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How to look for alien life

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Powerful telescopes and sophisticated analytical tools are allowing scientists to see further into the cosmos. The list of places that could conceivably be home to life is growing. Last week NASA announced Saturn's moon Enceladus could support life and today scientists reported the discovery of a super-Earth in the habitable zone of a small star near our solar system.

We seem to be entering a new phase of discovery in an age-old quest to determine if there is life beyond Earth. We have targets in that search, but what exactly are we are looking for?

We asked four researchers to weigh in on that head-scratcher of a question:


Trump hates fake news, loves big media

Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

President Trump continues to publicly belittle big media organizations as "fake news," but in Washington, his administration's moves are a boon to big media companies. Telecom and technology companies are being deregulated while smaller media companies worry about their ability to survive.

Why it matters: On the campaign trail, populist Candidate Trump vowed to "break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies" and to shut down the biggest media deal of the year. But President Trump's administration has actually encouraged consolidation as part of its deregulatory blitz.


  • The number of announced media deals rose under the new administration, per PwC, with both the first and second quarter eclipsing the final year of the Obama administration in deal volume — as well as much of 2015.
    • While analysts say changes in viewing habits are driving consolidation in the media industry, they also say that's being helped along by the administration's deregulatory stance.
  • Google and Facebook are growing bigger than ever: Trump told Axios earlier this year that Facebook's dominance didn't concern him, because the platform enables him to communicate directly with the American people.
    • From regulators to Republican lawmakers, there has been little appetite to take on the companies beyond mandating more transparency for political ads — something that's grounded in national security concerns, not antitrust doctrine.

Who's benefited?

  • The telecom companies. Ajit Pai's FCC is well on its way to repealing net neutrality regulations and given the green light to arrangements that give free data to customers who use certain applications or services. And Republican lawmakers voted to repeal privacy regulations for the companies.
  • Broadcasters — particularly the Trump-friendly Sinclair. The FCC removed a key regulatory hurdle for local news consolidation, clearing the way for Sinclair's acquisition of Tribune's stations.
  • Google and Facebook. The titans of the internet are taking tons of flak on Capitol Hill over the role they may have played in Russian election meddling. But President Trump has been quiet about it and hasn't acknowledged that there was Russian election meddling in the first place. Meanwhile, his antitrust regulators don't seem interested in pursuing the companies despite pressure from the left.

Yes, but: The good fortunes of a select few big media companies shouldn't obscure the fact that Trump is using his office to carry out grudges against individuals reporters and outlets for reporting things he doesn't like.

Just last week he said — twice! — that licenses for NBC stations should be challenged and potentially revoked. His media regulator, Pai, was silent — despite earlier this year declaring himself a defender of the free press in response to questions about the president's attacks.


China plays all sides of solar fight

China has dominated the solar manufacturing space since at least 2010. Photo: Ng Han Guan / AP

Chinese interests are coming up all over a fight playing out within America's solar industry about how the Trump administration should address a flood of cheap solar imports, coming mostly from China or Chinese-owned companies.

Why it matters: The dynamic reveals how widespread Chinese interests are in clean energy, and in particular solar manufacturing, a space it has dominated since at least 2010. President Trump has said he wants to reverse decades of open-trade policies to help protect American jobs and manufacturing. It would take huge policy changes and a lot of time to reduce China's dominance.

Driving the news: The International Trade Commission is considering what type of trade remedy to recommend President Trump employ to address the cheap solar imports. The independent federal agency unanimously voted in September that those imports have economically injured two U.S.-based but foreign-owned solar manufacturers. Trump will ultimately decide whether to impose tariffs or another kind of remedy, and most expect he will given his protectionist bent.

China on one side: One of the companies asking for trade protections, Suniva, is Georgia-based but is majority owned by a Chinese company. The company was trying to manufacture in the United States and recoup costs after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year. That's what fueled its decision to join the trade case brought by German-owned but Oregon-based SolarWorld Americas.

To make the situation even more complicated, the majority Chinese owner of the company, Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., told the ITC it doesn't want the remedies, but the company itself is pushing hard for them.

China on the other side: A Chinese trade group, the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products, has issued briefs backing arguments against the trade remedies by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a U.S. trade group. SEIA opposes the two companies' push because the cheap imports have fueled a boom in most parts of the industry other than manufacturing, including engineering and installation jobs.

"Chinese solar panels are absolutely critical to the U.S. market and the overall U.S. solar industry," said Spencer Griffith, a lawyer at Akin Gump who represents the Chinese group in the case. "U.S. producers of cells and modules cannot come close to satisfying U.S. demand, and the draconian remedies the petitioners propose would cripple the U.S. market and U.S. demand."

Hypocrisy on both sides:

  • Mutual support between the U.S. and Chinese trade groups as well as advertising campaigns pushed by U.S. groups led a top executive at Suniva to publicly allege last week that SEIA was doing the bidding of China.
  • A SEIA spokesman said SEIA has close to a 1,000 member companies and only a dozen or so are China-based companies. "We proudly represent America's solar industry," said spokesman Dan Whitten. "The notion that we advocate primarily for Chinese interests is laughable and a stunning allegation from a company that itself is majority-owned by a Chinese company."

