Editorial Roundup: United States
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Guardian say the cost of living crisis is a global emergency
The UK is sliding into a social and economic crisis, the likes of which its people have not seen for decades. Household fuel bills are on course to top £2,400 by this autumn, while the price of a grocery shop is rocketing. Meanwhile, the economy is flatlining and the average employee’s pay keeps falling behind inflation, which hit 7% in March, the highest rate since 1992. No wonder that the charities and analysts that work on poverty and inequality are issuing such dire warnings. On one projection, one in three Britons – 23.5 million people – will be unable to afford the cost of living this year.
The rest of the world is being buffeted by the same storms: COVID, followed by soaring prices for food and fuel, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to another massive rise in the cost of basics. The difference is that most other countries do not have our wealth, or social security system, or infrastructure. So imagine the devastation felt elsewhere, in countries less wealthy, less stable and less powerful. In Somalia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicts, more than 6 million people will fall into “crisis, emergency, or catastrophic levels of hunger” within the next two months.
Add in southern Ethiopia and Kenya, and the total facing “crisis or worse” jumps to 16 million. A terse, bureaucratic, economical phrase – “crisis or worse” – denotes unimaginable human trauma: selling all you have to feed your children, leaving your family home and wandering miles for sustenance. You need a lot of luck to survive such rigors.
Now imagine this fate befalling families from Africa to Asia to Latin America, because that is what lies ahead. Oxfam projects that 260 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty this year alone – that is to say, living on $1.90 (roughly £1.50) a day or less. These are vast numbers that so far have gone largely ignored. To take a small example: at the start of this year, the FAO appealed for $138m in aid for farming families in Somalia; four months later, it is still nearly two-thirds short. Much of the rich world – its governments, households and businesses – is focused on helping Ukraine, but sadly it is only one among many countries in desperate need of help.
Some basic things can be done, both in the UK and internationally. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, could immediately restore the billions that he has cut from the aid budget. Next week, finance ministers from around the globe will fly into Washington for the spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank. There, they could agree to make up the humanitarian aid needed in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They could restructure the debt of poorer countries, cancelling those loans that are simply unpayable, and suspending interest payments on others. And they should increase the financial reserves or strategic drawing rights provided by the IMF, while stipulating that they must go to poorer countries without the usual conditions imposed by economists from Washington.
It remains an outrage that the rich world hasn’t waived patents on COVID vaccines or supported poorer countries in manufacturing them. And it is high time that a wealth tax was introduced across countries, taking from those who prospered wildly during the pandemic, then spent their proceeds on space travel or shares in troubled social media firms.
The cost of not doing at least some of the above will be high: in human lives, in geopolitical stability, in financial markets. This week, Sri Lanka warned that it would renege on its foreign debts, even as thousands of protesters took to the streets of Colombo to demand the overthrow of their president. More dominoes are bound to fall.
China Daily says the U.S. is backing Australia’s bullying of Pacific islands
It seems that the United States is throwing its weight behind Australia’s bid to scupper the security cooperation agreement reached between China and the Solomon Islands, with Kurt Campbell, who serves as the U.S. National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, reportedly paying a trip to the South Pacific nation this month.
The tiny island country has already received visits from two of Australia’s top intelligence chiefs, and Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja made a “rare” visit to the Solomon Islands on Tuesday.
Indicating the reason for Campbell’s trip, Admiral Samuel J Paparo, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, described the proposed security pact as a “secret” arrangement that worried the U.S. and its partners.
As a small country, the Solomon Islands must feel overwhelmed by such sudden intensive diplomacy and the attention it is getting from Canberra and Washington.
Yet, focusing on such fields as disaster response, humanitarian assistance, development assistance and the maintaining of social order, the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is an arrangement between two sovereign and independent countries on the basis of equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit.
The riots, which broke out in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands in November last year, caused severe economic losses, and have prompted the country to deepen its security partnerships with many countries, China included.
The security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands conforms with international law and does not target a third party, nor does it have any ulterior military purpose.
Yet, with no regard for the Pacific country’s sovereignty and its right to forge cooperation with other countries, both Australia and the U.S. are hyping up the outdated China threat theory and exerting diplomatic pressure on the Solomon Islands to ditch the security pact it signed with China.
