Jul 25, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where we are on vacation starting... now. See you on August 5!

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,733 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: The pandemic shows that the future of aid is cash

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the value of simply giving cash to those in need.

Why it matters: The worst economic effects of the pandemic have been partially ameliorated by no-strings-attached cash transfers. With the economy unlikely to recover for months or longer and the job-destroying threat of automation growing, the pandemic could be laying the groundwork for a universal basic income.

What's happening: The charity GiveDirectly announced recently it had successfully delivered $1,000 cash payments to 100,000 American families since the start of the pandemic, as part of the largest direct giving response to COVID-19.

  • The organization targets the states with the highest rates of unemployment, then allows a random set of users to fill out basic forms to receive $1,000 via direct deposit, check or an app like PayPal.

The big picture: UBI has become a favorite idea of many in Silicon Valley who believe it might help offset the negative effects of automation, and it formed the basis of Andrew Yang's presidential campaign.

  • One argument against UBI is that regular cash payments would discourage people from working. Many Republicans insist that is exactly what the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits put in place at the start of the pandemic has done.
  • But while the additional money may impede recruitment for workers in low-wage jobs — who might be able to make more from the subsidies than they would working — on the whole research has found no relationship between the size of the benefits and the likelihood of someone taking a job.
  • As automation accelerates during the pandemic, many of the jobs lost might never return, strengthening the case for ongoing cash payments and potentially a UBI. That's one reason why last month 11 city leaders around the U.S. came together to form Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, with the goal of advocating for direct, recurring cash payments.

Background: GiveDirectly was founded a decade ago by a group of economists and, until the pandemic, had mostly focused on transferring money to the poorest of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Direct cash payments "are typically one of the cheapest ways to provide help," says Managing Director Joe Huston. "It lets people who are in need set their budget because they have the best sense of their priorities."

Context: Direct cash payments remain a tiny proportion of overall philanthropic giving, which in turn is only large enough to meet a tiny proportion of overall need, especially in the midst of a pandemic. More effective support requires the public purse — and that's exactly what many governments are doing.

  • The extra unemployment benefits in the U.S. currently add up to some $15 billion in support each week.
  • In June Spain launched a program to offer monthly payments of more than $1,000 to the country's poorest families, whether they're employed or not, in the largest experiment yet with UBI.

What to watch: The extra $600 unemployment benefit for Americans is set to expire next week, and Congress is still debating on whether and how to extend the subsidy at a moment when tens of millions of people are still out of work.

  • GiveDirectly is continuing to expand its $1,000 cash payment program in the U.S., with the goal of reaching another 96,000 families.

The bottom line: UBI has been on the fringes of policy discussions for decades, but the unprecedented shock of the pandemic could finally push it into the mainstream.

2. The coronavirus must-have: crowd-counting apps

A rendition of Density's people-counting product in use at an office. Image courtesy of Density

A startup that provides anonymous people-counting software for companies has seen business boom during the pandemic.

Why it matters: As everything from offices to restaurants begin to reopen, employers will need to closely monitor capacity to prevent dangerous crowding. Smart apps can help manage the numbers and keep outbreaks to a minimum.

What's happening: Density says it has recorded more revenue over the past 75 days than over all of 2019.

  • The company says it can provide with 99% accuracy a running count of the number of people entering or exiting a physical space — without using cameras, which helps shield employee and customer privacy.

Background: Density was "born out of laziness," says Aleks Strub, the company's chief marketing officer.

  • A group of entrepreneurs in Syracuse wanted a way to easily tell whether their favorite coffee shop was crowded or not. They eventually developed proprietary depth sensors, roughly the size and shape of a showerhead, that could keep count of people.
  • The initial use case was building optimization, says Strub. With as much as 40% of workplace real estate going unused in normal times, Density could help owners get the most out of their physical space by tracking who was using what and when.

When COVID-19 hit, however, Density "pivoted to become a safety company," says Strub.

  • A couple of months ago the company introduced a feature called Safe , which provides visual feedback that lets employees and customers know it is safe to enter a space when the number of people occupying it is below a set limit per square foot.
  • The service can also send out alerts for when a conference room or other indoor space needs to be cleaned by tracking how many people have occupied it for a certain amount of time.

The bottom line: With bars, restaurants and offices only being allowed to reopen with reduced capacity, businesses will need scalable technological solutions to ensure they're following the rules.

  • "There's no world where businesses won't have to get smarter about how they use their buildings," says Strub.
3. The future of the world is migration

A migrant woman and her child onboard a bus in Honduras. Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

A powerful new journalistic collaboration between the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica details how climate change could reshuffle the global population.

