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A new paper finds stimulus checks, small business aid, and “reopening” can’t rescue the economy

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This story was originally published on June 17, 2020, and some details may be out of date. For Vox’s latest coverage on the pandemic, visit our coronavirus hub.


The coronavirus pandemic ripped through the American economy at an incredibly rapid pace — so rapidly that it’s been difficult for economists and others to understand what exactly is going on.

Our best data sources about the economy are wildly out of date: Unemployment data comes out just once a month, and GDP data only four times a year. However, a new data source put together by a research group at Harvard, drawing on a variety of corporations’ private data, now allows economists to track what has happened to the economy in real time.

The data they collated shows that the economic crash has been driven disproportionately by the actions of high-income Americans, whose consumer spending has crashed more than that of poorer Americans, devastating low-income workers and small businesses in rich areas.

The data also suggests that economic relief measures have done little for small businesses: Stimulus spending tended to go to Amazon or Walmart, not small local stores, and small businesses eligible for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans are generally not any better off than ones that were not eligible.

And researchers who developed the data found official orders “reopening” states do not increase economic activity, and so appear to endanger public health without any economic benefit.

The picture that emerges in a new working paper based on the economists’ findings is of an economy frozen in place. Simply declaring the economy “reopened” does not seem to do anything to spur high-income people to spend more, and it’s not clear that anything can until the real threat passes.

The tool, the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, was launched by the Harvard-based Opportunity Insights group. The research was led by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, John N. Friedman, and Michael Stepner, and the tool was assembled by a team of 39 collaborators. It aims to provide a service that has never existed before, but is badly needed during the pandemic: a real-time, day-by-day, ZIP-code-by-ZIP-code snapshot of how the American economy is performing.

The tool works by collating administrative data from a variety of corporations, including Affinity Solutions (a company tracking consumer spending), Burning Glass (a job market analytics company), Earnin (an app that offers advance loans on paychecks), and HomeBase (which sells punch-card and work check-in software), among several others.

The data Opportunity Insights gathers from these companies is anonymized; the Economic Tracker can’t track individual people for privacy reasons. But the data from these companies matches gold-standard government surveys to a remarkable degree. Affinity captures about 10 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the US, and its records are biased toward goods that tend to be purchased with cards rather than cash.

Nonetheless, Chetty and his co-authors found that Affinity’s data aligned almost perfectly with the Monthly Retail Trade Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, which serves as the basis for the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s official GDP numbers.

The blue lines below are consumer spending as measured by Affinity, for all consumer spending (on the left) and just food services (on the right). The green lines are the MRTS. If you have a hard time telling the lines apart, that’s the point:

Similarly, using data from ADP, a large payroll processor, alongside Earnin and HomeBase data provides a decent approximation of the Current Employment Statistics survey used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s by no means perfect, and the authors are clear that its imprecisions may be more important in normal times (when jumping between 4 and 6 percent unemployment is a huge deal) than now (when the difference between 14 and 16 percent unemployment feels rather less meaningful).

But the data nonetheless allows for striking analyses that you would typically only see conducted many years after a crisis like this.

You can, for instance, compare how small business revenue has fallen between neighborhoods. Here’s what DC looks like, for instance. Businesses in the wealthy central business area have seen huge declines, while poorer ZIP codes like 20020 (which contains the historic but poor Anacostia neighborhood) and 20011 (which contains both poor and gentrifying neighborhoods in the northern part of the city) have seen business revenue actually increase:

How small business revenue has changed in DC since Covid-19, by ZIP Code Opportunity Insights

You can look up small business revenue in your own area using the interactive below, best viewed on a larger screen:

And you can do the same for employment data here:

The development of the OI Economic Tracker in some ways parallels the creation of “national accounts” data like GDP statistics. That effort began in earnest in the United States in the early 1930s at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the supervision of Penn professor and future Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets. Eventually, Kuznets’s methods were adopted by the federal government and they form the basis of our official economic statistics today.

“In the Great Depression, they wanted to measure things with more regularity and Kuznets decided to take this on,” Chetty told me. “That’s the basis of what you see in the Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Going forward, this is the basis of how you could do this without surveys.”

Chetty tells me OI is in talks with Intuit, whose TurboTax and Mint programs are home to vast reams of individual financial data, and Mastercard to provide even more sources on consumer spending and incomes. He hopes eventually that a tool like this, with bigger and more representative data sources, could become a province of the government, just as Kuznets’s idea of regularly measuring the total national income of the United States went from a private academic endeavor to the official business of the federal government.

In the meantime, the OI Economic tracker can give us important insights into which policies are and are not working during the Covid-19 recovery. The paper by Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, and Stepner suggests that small business loans and stimulus checks haven’t been enough to keep small businesses afloat, especially in affluent areas. Indeed, it suggests that any kind of recovery is likely impossible until the pandemic is over. What’s needed is income support in the form of unemployment insurance or some other program for people put out of work who are struggling to afford food and rent. Only once the pandemic is well and truly behind us is a regular recovery possible.