Canberra and Washington have done little to cater to the development and security needs of Pacific Island countries in the past, despite viewing them as the “backyard” of Australia. Their newfound interest in the “security significance” of the Solomon Islands lays bare their intention to turn this region into a venue for a big power competition.
On Wednesday, the Solomon government refuted the misinformation that aims to distort facts and tarnish its good relations with China. The flagrant interference and diplomacy of coercion of Australia and the U.S. will only make them increasingly unpopular in the region.
The Wall Street Journal discusses a federal judge’s ruling that the CDC exceeded its statutory authority with mask mandate
This has been a rough few months for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 orders. First its eviction moratorium went down last year. On Monday it lost again, as a federal judge blocked the agency’s mask mandate on airlines and other forms of public transportation (Health Freedom Defense Fund v. Biden).
Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the CDC exceeded its statutory authority and never clearly explained its justification for the broad mask mandate, among other legal infirmities. It’s a strong opinion based in a careful reading of the Public Health Service Act of 1944, which was the basis for the CDC’s order.
Judge Mizelle says the agency stretched the meaning of the word “sanitation” in the law, which was never intended to justify such sweeping control over the behavior of millions of Americans. She quotes the words of Jeff Sutton, Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the vaccine mandate case that “this is no ‘everyday exercise of federal power.’”
It certainly isn’t, which helps to justify the judge’s national injunction in the mask case. National injunctions should be rare, but it would be hard to narrow, by geography or type of transport, a nationwide mask requirement for all public transportation.
The ruling comes when the mask mandate is a waning health necessity, if it ever was. The CDC recently extended it until May 3, and it is increasingly unpopular with passengers and airline executives as Covid-19 becomes endemic and less lethal. Rather than appeal the ruling and risk a broader defeat, the CDC would be wiser to drop it.
The Biden Administration should also hire more lawyers who understand that the courts are looking more closely at sweeping federal orders that lack clear statutory justification. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lost its vaccine mandate case at the Supreme Court. President Biden may want to govern with a pen and a phone, a la Barack Obama, but he’ll suffer more legal defeats without a clear command from a law written by Congress.
According to the New York Times, the U.S. patent system is in dire need of reform
The injector pen is not, by any stretch, a new invention. Drugmakers of every ilk have been using it for decades to deliver all sorts of crucial medications into the bloodstream. By adding this old technology to its insulin drug, Glargine, however, the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi was nonetheless able to secure additional patents for a lucrative product. The drug’s existing patents were expiring, and new ones enabled the company to maintain its monopoly — and the bounty that goes with it — much longer. But for the patients who depend on this life-sustaining drug? Too many are still struggling to afford it.
Sanofi is not alone, of course. Other drugmakers have patented scores of uninspiring tweaks to their existing products: making a tablet instead of a pill, changing the dose, adding a flavor. When it comes to protecting a drug monopoly, it seems no modification is too small.
Drugmakers for decades have argued that patents are essential to American innovation. For all that lip service to medical advancement, though, a recent investigation by the House Oversight Committee concluded that market share is more likely the point. Twelve of the drugs that Medicare spends the most on are protected by more than 600 patents in total, according to the committee. Many of those patents contain little that’s truly new. But the thickets they create have the potential to extend product monopolies for decades. In so doing, they promise to add billions to the nation’s soaring health care costs — and to pharmaceutical coffers.
And for all the hand-wringing over how to lower prescription drug costs in recent years, little has been said about the patent system or its many failings. Put simply: The United States Patent and Trademark Office is in dire need of reform.
The agency was created more than two centuries ago for the express purpose of protecting and promoting innovation. For most of the ensuing decades, it has stood as a beacon of American ingenuity. But critics say that by the time the office issued its 11 millionth patent last year, it had long since devolved into a backwater office that large corporations game, politicians ignore and average citizens are wholly excluded from. As a result, not only is legal trickery rewarded and the public’s interest overlooked, but also innovation — the very thing that patents were meant to foster — is undermined.
The trouble goes well beyond prescription drugs. “The patent office holds sway over huge swaths of the U.S. economy,” said Priti Krishtel, an attorney and co-founder of the Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge, a nonprofit dedicated to patent system reform. “It has the power to shape markets, and just about every industry you can think of, from agriculture to technology, is impacted by its shortcomings.”