China on yet another side: The Justice Department in 2014 indicted Chinese military hackers for what DOJ said at the time was cyber espionage against U.S. corporations, including SolarWorld, for commercial advantage. A top SolarWorld Americas executive testified about that case earlier this month to the United States Trade Representative. That hearing was part of the Trump administration's investigation into alleged Chinese violations of intellectual property, so expect this issue to resurface.

Go deeper: Check out Amy's latest Harder Line column on this topic, and this E&E story for a deep dive into Suniva's ownership.


GOP corporate tax cuts benefit the wealthy, but could help workers too

The GOP tax plan framework, released last month, almost undoubtedly benefits the wealthy — and that's largely because of the corporate tax provisions. "It's not that this tax plan is a huge direct tax cut to rich individuals, it's that it's a huge tax cut to businesses, and those businesses are owned by rich individuals," said Marc Goldwein of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Yes, but: Conservative economists emphasize that while the wealthy may directly benefit the most from corporate tax cuts, workers will ultimately benefit too from higher wages and more jobs. That's the argument that will really drive the debate when Congress considers the tax plan.

Data: Tax Policy Center; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

What you need to know about the GOP plan: It makes changes to all aspects of the tax code. Here are a few major provisions:

  • Condenses the individual tax code into three brackets: 12, 25 and 35 percent. (It hasn't yet defined which incomes qualify for what bracket.) It leaves the potential for a fourth rate on the highest earners.
  • Reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.
  • Allows immediate writing off of capital investments for five years.
  • Establishes a "pass-through" business rate of 25 percent. Currently, pass-through business income is taxed at filers' individual rate.

Why the wealthy benefit: Economists generally don't dispute that in an immediate sense, the GOP tax plan disproportionately benefits the wealthy.

  • Reducing the pass-through rate is a pretty straightforward benefit to the wealthy. Under the new tax structure, only higher-income people being taxed at the 35 percent rate will benefit from a lower (25 percent) pass-through rate.
  • Economists disagree about who pays what amount of corporate taxes. But it's generally accepted that shareholders and capital owners pay more of the corporate tax than workers, so therefore would benefit more from a tax reduction than workers would.
  • On the other hand, of course the wealthy benefit from tax cuts— they pay much more in taxes than lower income people, who often don't pay any taxes. "You cannot do individual income tax policy without talking about the affluent because they're the ones who pay tax," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum. Wealthier people also own businesses.
How workers could benefit: This is where economists start to significantly disagree.
  • A Council of Economic Advisers report released yesterday found that reducing the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would increase average household income by $4,000 a year. (Liberal economists disagreed.)
  • When corporate rates are lowered, this results in more jobs, higher wages and more benefits, former Senate Finance aide Chris Condeluci told me. "As more people are spending money in the economy, it's almost like a rising-tides-raises-all-boats," he said.
  • However, different income brackets may see results at different times. "The corporate cuts today benefit today's shareholders, and the effects for workers will take a very long time to show up," said Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution.
  • Some say if the plan increases the federal debt, this cancels out benefits to the middle class. "Higher debt depresses wage growth," Goldwein said.
  • Economists generally agree that the provision of the plan allowing faster write-offs for capital investments will have a large positive impact on workers.

The politics: It's going to be hard for Republicans to escape from being accused of cutting taxes for the wealthy, because they are. But conservatives strongly believe this is how to best help the middle class, even if they won't win the short-term politics of the issue.

  • Acknowledging this, Holtz-Eakin said, "All you have to do is get 51 votes in the Senate, and then the economy will win the political argument."

McCain slams "spurious nationalism" in speech aimed at Trump

McCain (L) accepts the Liberty Medal from Joe Biden. Photo: Matt Rourke / AP

In a speech accepting the National Constitution Center's Liberty Medal on Monday night, Sen. John McCain took aim at "spurious nationalism" in U.S. foreign policy, in remarks clearly intended as a repudiation of President Trump's worldview.
"To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history," he said.

More from McCain:

"We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don't. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn't deserve to do so."

Midwestern senators to press EPA chief on ethanol

Scott Pruitt. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

A group of Midwestern Republican senators are meeting Tuesday with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to express their concerns about the agency's recent moves on ethanol, according to a spokesman for Sen. Grassley. The Iowa Republican lunched with Pruitt Monday to discuss the same issues.

Why it matters: Ethanol is one of the few energy issues that's controversial within the Republican Party, so expect this tension to wear on throughout President Trump's time in the White House. This meeting comes ahead of a November 30 deadline for EPA to issue final annual regulations as part of the federal ethanol mandate.

Behind the scenes: Pruitt has been frustrated with Grassley's aggressive intervention on the mandate, according to a senior government official with knowledge of the situation. Grassley, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over judicial nominees and the Russian investigation, is one of the most powerful senators on Capitol Hill. Trump has made clear to Pruitt that he needs to work with Grassley to resolve their dispute over the mandate, according to the official. An EPA spokesman declined to comment on Grassley's role or Pruitt's perceived frustration.

