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Time to Take a Pledge: No Stocks if You’re a Member of Congress

The nation’s balance of power is at stake as both senators from Georgia face runoff elections in early January. The campaigns have been bitter, and they stand to get more so.

But here is one matter that the four candidates agree on, even if some of them have come to it begrudgingly: Owning and trading individual shares of stock has stopped making sense.

One of the two Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler, sold all of her stock this year. Her trading in the early days of the pandemic, in the wake of a private Senate briefing, had come under scrutiny. The other, David Perdue, sold all but three stocks after his trades also generated controversy.

Ms. Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, owns only mutual funds and thinks all members of Congress should do the same. Jon Ossoff, the Democrat trying to take Mr. Perdue’s seat, also supports a stock ownership ban and would sell the more than $500,000 of Apple shares he owns if he won.

The potential for the reduction of conflicts of interest, or the appearance of them, is all for the good. But here’s the other thing that many of our 535 elected representatives should learn: Shunning stock trading is a better way to build bigger balances.

I learned this the hard way, albeit with much less money than the senators are playing around with. In 1994, I was in and out of a regional bank stock, but even when a bigger institution bought the company, I didn’t make much more money than I would have in a mutual fund that owned every stock in the market. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001, I bought a stock related to airport security with similarly middling results.

Then, in 2002, I went to work for The Wall Street Journal, where strict rules kept reporters away from any individual securities. In the absence of owning any stock aside from that of the newspaper’s parent company, editors could assign reporters to anything without worrying about conflicts. Hopefully, staff would also steer clear of the temptation to try to trade on information that was about to be in the articles. The New York Times had similar rules when I arrived in 2008, and they remain in place.

It was a relief, frankly. No knock on people who enjoy gambling and trade stocks as a hobby (using only money they can afford to lose), but trying to predict a stock’s performance and outsmart other investors just wasn’t my idea of a good time.

Then, as I learned more on the job about the stock market, I realized how much better my odds of long-term financial security were going to be if I didn’t trade stocks or try to beat the market. Far better to stick to mutual funds that simply owned most or all of a particular market segment.

The evidence is everywhere, and someone ought to spend 15 minutes shoving it under the nose of every member of Congress who shows up in Washington for the first time. Where to start?

Extremely active investors, as Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue were, might begin with the classic 2000 paper “Trading Is Hazardous to Your Wealth,” which used the records of over 66,000 households to show that the annual returns of people who traded the most were 6.5 percentage points lower than the overall market.

Next, they could move on to what a different set of academics believed was the first-ever analysis of the actual portfolios of members of Congress between 2004 and 2008. It turned out they weren’t great at this investing thing and would have done better in basic index funds. If they had invested $100 that way, they would have ended that harrowing period with $80. Instead, the average member who felt above average ended up with $69.

Stocks bounce around a lot. Past performance is no indication of future success. If you don’t believe it, check out the Stock Pickers chart on the site of a firm called Index Fund Advisors. It re-ranks the performance of 18 household-name stocks over each of 20 years, before your very eyes.

To take this thought further, consider a bit of analysis from Dimensional Fund Advisors: If you examine the entire top 10 percent of stocks each year since 1994, fewer than a fifth, on average, make the top 10 the next year. “Investors with concentrated portfolios may actually miss out on the very stocks that deliver the best of what the market has to offer,” the firm notes.

In fact, according to a different bit of research, the best-performing 4 percent of stocks contributed the stock market’s entire net gain since 1926. Buy index funds, the logic of which is apparent in several research notes on Vanguard’s website, and you’ll get every security that makes up whatever the 4 percent might be for the next 100 years.

So why do so many individuals use other strategies instead? One reason could be ignorance. Or hubris born of the past decade, when stocks have mostly gone up. Also, plenty of people like gambling. And now that companies like Robinhood have lowered the transaction costs of active trading, it’s just so tempting to press one’s luck, especially when you’re bored during a pandemic.

I suspect something else is at work with the Georgia senators. Both denied using inside information they got on the job to inform their trades (and were cleared when investigators looked into it), and both said they had outside advisers trading without their knowledge.

But the success and drive that allowed Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue to succeed in business and gave them the confidence to run for office could easily extend to a wrongheaded investment strategy. If you’re a person who keeps winning in life, it’s tempting to talk yourself into believing you can pick investments that outperform an index fund — or pick advisers who can do so for you, even after you compute the impact of their fees on your returns.