Why it matters: Natural disasters and rising temperatures are already causing migrants to flee their homes. Add in population pressures in the global South and aging in the developed world, and it's clear the distribution of humanity will need to change.

What's new: The migration project, a combination of on-the-ground reporting in Central America by ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten and illuminating data visualization, models how people will move across borders in response to climate change.

  • "In the most extreme climate scenarios," Lustgarten writes, "more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years."
  • Should borders remain relatively open, the project's models see urbanization rising in Mexico and Central America, before migrants head to the U.S.
  • Should borders be hardened, economic growth is likely to slow in Central America as millions remain trapped in poverty amid punishing climate change.

My thought bubble: While migration patterns are notoriously difficult to predict, and while climate change may fall short of the worst-case scenarios, a future where rising numbers of people are on the move seems impossible to avoid — and perhaps shouldn't be avoided.

  • As I wrote last week, the latest demographic forecasts are for global population to peak not long after mid-century and begin declining — a state that developed countries will reach even sooner.
  • A world where a shrinking number of aging people remain behind closed borders in the rich countries while billions are trapped in hotter developing nations isn't just ethically wrong — it's economically untenable.

The bottom line: The world will need to change to continue thriving in the age of global warming — and those changes will likely need to include where people are able to live.

4. Stopping the ocean plastic wave

Waste on Santa Lucia beach in Acapulco, Mexico, on June 7 on the eve of World Oceans Day. Photo: Francisco Robles/AFP via Getty Images

Currently available solutions could halt up to 80% of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean and the ground annually within 20 years, per a new analysis published in Science, writes Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

Threat level: Without urgent action, the yearly flow of plastics into the ocean globally is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons by 2040 — and remain at that level for hundreds of years.

Even under the best case of curbing pollution, plastic's long degradation time means there'll still be a large amount, or roughly 710 million metric tons, of cumulative plastic pollution, researchers warn.

Between the lines: "There is no silver bullet. None of the single-focus strategies for dealing with plastic pollution can get us really past where we are today," says Winnie Lau, senior manager with Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics project.

  • The report points to eight current strategies that nations and governments could utilize now.
  • Lau says three of the biggest changes could be from significantly reducing plastic production and use; substituting other materials like biodegradable materials or paper with plastic coating; and doubling the amount we recycle.

Go deeper with Eileen's whole story

5. Worthy of your time

How atomic bomb survivors have transformed our understanding of radiation's impacts (Dennis Normile — Science)

  • As we approach the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, a look at how scientists have studied its lasting effects.

Deep learning, neural networks and the future of AI (Yann LeCun — TED)

  • Facebook's chief AI scientist talks about the challenging effort to build machines capable of common sense.

Managing uncertainty in the COVID-19 era (Harry Rutter, Miranda Wolpert and Trisha Greenhalgh — BMJ)

  • Experts tell you how to balance competing risks at a time when the science around the coronavirus is still far from settled.

Don't work on vacation. Seriously. (Laura M. Giurge and Kaitlin Woolley — Harvard Business Review)

  • As I'm about to head off on a week's holiday, I fully intend to take the advice of this article, which finds that working on vacation can sap the intrinsic motivation that keeps our careers going.
6. 1 good thing: Natural disaster deaths down

Destruction from Cyclone Amphan in Kolkata, India in May. Photo: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images

New data indicates that the number of people killed in natural disasters in the first six months of 2020 was much lower than average figures over the past 30 years.

Why it matters: A combination of climate change and more people moving into risk-prone areas can intensify the effects of natural disasters. But better preparation and greater wealth can prevent deaths, even as the overall price of catastrophe rises.

Driving the news: The reinsurer Munich Re released data about the toll of natural disasters over the first six months of 2020.

  • While the financial losses were just slightly below the 30-year average over the same months, far fewer people than average 2,900 people total were killed by natural catastrophes.
  • That's 38% below the total from the first half of 2019, and nearly 90% below the 30-year average.
  • 2020's figures reflect a continued downward trend in deaths over the past few years.

Be smart: Much of what happens with natural disasters over a six-month window can be chalked up to randomness. But nimbler responses to disasters can reduce the number of deaths even in the event of a major catastrophe.

  • The biggest disaster so far in 2020 was Cyclone Amphan, which struck India in May. While the storm caused $11.5 billion in damages, only 135 people died — a number that likely would have been far higher decades ago.

Yes, but: The Atlantic hurricane season is nearing its peak months — and they're predicted to be busy. As the U.S. discovered in 2005 and 2012, one very bad storm can erase those positive trends.

Bryan Walsh