet with the rate of confirmed coronavirus cases now rising in a majority of states, more businesses being forced to pull back on re-openings and the Republican Senate proposing to scale back the government’s aid to the unemployed, the economy could worsen in the months ahead.

The Trump administration is betting against that outcome in asserting that the economy will undergo a V-shaped recovery in which last quarter’s plunge would be followed by an impressive rebound in the current quarter — a hoped-for dose of good news that would be reported in late October, not long before Election Day.

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4 Big Tech CEOs take congressional heat on competition

WASHINGTON — Fending off accusations of stifling competition, four Big Tech CEOs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple — are answering for their companies’ practices before Congress as a House panel caps its yearlong investigation of market dominance in the industry.

The powerful CEOs sought to defend their companies amid intense grilling by lawmakers on Wednesday.

The executives provided bursts of data showing how competitive their markets are, and the value of their innovation and essential services to consumers. But they sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices. They also confronted a range of other concerns about alleged political bias, their effect on U.S. democracy and their role in China.

The four CEOs were testifying remotely to lawmakers, most of whom were sitting, in masks, inside the hearing room in Washington.

Among the toughest questions for Google and Amazon involved accusations that they used their dominant platforms to scoop up data about competitors in a way that gave them an unfair advantage.

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Trump downplays West Texas energy worries, attacks Democrats

MIDLAND, Texas — President Donald Trump took sweeping digs at “crazy left radical Democrats” on a trip Wednesday to the fracking fields of West Texas, launching unsubstantiated claims that a Democratic administration would destroy everything from the country’s suburbs to the U.S. energy industry.

Trump, speaking in front of stacked oil barrels, also played down the difficulties of the U.S. oil and gas industry, which is still struggling with the pandemic economic downturn and global oversupply that briefly drove oil prices into negative territory this spring. Prices have rebounded to around $40 a barrel, still below what some producers here need to break even.

“We’re OK now. We’re back, we’re back,” Trump said to a crowd scattered with people wearing cowboy hats and face masks. He sought to contrast his support for oil and gas with Democratic rival Joe Biden’s more climate-friendly energy plan, though Biden himself has stopped short of calling for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the production method that spurred U.S. oil and gas to a yearslong boom that started under President Barack Obama.

“If they got in, you would have no more energy coming out of the great state of Texas,” warned Trump, whose poll numbers for the 2020 election are lagging. He claimed the same, without evidence, for Ohio and Pennsylvania, two fracking states that also are battlegrounds in the presidential race.

Speaking under a tent on a hot, windy day, Trump alluded to the opposing party in the most extreme terms, saying a Democratic White House win and the policies of the “Washington crazy left radical Democrats” would mean “the death of American prosperity. It would destroy our country.”

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Senator, union leader: Postal Service considers downsizing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Postal Service is considering closing post offices across the country, sparking concerns ahead of an anticipated surge of mail-in ballots in the 2020 elections, U.S. Sen Joe Manchin and a union leader said Wednesday.

Manchin said he has received numerous reports from post offices and colleagues about service cuts or looming closures in West Virginia and elsewhere, prompting him to send a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy asking for an explanation.

The possible cutbacks come as DeJoy, a major donor to President Donald Trump who took control of the agency last month, moves to eliminate overtime for hundreds of thousands of postal workers, potentially causing a delay in mail deliveries. A recent document from the Postal Service, obtained by The Associated Press, described the need for an “operational pivot” to make the cash-strapped agency financially stable.

“It’s just asinine to think that you can shut something down or throttle it back in terms of the pandemic when basically the lifeline for voting and democracy is going to be in the hands of the Postal Service,” Manchin, a Democrat, told reporters Wednesday.

He said at least two post offices in West Virginia had been scheduled to close next month but that the agency had “slowed” its plans.

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Census head wasn’t told about Trump district drawing order

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testified Wednesday that he wasn’t informed ahead of time about President Donald Trump’s order seeking to exclude people in the U.S. illegally from the process of redrawing congressional districts.

Dillingham testified during an emergency congressional hearing that he was unaware of anyone from the Census Bureau playing a role in the order that civil rights groups have called unconstitutional. The bureau is collecting the head count data that will be used to redraw the districts.

The Democratic-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Reform held the hearing after Trump issued a memorandum last week seeking to exclude people in the country illegally from being included during the district redrawing process. Civil rights group have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color.

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Democratic lawmakers expressed both dismay and sympathy with Dillingham, a Trump appointee, for being kept out of the loop on such a vital decision involving the bureau.

Opponents of Trump’s order say it could discourage immigrants and noncitizens from participating in the once-a-decade head count used for deciding how many congressional seats each states gets in a process known as apportionment. A Pew Research Center analysis shows that the order, if it stands up to challenges, could cost California, Florida and Texas congressional seats.

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