Congress could make this issue go away, and some members have introduced bills that would restrict stock ownership. It could also create or extend workarounds for the newly elected that would make it easier for people like Mr. Ossoff to enter public service and sell a bunch of Apple stock without generating a large tax bill.

But let’s be real. Bills like that aren’t going to be a high priority anytime soon. Better, then, that members of Congress erase any perception of impropriety on their own — and protect their portfolios to boot — by getting out of individual stocks altogether, voluntarily.

I tip my cap to the four candidates in Georgia, to varying degrees, for doing this already or getting close. I look forward to asking every new member of Congress to do the same thing come January.

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Medicare’s Choices Have Grown, but Many Americans Don’t Review Options

This is the time of year when seniors face a barrage of messages about their Medicare coverage — everything from insurance companies’ direct mail blitzes and television ads to the federal government’s emails and mailings.

All of it focuses on the fall open enrollment season, the annual opportunity to change coverage. From Oct. 15 until Dec. 7, enrollees can shop Medicare’s marketplace for the prescription drug and Advantage plans offered by commercial insurance companies. They can also switch between fee-for-service original Medicare and Advantage.

And they will have plenty of choices: Next year, the typical Medicare enrollee will be able to choose from 57 Medicare prescription or Advantage plans that include drug coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It hasn’t always been this way. At its creation in 1965, Medicare was envisioned as a social insurance program. All eligible workers would pay into the system during their working years via the payroll tax and pay uniform premiums when they enrolled at age 65 — and they would all receive the same coverage.

But privatization of Medicare began in the 1990s, encouraged by federal policy and legislation. The marketplace approach accelerated with the introduction of prescription drug coverage (Part D) in 2006 and the rapid growth of Advantage over the past decade.

Proponents of privatization argue that giving Medicare enrollees plenty of choices, with competition among health insurance companies, keeps consumer prices down and encourages innovation.

That notion hinges on having consumers roll up their sleeves to compare products and make changes in order to get the best prices and coverage. But a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that often doesn’t happen.

The study, based on Medicare’s own enrollee survey data, found that 57 percent didn’t review or compare their coverage options annually, including 46 percent who “never” or “rarely” revisited their plans. Strikingly, two-thirds of beneficiaries 85 or older don’t review their coverage annually, and up to 33 percent of this age group say they never do. People in poor health, or with low income or education levels, are also much less likely to shop.

“A large share of the Medicare population finds this whole task pretty unappealing, and they just don’t do it,” said Tricia Neuman, director of the Medicare policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation and a co-author of the report. “That raises questions about how well the system is working.”

The indifference can’t be chalked up to a shortage of information.

Each September, Medicare sends an Annual Notice of Change document (via mail or email), which lists the changes in a person’s current coverage for the year ahead, such as the premium and co-pays. Medicare also mails a thick handbook, “Medicare & You,” containing detailed information about plan options. A flurry of email alerts urging enrollees to shop their coverage using the Medicare Plan Finder website also go out each fall.

Insurance companies flood the airwaves and mailboxes with advertisements and brochures.

None of it is working very well. The Kaiser study found that 44 percent of enrollees had never visited the Medicare website, with another 18 percent reporting that they did not have access to the internet or had no one to go online for them. Only half reported that they had reviewed “Medicare & You.” Just 28 percent have ever called the Medicare help line (800-MEDICARE) for information; the rest have never called or were not even aware the line exists.

If you’re enrolled only in original Medicare with a Medigap supplemental plan, and don’t use a drug plan, there’s no need to re-evaluate your coverage, experts say. But Part D drug plans should be reviewed annually. The same applies to Advantage plans, which often wrap in prescription coverage and can make changes to their rosters of in-network health care providers.

“Plans can not only change the monthly premium but the list of covered drugs,” said Frederic Riccardi, president of the Medicare Rights Center. “And they can change the rules around your access to drugs, or impose quantity limits or require prior authorizations.”

Complexity is a key issue. Kaiser found that 30 percent of enrollees said the Medicare program was either “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to understand, and those percentages were higher among younger people on Medicare who have disabilities or are in poor health.

These plans are required to meet federal requirements in terms of covered benefits, cost sharing and other features. But drug plans have tiers with varying co-payments, coinsurance, and preferred options for brand-name drugs, generics and pharmacies.