The backstory: President Trump has supported ethanol, which comes mostly from corn and is thus important to senators from corn-rich states, like Iowa. Pruitt, in his former job as attorney general of Oklahoma, signed onto litigation opposing the federal mandate, also called the renewable fuel standard (RFS). Trump has aggressively supported the mandate and campaigned heavily on it while touring Iowa during the presidential campaign.

Gritty details: Grassley and a bipartisan group of roughly 30 senators sent a letter Monday urging Pruitt to increase the volumes of biodiesel it requires as part of the ethanol mandate, which mandates that EPA issue annual quotas for different types of biofuels. The agency in September took a rare step by proposing to reduce the levels of biodiesel and advanced biofuels the mandate would require. Grassley and other senators are also concerned about EPA's possible policy change regarding exported biofuels.

"Sen. Grassley will oppose any effort to reduce blending levels or otherwise undermine the RFS to help a handful of merchant refiners," a spokesman for Grassley said. "Those efforts are not necessary, and run contrary to the stated commitment of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt to maintain and defend the integrity of the RFS."

About that meeting: At least a half dozen GOP senators are expected to attend, including Senators Roy Blunt from Missouri and Joni Ernst of Iowa, according to spokespeople for their offices.


Ancient reptile had bird-like head before birds existed

A Greater Adjutant Stork, pictured in India. Photo: Anupam Nath / AP

Scientists have found a bird-like skull from a reptile that existed in the Triassic age — 100 million years before birds evolved, per a new study. The newly discovered species is called Avicranium renestoi. Scientists used modern computer modeling technology to render a representation of the full reptile using just the skull.

Why it matters: This is the first time we've seen a bird-like head from an animal that lived this long ago. It's a striking example of convergent evolution, separated by time. Other examples of convergent evolution include wings in bats and birds, and color in penguins and killer whales.

Facebook acquires teen hit app tbh

The tbh app in the App Store. Screen shot: Axios

Facebook has acquired tbh, a mobile app for making polls and sending compliments to other users, according to the app maker's website. The app will continue to operate independently, though the team will move to Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park.

Why it matters: Given the app's quick rise in popularity among teens, it's not surprising that Facebook quickly wrote a check to the startup and snapped up its app. Facebook's obsession with capturing the eyeballs of teens and young adults has been well documented (a few years ago, it offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion).

Good deal: As for tbh's makers, this is a good deal—the small company, based in Oakland, Calif., has spent the last five years building several products and apps with varying success and was in the process of shutting down when it debuted tbh, according to a Facebook post by co-founder Nikita Bier. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Disclosure: The author of this story went to college with tbh's Nikita Bier.


Gun-related ER visits by type of gun

From 2006 to 2014, handgun-related injuries sent 190,396 people to emergency rooms in the U.S. — and that number excludes those who died before they could go to the hospital, and incidents involving people who never sought medical help.

Data: Health Affairs, authors' analysis of Nationwide Emergency Department Sample; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Key takeaways:

  • The most ER visits from 2006 to 2014 — 457,492 — were caused by guns classified as "other," but handguns were the single most deadly gun type.
  • Assaults typically involved handguns and shotguns, compared to hunting rifles and military rifles which caused higher shares of accidental injuries or deaths.
  • Of the 190,396 people who visited the ER in handgun-related incidents, 55% were victims of assault.
  • Shotguns caused 41,500 ER visits, of which 47% were related to assaults.

DHS orders federal agencies to beef up cybersecurity

Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

The Department of Homeland Security announced a new binding directive today for federal agencies to adopt basic web and email security features. They've been told to use DMARC, an email security protocol to protect against spammers and phishers, and STARTLLS, which would send email over an encrypted channel when available.

Why it matters: Jeanette Manfra, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, warned in a statement: "A single spoofed email can compromise the security of an entire organization, and a breach at one organization can sometimes leave an entire industry open to similar attacks and vulnerable to fraud."

What to expect: In 120 days all federal agencies will be required to deploy https for its web sites, and in 90 days they'll be required to roll out beefed up email security.

The back story: This isn't the first time the government has ordered the adoption of these enhanced measures. The Obama administration rolled out a similar directive in 2015, but two years later only about one-quarter of agency sites support encryption.


Startup sues Android co-founder's new company

Asa Mathat for Vox Media

Keyssa, a startup that's been working on a chip for transferring large data without Wi-Fi or wires, has filed a trade secret theft lawsuit against Essential Products, the smartphone startup led by Android co-founder Andy Rubin, according to Reuters.

Keyssa alleges that the two companies were in conversations about Essential potentially using its technology for 10 months before it decided to use a competing chip from SiBEAM, a division of Lattice Semiconductor. However, Essential's implementation uses a lot of the techniques Keyssa has developed, says the company. Essential Products declined to comment to Reuters as it hasn't been served yet.

Old connection: Essential was co-founded by Andy Rubin, who co-created Android. Keyssa is in part funded by Tony Fadell, who first rose to prominence as the "godfather" of Apple's iPod (which led to the iPhone).