Any one of the paper’s five key findings could justify an individual research paper; this relatively short paper covers all five, and more.

1) The high-income recession

Spending has collapsed dramatically since the Covid-19 crisis began. But it didn’t fall evenly. The data in the OI Economic Tracker indicates that by May 31, 66 percent of the fall in credit card expenditures since January was concentrated in the top 25 percent of households by income. The bottom quartile, by contrast, was basically back to precrisis spending patterns by the end of May:

High-income people spend more overall than low-income people, as you’d expect, including more on in-person services. Those factors combined with a higher percentage-wise drop in overall spending meant that the large majority of the drop in spending is attributable to the wealthiest segment of the population.

These spending changes seem to be correlated varying levels of Covid-19 infection between ZIP codes, as well. “Spending fell sharply on March 15, when the National Emergency was declared and the threat of COVID became widely discussed in the United States,” the authors find.

Where people changed their spending was heavily influenced by restrictions on in-person interaction.

“Nearly three-fourths of the reduction in spending is accounted for by reduced spending on goods or services that require in-person physical interaction (and thereby carry a risk of COVID infection), such as hotels, transportation, and food services,” the authors find, despite the fact that these categories only made up one-third of consumer spending before the crash. “pending on luxury goods such as installation of home pools and landscaping services — which do not require physical contact — increased slightly after the COVID shock.”

Similarly, ZIP codes with higher rates of Covid-19 infection saw sharper reductions in spending. The mechanism here is simple: People in areas with higher Covid-19 caseloads spent less time outside (as verified by Google cellphone data), and this translated into less spending on in-person services. What’s more, the authors find that regardless of the level of Covid-19 infection in an area, high-income people spent less time outside than lower-income people.

There are a number of reasons why this might be; high-income people are likelier to have jobs where they can work from home and have larger living spaces that they can enjoy. But this all combines to help explain why spending fell so much among higher-income households, in particular.

2) Those who serve the rich are suffering most

Housing in the United States is heavily segregated by income: There are rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods of cities, rich suburbs and poor suburbs, more and less affluent rural communities. So it stands to reason that people providing in-person services in richer areas, like baristas or waitstaff or hotel cleaners, might have suffered more than their counterparts in poorer areas, given the sharper reduction in spending by the rich.

So the authors look at data from Womply, a business software company that offers credit card transaction tracking for small businesses. Sure enough, the biggest losses are recorded in the richest neighborhoods of major cities:

Small businesses lost 73% of their revenue in the Upper East Side in New York, compared with 14% in the East Bronx; 67% in Lincoln Park vs. 38% in Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago; and 88% in Nob Hill vs. 37% in Bayview in San Francisco. Revenue losses are also large in the central business districts in each city (lower Manhattan, the Loop in Chicago, the Financial District in San Francisco), likely a direct consequence of the fact that many workers who used to work in these areas are now working remotely. But even within predominantly residential areas, businesses located in more affluent neighborhoods suffered much larger revenue losses.

Overall, 55 percent of small businesses in ZIP codes with the highest apartment rents closed, compared to 40 percent of small businesses in the lowest-rent ZIP codes. The shock to these businesses was tremendous: Not only did they face higher fixed costs to begin with due to high rents, but the greater collapse in spending by the rich pummeled their revenue more.

This flows through to service workers employed in these high-rent, high-income areas (but who likely live in poorer, lower-rent neighborhoods that they can afford). Hours worked fell by more than 80 percent in the richest ZIP codes of New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and only 30 percent in the poorest ZIP codes of those cities.

A similar pattern emerges for outright job losses: In the data from Earnin, the paycheck advance company, 36 percent of job losses are in ZIP codes in the top quartile by rent, and 11 percent in ZIP codes that fall in the bottom quartile by rent. Same goes for job postings for lower-skilled workers in high versus low-rent areas. Tellingly, no such pattern in job postings emerges for workers with college degrees, suggesting that the pain here is concentrated among lower-income people who work in rich neighborhoods.

This then flows through to consumer spending. The charts below look exclusively at low-income ZIP codes, and compare ZIP codes where more workers work in high-rent, affluent areas to ones where fewer workers work in rich areas. The more people in the ZIP code worked in rich areas, the worse off they were, both in terms of hours worked and consumer spending:

For more on this phenomenon, see Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano’s excellent piece in the New York Times based on the OI Economic Tracker data. They talked to service workers in NYC and DC who worked in higher-income neighborhoods and have seen hours and tips dry up.