“The amount of information that consumers need to grasp is dizzying, and it turns them off from doing a search,” Mr. Riccardi said. “They feel paralyzed about making a choice, and some just don’t think there is a more affordable plan out there for them.”

But that assumption can be very wrong. In a review of the 10 most heavily enrolled Part D plans for next year, Avalere Health found several with average premiums jumping by double-digit percentages, with others holding steady or dropping a bit. Kaiser calculates that eight out of 10 enrollees in stand-alone Part D plans will pay higher premiums next year in their current plans.

Anthony Hodge, a 65-year-old Medicare Rights Center client who lives in Massapequa, N.Y., expects to save about $1,000 next year by switching Part D plans. Mr. Hodge has a kidney condition that will require a transplant, and he uses seven prescription drugs. The savings stem from differences in premiums and co-pays, including details such as pharmacies used and the “tier” on which each plan places each of his medications.

“It’s pretty crazy when you review all the different plans,” he said. “You can really get bleary-eyed.”

Supporters of the marketplace approach note that drug plan premiums have generally remained affordable since the Part D program was introduced.

“The existence of these markets, regardless of how consumers actually operate and choose, puts substantial downward pressure on the prices offered by the plans, because any marginal move away from them to a competitor has a big effect on their profitability,” said James C. Capretta, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute whose research focuses on health care, entitlement programs and federal budget policy.

“Even if only 5 or 10 percent of consumers take advantage of the marketplace, it is a powerful check on plans raising costs,” he added.

The average monthly premium for Medicare stand-alone prescription drug plans was $38 this year, according to Kaiser, a slight increase from $37 in 2010. Moreover, 89 percent of Medicare Advantage plans next year will include prescription drug coverage, and 54 percent will charge no additional premium beyond the Part B (outpatient services) premium.

But focusing solely on premiums misses the bigger picture of how the Part D program affects enrollees, said Dr. Neuman of Kaiser.

“Insurers understand that consumers are more likely to compare premiums than other plan features that can impact their annual drug costs, so they have an incentive to offer low-premium products,” she said.

Insurers can extract more from enrollees through deductibles allowed under the Part D program, which the government will cap at $445 next year. Most plans (86 percent) will charge a deductible next year, and 67 percent will charge the full amount, Kaiser reported.

When creation of the prescription drug benefit was being debated, progressive Medicare advocates fought to expand the existing program to include drug coverage, funded by a standard premium, similar to the structure of Part B. The standard Part B premium this year is $144.60; the only exceptions to that are high-income enrollees, who pay special income-related surcharges, and very low-income enrollees, who are eligible for special subsidies to help them meet Medicare costs.

“Given the enormous Medicare population that could be negotiated for, I think most drugs could be offered through a standard Medicare plan,” said Judith A. Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“Instead, we have this very fragmented system that assumes very savvy, active consumers will somehow shop among dozens of plan options to see what drugs are available and at what cost with all the myriad co-pays and cost-sharing options,” she added.

Advocates like Ms. Stein also urged controlling program costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies — something the legislation that created Part D forbids.

A model for this approach is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which by law can buy prescription drugs at the same discounted prices available to the Medicaid program, and negotiates deeper discounts on its own.

If you’re uncomfortable using the internet to search for plans, or don’t have internet access, the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs network is there for you. These federally funded counseling services provide free one-on-one assistance in every state; use this link to find yours.

The Medicare Rights Center offers a free consumer help line: (800-333-4114.)

You can browse plans on the Medicare Plan Finder, the official government website that posts stand-alone prescription drug and Medicare Advantage plan offerings. The plan finder now allows users to sort plans not only by premiums but for total costs, including premiums, deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance payments.

When it comes time to enroll, call Medicare to sign up at 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) and to ensure that your enrollment has been processed.

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Investing for the Future in the United States of Agita

Four years ago, I didn’t have a plan. Donald Trump was the surprise winner of the 2016 presidential election, and I wasn’t quite sure what to say to the people who were on the verge of losing their minds.

In the wee hours of Nov. 9, 2016 — as futures trading suggested that the U.S. stock market was going to fall an awful lot when it opened — I sought to encourage the discouraged. Continue to bet on capitalism, I advised. You can still count on it to deliver the same sort of long-term returns to investors that it had for decades.