Given that import, it’s concerning that the agency spent the past year without a permanent director. With that post now filled — the Senate confirmed Kathi Vidal, a Silicon Valley patent attorney, this month — there’s a fresh opportunity to modernize and fortify the patent system. Ms. Vidal and Congress should seize that opportunity quickly. Here’s how they can start.
Enforce existing standards. The best way to ensure that patents spur innovation instead of thwarting it is to set a high standard for what deserves patent protection in the first place and then to honor it.
In the United States, that standard already exists: To secure a patent, an invention must be truly novel and nonobvious, it must be described in enough detail for a reasonably qualified person to build and use it, and it must actually work. The problem is these rules are poorly enforced.
The pharmaceutical industry is a good example. Nearly 80% of the drugs associated with new patents between 2005 and 2015 were not new. But the issue is not confined to drugmakers. The Theranos debacle, to take just one other example, was touched off by officials who granted scores of patents for a device that had never been built and that turned out not to work. The company was able to secure those patents without disclosing almost any technical information about its product.
It will take comprehensive reform to repair these deficiencies, but one simple thing that officials can do right now is give patent examiners more time and resources to do their jobs. Even the most complicated patent applications receive just 19 hours of scrutiny, on average, according to a Brookings Institution report. Some 70% of patent examiners have said that that’s not nearly enough time.
Capping the number of times an inventor can resubmit a rejected application would also help — in part by reducing the administrative burden and resulting backlog, as well as by removing the incentive for examiners to approve dubious applications just to get them out of the way.
Improve the process for challenging bad patents. Bad patents have steep costs. They gum up the wheels of innovation by making it harder for would-be inventors to proceed with their work. They strain budgets by preventing cheaper products from entering the market. And they leave honest inventors vulnerable to patent trolls — people who buy up weak patents not to create anything new or useful but to hold legitimate inventions ransom. But the process of weeding these patents out once they’ve been granted remains fraught: It can take years and many thousands of dollars to challenge a bad patent in court, and even when the case seems obvious, success is never guaranteed.
The Patent Trial and Appeal Board, a panel of judges that reviews and decides on patent challenges without lengthy court battles, was meant to solve at least some of these problems. But it has been beset by criticism and legal challenges since its creation in 2012. It has also been undermined by Trump-era policies that allow the patent office to deny legitimate patent challenges for purely bureaucratic reasons. During the Trump administration, critics say, such discretionary denials allowed scores of dubious patents to stand.
Lawmakers should pass the Restoring the America Invents Act, a bill that would limit such discretionary denials, and Ms. Vidal should use her authority to curb this practice in the meantime. Officials should also consider broader fixes: Make it easier to challenge bad patents before they are granted. Force secondary pharmaceutical patents to undergo an automatic review by the appeal board. Rethink the legal structure for patent challenges.
“The appeals court tends to be an echo chamber,” said Matthew Lane, a patent lawyer with the public advocacy group InSight Public Affairs. “Because judges there tend to come from and listen to the patent bar.”
Eliminate potential conflicts of interest. Too many patent office directors have come from or gone to industry jobs within months of holding the federal post. This revolving door poses a real risk to the integrity of the patent office. The most recent example of that comes from the Trump administration appointee Andrei Iancu. During his tenure, the patent office used its discretionary powers to deny a challenge to a patent held by a company that his former law firm represented. He then returned to that firm as soon as his time in government was up.
The office’s finances also need to be reconfigured. The majority of its revenue comes from issuance fees, which are assessed only after a patent is granted. This means that the agency charged with serving as patent gatekeeper has a direct incentive to keep that gate as open as possible. It’s hard to say whether or how much patent examiners are influenced by this incentive, but some research has found that when patent office coffers ebb, patent approvals tend to flow.
Officials could solve this problem by revising the patent agency’s fee schedule, so that a majority is due when an application is filed. (Rebates and other supports would help ensure that smaller companies aren’t priced out.) The patent office could also develop a sliding scale system in which the largest and wealthiest patent filers subsidize the smallest and least endowed.
Collaborate with other agencies. There is a natural overlap of the interests and responsibilities of federal regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency and the concerns of the patent office. But there are very few formal mechanisms and hardly any rules that compel those camps to work together. Companies of all types routinely exploit this gap, like children playing two disconnected parents against each other.