3) Stimulus checks kept people afloat, but not small businesses

One interesting aspect of this downturn is that while unemployment has skyrocketed, individual incomes have too. In April, personal income (defined as the money Americans receive from wages, government benefits, investments, and so on) grew by 10.5 percent, by far the highest monthly growth rate in the metric’s 60-year history, even as unemployment shot up from 4.4 percent to 14.7 percent that same month.

This is largely due to the CARES Act, Congress’s relief measure that included both a $1,200 per person stimulus check to most Americans and a super-sized unemployment benefit package that boosted UI benefits by $600 a week.

Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, and Stepner are able to see what effect the stimulus checks specifically had because the Earnin data indicates that the large majority of people (over 70 percent) got their $1,200 from the IRS on April 15, exactly; a small minority arrived on April 14 as well. That allows the authors to test how the stimulus affected households by comparing spending on April 13 to April 15. This is a variant on what’s called a “regression discontinuity” approach in social sciences, and it’s one of the higher-quality tools we have for testing what effects a policy actually caused, as opposed to what happened around the same time.

Sure enough, spending jumped modestly for high-income households (by 9 percentage points) and enormously for low-income households (by 26 percentage points) over the two days that the stimulus package was implemented.

The fall and increase in poor versus rich people’s spending post-Covid and post-stimulus check Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team, 2020

The blue line above is the poorest 25 percent of Americans by income, the green line the richest. Both saw spending fall sharply upon the onset of the crisis, but almost instantaneously the stimulus caused spending to bounce back. It just bounced back much, much more for the poorest Americans, nearly back to precrisis levels.

But looking at how people spent their stimulus checks reveals some limitations of the policy’s ability to boost the economy. Spending on in-person services only rose 7 percentage points, whereas spending on durable goods (furniture, cars, TVs, computers, etc.) grew a startling 21 percentage points, accounting for nearly half the recovery in spending.

What’s more, the authors find little effect of the stimulus on small business revenues, and absolutely no effect on small business employment. Small businesses tend disproportionately to sell goods and services in-person, and a disproportionate share of their revenue comes from wealthy people. So the stimulus, which was both less meaningful for wealthy people and came at a time when people were understandably afraid to leave their homes, did little to help them.

4) Paycheck Protection didn’t do much

It’s not necessarily an indictment of the stimulus package that it didn’t help small businesses. It wasn’t meant to — it was meant to help poor Americans, especially, get by and survive amid this calamity. And at that job, it excelled.

The program meant to help small businesses was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which offers forgivable loans to small businesses that keep the majority of their staff on payroll. But Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, and Stepner find little evidence that this program was effective.

PPP is administered to Small Business Administration (SBA)-eligible businesses, which with a few minor exceptions means businesses with 500 or fewer employees. So the authors are able to compare businesses with total employee counts just below and just above these thresholds, who likely closely resembled each other with the exception of one group being eligible for PPP loans, and the other not.

Here is how hours worked at small businesses evolved, at different levels of small business size:

Change in hours worked, by size of small business Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team, 2020

In the immortal words of Pam Beesly: They’re the same picture.

Employers with around 1,500 employees reduced hours ever so slightly more by the end of May than businesses with fewer employees, but the difference is minuscule, and goes away entirely if you limit the analysis to food and hospitality businesses that PPP was particularly designed to help. “We conclude that the PPP had no meaningful effect on unemployment at small businesses, at least as measured through the middle of May,” the authors write.

5) Reopening orders don’t actually reopen the economy

So if stimulus checks and PPP loans aren’t enough to keep employment at small businesses afloat, maybe declaring the crisis over could? That’s the intuition behind politicians nationwide, led by President Donald Trump who are pushing for a “reopening,” and have succeeded in rolling back stay-at-home orders in a number of states.

But this only works if the order to reopen actually spurs consumers, and in particular the wealthy consumers who’ve cut back spending the most, to go out and buy the in-person goods and services they’ve been shunning. The OI Economic Tracker data let the authors test precisely if that’s happening.

First the authors compared Minnesota (which did an early partial reopening on April 27) to Wisconsin (which did so on May 13 in response to a court order). As you can see, despite very different reopening timing, the trajectories of the two states was nearly identical when it comes to consumer spending, and the orders themselves didn’t seem to do much.

Then the authors expanded this analysis to a total of 20 states that issued reopening orders prior to May 4; for each reopening date, they paired these states with control states that didn’t reopen, and that prior to reopening had a similar trajectory in employment or consumer spending. The authors find that consumer spending was growing before formal reopening and kept growing after; it’s possible the reopening caused some of the boost. But in any case, employment did not rise at all in the reopened states.

“The implication of this finding is that restoring confidence in public health may be a prerequisite to a full recovery,” the authors conclude. That was true in 1919 during the Spanish flu, and it seems to be true again today.


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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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