Then, within hours of the opening bell in the United States, there was a reversal. Shares ended up rising that Wednesday. That calm-down column that I wrote in the middle of the night needed some revising.

So this time, I’m writing things down ahead of election night. And I’ve had daytime conversations with financial planners who had, in previous careers, worked in government jobs under both Republicans and Democrats. They offered a few helpful pointers.

First, a maxim of sorts about our collective state of anxiety — whether you’re pulling for four more years or a new occupant in the Oval Office. “Emotions are really good at raising questions and really bad at answering them,” said Zach Teutsch, a financial planner in Washington, D.C. It’s true in life, and it’s certainly true with financial decisions. Try not to make any big ones anytime soon.

Second, it’s easy to overestimate how much change is possible in the first year of any presidential term, especially for things that can hit you squarely in the wallet, like taxes, retirement rules or health care. Mr. Teutsch learned all about that during his time at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he worked from 2013 to 2017.

As Mr. Teutsch tells it, many people working in government spend their careers focused on a single problem within a specific policy area that they would love to fix. They make plans and have memos in their back pockets and are ready when the legislative, executive or judicial clouds part.

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“Mostly, what you do is think and wait for those brief moments when you can move the thing to fix the problem that you’ve been obsessed with,” he said. It tried his patience enough that he found another line of work.

But here’s the problem for those policy lifers and for those of us who pay the taxes that keep them employed: Only a tiny fraction of them finally get to do their thing during any presidential administration, and it isn’t possible to predict who will get their shot or how successful they will be. It would be foolish to, say, fundamentally alter your retirement savings strategy in anticipation of a change to some or another tax rule.

But what if Joe Biden wins and the Democrats regain a majority in the Senate? Don’t assume anything, warned René Bruer, who worked for Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida and Republicans controlled both houses of the State Legislature.

“Governor Bush told us not to bet on any legislation passing or failing based on Republican politics,” said Mr. Bruer, now a financial planner in Colorado Springs. “He said it will very much surprise you.”

While it feels like a long time ago now, we should not forget the John McCain thumbs-down moment, which sank the legislation that would have gutted Obamacare in 2017. That was with one party in control of both chambers and the presidency, a reminder that even two years of control over Congress and the White House may not be enough time to fulfill a long list of legislative wishes. Now imagine chastened Republicans reframing their pitches to voters and taking back the House in 2022, again dividing the government.

Mr. Bruer is a Marine Corps veteran who spent part of his childhood in Africa seeing people burn banks on his way to school. He actually takes some comfort in what to others feels like a heightened level of American governmental chaos.

Stocks can lose a lot of value in a short period. But over decades, they tend to deliver enough growth to allow you to achieve long-term goals, like being able to retire and live off the money. That, however, happens only if you have the courage (and discipline and leftover income) to save regularly and don’t yank money out when you think something scary is going to happen.

If you have money in stocks that you will need in the next few years, you should rethink that — but not because of what could happen on Tuesday or because of the way politics or policy might affect the markets. It’s simply better to put money you know you’ll need soon into something less volatile.

“We want growth-oriented investments in the part of someone’s portfolio that they are planning to hold for the long term, precisely so we don’t have to worry about what is going to happen in an election,” Mr. Teutsch said.

Then, focus on the things you can control. That’s the opening line of the script Mr. Bruer uses with clients who just want out of the markets for now, regardless of whether their team is going to win. Then, he asks if there is some fundamental health or career change that might necessitate a change in course.

If not, the conversation continues with some reminders and a review of the basics. “Do you have a financial and investment plan? Yes. Are your investment costs low? Yes. Diversified? Yes,” he said.

Simply reminding yourself of your own good planning can have a calming effect.

And if the stock market has been good to you — from the Obama administration into the Trump administration — maybe there is some money left over for others whose paths have been rockier. That’s one area where Mr. Teutsch hopes his clients are thinking hard about a possible change in strategy.

“After an election can be a great time to assess your social impact plan, especially around charitable strategies,” he said. “Because the world is going to need very different things depending on who wins.”

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It’s Google’s World. We Just Live In It.

About 20 years ago, I typed Google.com into my web browser for the first time. It loaded a search bar and buttons. I punched in “D.M.V. sample test,” scrolled through the results and clicked on a site.