In 2014, for example, the E.P.A. discovered that some pesticide makers were routinely amplifying the novel effects of their latest products in patent applications, only to downplay the same effects to federal regulators. “They would tell the patent office that their pesticide deserved a patent because it was different than what was already out there,” said Charles Duan, a public interest attorney and a member of the patent office’s public advisory committee. (This is Mr. Duan’s own opinion; he was not speaking for the committee.) “Then they’d tell the E.P.A. that the same pesticide didn’t need extra regulatory clearance because it was no different than what was already out there.”
Experts have long warned that the same thing could easily be happening at the F.D.A.: Existing regulations allow medical device makers to sidestep burdensome regulatory approvals if their newer products are deemed similar to ones that already exist. Critics say that pharmaceutical companies also have a habit of describing certain drug-making processes as common when talking to regulators and novel when applying for patent extensions. The key to breaking such habits is communication among agencies.
Ms. Vidal should make collaboration with regulatory agencies the rule. She should also work with the Federal Trade Commission, an agency whose job it is to ferret out exactly the kind of anticompetitive practices that the patent office is vulnerable to.
Let the public participate. For too much of its history, the patent office has treated inventors and companies as its main customers while all but ignoring the people whose lives are affected by patenting decisions. That needs to change. Officials can start by appointing more public representatives to the patent office’s public advisory committee. Right now, six of the committee’s nine members are attorneys who represent commercial clients or private interests; only one works in public interest.
Officials should also establish a public advocate service similar to the one that exists at the Internal Revenue Service and should make a concerted effort to ramp up their public outreach. “The patent system has gotten so complicated that it’s impossible for anyone who’s not an inventor or a lawyer to penetrate it,” said Mr. Duan.
The patent system affects everyone, though. It’s time the people in charge of it recognize that.
The Washington Post says the IRS is in desperate need of money and staff
This is not a normal tax year for the Internal Revenue Service. As millions of American households scramble to meet the April 18 filing deadline, it’s easy to view this as just another tax season that causes temporary annoyance and then fades in the headlines and minds of most people. But there’s a lot more at stake.
The IRS is currently limping along without enough staff or funding. Congress, especially Republicans, needs to face up to reality. The IRS still manually enters the information on paper tax returns into its computing system because its technology is so outdated. There’s a massive backlog of more than 7 million unprocessed individual tax returns from last year, largely because the IRS doesn’t have enough staff and resources. Getting anyone at the IRS to answer the phone is practically miraculous. These delays have caused serious hardships for families waiting for thousands of dollars in refunds or trying to apply for loans but not having last year’s tax returns available.
It’s not a mystery how the IRS deteriorated. While the pandemic certainly caused additional strain on the agency, the core problem is that Republicans slashed the IRS budget about 18% in the past decade. That’s not belt-tightening, it’s gutting an agency. It’s no wonder staffing declined 20%, and the IRS now has the fewest auditors since 1953.
Having a fully functioning tax collection agency is fundamental to American democracy and the economy. Taxes are the main funding source for everything from the U.S. military to Medicare and Social Security. Individual income taxes alone make up half of federal revenue. Fixing the IRS should be as urgent — if not more — than rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges.
It’s telling that IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig, who was appointed by a Republican president, is begging Congress for more “stable, multi-year funding” so the agency can upgrade its systems, go after tax cheats and hire more staff.
Congress did approve more funding ($12.6 billion) for the IRS for the rest of this fiscal year and gave the agency the ability to fast-track hires, but it won’t be enough. The IRS not only needs to overhaul its technology, it also needs to hire for thousands of positions right now — and prepare for the fact that more than 50,000 IRS employees are likely to retire in the next six years.
The Biden administration is rightly asking for a big increase for 2023 (a request of $14.1 billion). This isn’t some Democratic wish list item; it’s about restoring the basic functions of America’s tax collection agency.
IRS employees deserve applause for trying to do their best in a tough situation, including many working overtime. It’s encouraging that as of April 1, the IRS has processed more than 89 million tax returns, up from 83.7 million at the same point last year.
But Amanda Walters, a tax examiner who was hired 18 months ago, summarized the situation at the IRS in simple, yet ominous, terms. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘This is not the norm,’” Walters told The Post. “This is my norm.” IRS workers — and taxpayers — deserve better.
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