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"Make Me Smart” Newsletter

Why the bill to force a TikTok sale came alongside foreign aid

Ellen Rolfes Apr 26, 2024
Getty Images
"Make Me Smart” Newsletter

Why the bill to force a TikTok sale came alongside foreign aid

Ellen Rolfes Apr 26, 2024
Getty Images

We don’t often get to write about bipartisan wins in Congress, but over the past week and weekend, President Joe Biden and a sharply divided legislature pulled together to approve $95 billion of aid for Israel and Gaza, Ukraine and Taiwan.

The Associated Press explained exactly what that money will fund, but the talk of the town is more focused on a bill that was attached to the foreign aid package — one that could result in the ban of TikTok in the U.S.

What changed from last month to now? When House members voted for a standalone bill on the matter in March, the Senate wasn’t planning to move quickly to pass legislation regarding TikTok’s ownership. But with the measure now linked to the larger aid package, senators weren’t going to hold up foreign aid for U.S. allies by hemming and hawing over TikTok.

Bundling bills helps get things done on Capitol Hill. The practice offers legislators the chance to advance unpopular or controversial policies without the need to build consensus around them. It can also force presidents to sign these policies into law, even when they don’t like them. Conversely, creating a package deal can help garner more support for the main bill that lawmakers are trying to pass.

Lawmakers often attach controversial riders to the essential appropriations bills that keep the government lights on. Since 1977, abortion opponents have attached the same temporary rider banning the use of any federal funds for elective abortions to annual government spending bills. In 2010, lawmakers attached legislation to strengthen Pell Grant scholarships for low-income college students as a rider on legislation that finalized then-President Barack Obama’s overhaul of health care.

The TikTok ban looks increasingly like a matter of when, not if. TikTok has 270 days, about nine months, to sell itself. Finding a suitable buyer in that timeframe would be its own challenge, but TikTok executives say they aren’t going to divest from parent company ByteDance. Instead, the company will challenge the law as an infringement of Americans’ rights to freedom of expression. Congress argues that this is about ensuring essential communications are free of foreign corruption and foreign powers.

Smart in a Shot

A screengrab from the linked YouTube video.
Do bad reviews or bad products kill companies? (Screenshot: Marques Brownlee/YouTube)

Hello, my name is Ellen and I may be addicted to my smartphone. Despite my best intentions, it’s just too easy to fill the day’s tiny moments of boredom with cute dogs and doomscrolling. For how often I find myself unconsciously staring at my smartphone (“Why am I checking my weather app when I’m already outside?”) I’d readily embrace tech that could cut down this codependency.

Maybe you feel that way too. That would theoretically make us the target audience for the newly launched Ai Pin, a wearable device that promises to do everything a phone can, just without a screen.

But like so many new tech products that promise to revolutionize our lives, pre-release hype for the Ai Pin hasn’t matched the reality of using it. Reviews from The Washington Post,  The Verge and Engadget say as much — it’s glitchy, inaccurate and overheats easily. In short, the Ai Pin isn’t likely to replace your phone any time soon, despite costing about as much — $699 to buy the device and a $24-per-month subscription.

So when Marques Brownlee, an influential YouTuber with more than 18 million subscribers, posted his video, titled “The Worst Product I’ve Ever Reviewed … For Now,” it could have been taken as just another bad review. But some social media techies reacted negatively, questioning Brownlee’s motivation and accusing him of “bankrupting the company in 41 seconds” by posting clickbait. Others opined that Brownlee’s large audience gave him influence to make or break a product, and as a result, his review of the Ai Pin was “almost unethical.”

“All that any honest review actually does is accelerate what already was going on,” Brownlee said in a follow up video titled “Do Bad Reviews Kill Companies?” A review is supposed to be an honest assessment of a product and its features, he said. Whether the product is good, bad and or downright awful, as was the case of the Ai Pin, the truth matters more than being nice.

Prominent tech writers have also weighed in, including Walt Mossberg, to defend Brownlee and the larger purpose of product reviews. (One Humane exec also thanked him for his “fair and valid critiques.”)

While the internet has democratized all kinds of reviews, nowadays it’s harder to know whom to trust. Good and bad reviews can be bought in bulk. 404 Media reported this week that companies are now marketing services that use AI bots to promote products on Reddit by buying usernames and posing as individuals. Many digital news organizations have launched product review verticals to collect affiliate revenue, but many don’t test the products they recommend. Even well-regarded sites like The New York Times’ Wirecutter have faced backlash from readers who say its reviews aren’t as robust as they used to be.

That’s part of what makes YouTube reviews so appealing — you can actually see the reviewers testing the products. There’s no way to fake that … so far. OK, let’s get back to staring at our phones, which (surprisingly) brings some people joy. 

The Numbers

Saying “I quit” isn’t always easy, even when there’s a better opportunity or more money waiting for you elsewhere.

Many companies use noncompete agreements to restrict executives’ ability to work for competitors and share trade secrets. But companies have made lower-wage workers with few secrets to share sign the agreements as well. 

These types of employment contracts could soon be a relic of the past for most workers as the Federal Trade Commission ruled Tuesday to ban them. Let’s do the numbers.

3-2

The Federal Trade Commission voted 3-2 along party lines Tuesday to ban new noncompete agreements for most workers.

30 million  

That’s the number of people who currently work under noncompete agreements, about 18% of the U.S. workforce, according to FTC estimates.

$151,164

The final FTC rule allows companies to enforce existing noncompete agreements for senior executives, about 1% of the workforce. It defines a “senior executive” as someone in a “policy-making” position, with a salary above $151,164.

3% to 14% 

Even if you don’t have a noncompete clause for your job, you could benefit from a nationwide ban. Researchers estimate that eliminating noncompete clauses could result in average annual earnings for U.S. workers rising between 3% and 14%.

120 days

The new rule would go into effect in 120 days, but companies and trade associations have already sued to block implementation. They argue the FTC has overstepped its authority.

1872

Noncompete agreements might not just affect the worker or employer, but the economy at large. Since 1872, California has had an almost total ban on noncompete agreements, which may be a key reason why Silicon Valley became a hotbed for innovation.

None of Us Is as Smart as All of Us

Tell us what’s making you smarter at smarter@marketplace.org. We’d love to include your recommendation in a future newsletter.

Going beyond the “Dirty Dozen”

Writer Ellen Rolfes (hi!) is fascinated by Consumer Reports’ breakdown of produce with unhealthy levels of chemicals. It analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture test results from nearly 30,000 food samples and found some fruits and veggies have high amounts of pesticides, including some that have been banned for more than a decade. (Important takeaway: Be wary of most green beans.)

Climate tax for the rich

Editor Virginia K. Smith is reading a Heated article about one Nobel Prize-winning economist’s proposal to tax the superrich and send the money directly to those suffering the consequences of climate change.

Parental regrets 

Host Kimberly Adams is reading a Time article about how some parents say, given the chance to go back in time, they would choose not to have children, and why it’s taboo to talk about it.

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