Wow, I thought to myself. Google’s minimalist design was a refreshing alternative to other search engines at the time — remember AltaVista, Yahoo! and Lycos? — which greeted us with a jumble of ads and links to news articles. Even better, Google seemed to show more up-to-date, relevant results.

And the entire experience took just a few seconds. Once I found the link I needed, I was done with Google.

Two decades later, my experience with Google is considerably different. When I do a Google search in 2020, I spend far more time in the internet company’s universe. If I look for chocolate chips, for example, I see Google ads for chocolate chips pop up at the top of my screen, followed by recipes that Google has scraped from across the web, followed by Google Maps and Google Reviews of nearby bakeries, followed by YouTube videos for how to bake chocolate chip cookies. (YouTube, of course, is owned by Google.)

It isn’t just that I am spending more time in a Google search, either. The Silicon Valley company has leveraged the act of looking for something online into such a vast technology empire over the years that it has crept into my home, my work, my devices and much more. It has become the tech brand that dominates my life — and probably yours, too.

On my Apple iPhone, I use Google’s apps for photo albums and maps, along with tools for calendar, email and documents. On my computer and tablet, the various web browsers I use feature Google as the default search bar. For work, I use Google Finance (to look up stock quotes), Google Drive (to store files), Google Meet (to teleconference) and Google Hangouts (to communicate).

In my home, Google is also everywhere. My Nest home security camera is made by Google. A Google voice service rings my door buzzer. To learn how to repair a gutter, I recently watched home improvement videos on YouTube. In online maps, Google has photos of my house taken from outer space and camera-embedded cars.

By my unofficial estimate, I spend at least seven hours a day on Google-related products.

Google’s prevalence has brought the company to a critical point. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued it for anticompetitive practices, in the most significant antitrust action by the U.S. government against a technology company in decades. The government’s case focused on Google’s search and how it appeared to create a monopoly through exclusive business contracts and agreements that locked out rivals.

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Google said in a tweet that the lawsuit was “deeply flawed.” The company added, “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”

To Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, which offers a privacy-focused search engine, what I have experienced was Google’s plan all along.

“I don’t think it was happenstance,” he said. “They’ve been using their different products to maintain their dominance in their core market, which is search.”

That has created a privacy cost for many of us, Mr. Weinberg said. Google, he said, collects reams of information about us across its products, allowing it to stitch together detailed profiles about our behavior and interests.

So in 2012, Mr. Weinberg broke up with Google and purged his accounts. “I got to understand the privacy implications of building massive profiles on people — and the massive harm,” he said.

But Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “What Would Google Do?,” a book about the search giant’s rise, said there was still plenty of room outside Google’s world. For one, we don’t use Google for social media — we’re on Facebook and TikTok. Artificial intelligence, even the type that Google is developing, is still pretty unintelligent, he added.

“The internet is still very, very young,” Mr. Jarvis said.

To test that argument, I decided to catalog Google’s presence in our lives. Here are some results.

When we browse the web, we are probably interacting with Google without even realizing it. That’s because most websites that we visit contain Google’s ad technologies, which track our browsing. When we load a web article containing an ad served by Google, the company keeps a record of the website that loaded the ad — even if we didn’t click on the ad.

And guess what. Most ads we see are served by Google. Last year, the company and Facebook accounted for 59 percent of digital ad spending, according to the research firm eMarketer. Google dominates 63 percent of that slice of the pie.

Google’s ad technologies also include invisible analytics code, which runs in the background of many websites. About 74 percent of the sites we visit run Google analytics, according to an analysis by DuckDuckGo. So that’s even more data we are feeding about ourselves to Google, often without knowing it.

Let’s start with Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world. People with Android devices inevitably download apps from Google’s Play store.

Android includes Google’s staple apps for maps and email, and Google search is prominently featured for looking up articles and digging through device settings. Google’s voice-powered virtual assistant is also part of Android devices.

Even if you own an Apple iPhone, as I do, Google looms large.

Google has been the default search bar on the iPhone’s Safari browser since 2007. Gmail is the most popular email service in the world, with more than 1.5 billion users, so chances are you use it on your iPhone. And good luck finding a service other than YouTube for watching those cooking and music videos on your phone.

In fact, Google owns 10 of the 100 most-downloaded apps in the Google and Apple app stores, according to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm.

Outside smartphones, Google is the dominant force on our personal computers. By some estimates, more than 65 percent of us use Google’s Chrome web browser. And in education, our schools have chosen the Chromebook, low-cost PCs that run Google’s operating system, as the most widely used tech tool for students.

This can be brief: YouTube is by far the largest video-hosting platform. Period. About 215 million Americans watch YouTube, spending 27 minutes a day on the site, on average. That’s up from 22 minutes a few years ago, according to eMarketer.

Another way you might watch Google videos is through YouTube TV, a streaming service that offers a modest bundle of TV channels. Released in 2017, YouTube TV had more than two million users last year, according to Google. That’s not far behind Sling TV, a similar bundle service introduced by Dish in 2015, which had about 2.6 million subscribers last year.

If you recently bought an internet-connected gadget for your home, chances are that Google is behind it. After all, the company offers Google Home, one of the most popular smart speakers and powered by Google’s virtual assistant, and it owns Nest, the smart-home brand that makes internet-connected security cameras, smoke alarms and thermostats.

We often interact with Google even when we use an app that lacks a clear connection with it. That’s because Google provides the cloud infrastructure, or the server technology that lets us stream videos and download files, to other brands. If you’re using TikTok in the United States, guess what: You’re in Google’s cloud. (TikTok may soon switch cloud providers under a deal with Oracle.)

Even Mr. Weinberg, who quit Google, said he had been unable to shake its services entirely. He said he still watched the occasional Google-hosted video when there was no alternative.

“If somebody’s sending a video that I need to watch and it’s only on YouTube, then that’s just the reality,” he said.

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Apple iPhone 12 Review: Superfast Speed, if You Can Find It

I started this iPhone review in the most peculiar way: by opening a map to find out where I could test it.

That’s because Apple’s newest iPhones, for the first time, work with 5G, the ultrafast fifth-generation wireless networks that will theoretically let people download a movie to their devices in seconds. The problem? The superspeedy 5G networks have not been rolled out everywhere.

I learned this the hard way. When Apple provided The New York Times with iPhone 12s to test on Verizon’s 5G network, I quickly discovered that my neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area didn’t have any 5G connection. So I went on a journey through San Francisco to find the superfast data speeds that Apple and Verizon executives promised when they unveiled the new iPhones last week.

When I found places where I could connect to the fastest 5G networks, the iPhone experience was hugely gratifying. The network delivered download speeds to the phone that were up to seven times as fast as the best broadband services I have ever used.

But the locations where I tracked down ultrafast 5G were far less satisfying. At one point, I found the speedy connection in the back of a Safeway parking lot. Another time I was in front of a Pet Food Express. What would I do with an incredibly fast internet connection there?

In most parts of San Francisco, the iPhone instead drew data from a more vanilla flavor of 5G that Verizon calls “5G Nationwide,” which is the connection that most of the country will get for the foreseeable future. Those download speeds ranged from much slower than to twice as fast as my older iPhone, which was on Verizon’s 4G network.

That’s all to say that despite the hype around 5G, the network underwhelmed. At this point, it should not be the primary reason to splurge on an expensive handset in a pandemic-induced recession.

The iPhone 12, with bright screens and a more robust design, is still a solid upgrade from past iPhones. But you will pay a premium: The device, which becomes available on Friday, starts at $829, up from $699 for last year’s iPhone 11. (Another model, the iPhone 12 Mini, costs $729 but has a smaller screen and ships later this year.)

I tested the iPhone 12 and the high-end iPhone 12 Pro, which starts at $999, for about a week. Here’s how that went.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T started rolling out 5G networks last year and have marketed them as superfast. But what they aren’t telling you is that there are two flavors of 5G and that the one you will most likely get is not going to be the speedier one.

Here are the two versions of 5G in a nutshell:

  • There’s ultrafast 5G, which is called millimeter wave. (Verizon labels it “5G Ultra Wideband.”) It travels very short distances and has trouble penetrating obstacles and walls. That makes it usable in outdoor spaces like street corners or parks, but probably not in our offices or homes anytime soon. Because of that, only tiny slivers of the country now have superfast 5G.

  • Then there’s “5G Nationwide,” which is more widely available. It travels much farther, but carriers have said it will be only about 20 percent faster than 4G wireless networks.

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Credit…Verizon

I saw the differences in 5G firsthand when I opened the Verizon coverage map for San Francisco. Verizon used red to highlight locations with 5G Nationwide, while areas with the ultrafast 5G were marked in dark red. The overwhelming majority of the city was shaded in red, with only small areas in dark red.

To test ultrafast 5G, I drove to six locations that Verizon advertised as having the fast connection and used the Speedtest app from Ookla, a network diagnostics company.

At three of the locations in the city’s Marina district and Mission district, I was immediately disappointed. I walked up and down the streets, constantly refreshing websites and running the Speedtest app, but there was no superfast signal to be found. Instead, I got 4G or vanilla 5G connections.

Verizon said its engineers walked those same streets in the Marina over the weekend and were able to find the superfast 5G connection in one location but confirmed the signal had weakened in the other. (Verizon didn’t immediately comment on the location in the Mission district.)

That led me to conclude that Verizon’s coverage map was unreliable.

Still, I drove to three other locations in the city’s Marina, Presidio Heights and South of Market districts. There, I finally found the fabled superfast 5G — and I was blown away.

Standing in front of a camera store in South of Market, I got 5G speeds reaching 2,160 megabits a second, which was 2,900 percent faster than 4G. Even where it was a tad slower — behind the Safeway parking lot in the Marina district — the 5G iPhone drew speeds of 668 megabits a second, which was 1,052 percent faster than 4G.

These were odd places to have blazing fast speeds, though. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, these areas did not have much foot traffic. The carriers have said ultrafast 5G speeds would be great for data-heavy tasks like streaming video, but I had no desire to do much streaming while standing on those street corners.

Why the nondescript locations? Karen Schulz, a Verizon spokeswoman, said the company ran into complex engineering tasks in San Francisco. While ultrafast 5G relies on access to light poles, most of the city’s utilities infrastructure is underground. Verizon’s progress to deploy 5G has run into red tape, she said.

When I tested the new iPhones on the vanilla 5G network, any speed improvement was hardly noticeable. In the best cases, vanilla 5G was twice as fast as 4G, or 209 megabits a second compared with 103 megabits on 4G. But in some locations, 5G was slower than 4G. In one part of the Mission district, for instance, 5G speeds reached 28 megabits a second compared with 39 megabits on 4G.

Ms. Schulz said that customers should initially expect the 5G Nationwide network to perform like 4G, and that performance and coverage would grow over time.

I’m not sure that’s good enough. I’ve reviewed phones over the past 12 years and covered the transition from 2G to 3G, and from 3G to 4G. I have never seen a network rollout this confusing and spotty — 5G, simply, is a mess.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Setting aside the network issues, there’s still a handset to review — and that brings much better news.

The design changes to the new iPhones are substantive. The iPhone 12 has a fancy OLED screen, a more modern display technology. So it looks brighter and has more accurate colors than the iPhone 11, which used LCD screen technology. (OLED was previously exclusive to Apple’s high-end iPhones.) The edges of the phone are also now flat instead of round.

The changes have helped the handset shed some weight and thickness while maintaining a roomy 6.1-inch screen. It felt much more comfortable inside my pants pockets than the iPhone 11, which always seemed too thick.

Apple also said it had strengthened the display glass, making it four times less likely to break. It’s difficult to test that scientifically, but I dropped the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro several times by accident on hard surfaces. They survived without any scuffs.

Also new is a charging mechanism that Apple calls MagSafe. It’s basically a new standard to support faster charging via magnetic induction. The new standard will open doors to other companies to make accessories that magnetically attach to iPhones, such as miniature wallets.

I tested both the MagSafe charger and Apple’s MagSafe wallet. But I preferred charging with a normal wire because it was faster, as well as carrying my own wallet, because it can hold more cards.

There’s a major downside to all of the new features: We have to pay a lot for these phones. Apple is also no longer including charging bricks or earphones with the new iPhones since so many people already own power bricks and fancy wireless earbuds. While that will lead to less waste, this shift and the price jump may annoy plenty of people.

It’s tough to recommend splurging on a fancy phone in a pandemic. But here are three quick questions to ask yourself about whether it’s time to upgrade:

  • Can I still get software updates on my current phone?

  • Is my device repairable for a reasonable cost?

  • Am I happy with my phone?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, you will probably be happy investing in this upgrade.

But if you answered yes, wait it out. In a few years, the carriers will probably have a better handle on 5G. At that point, it may even be safe enough to leave the house again and reap the benefits of the mobile companions we carry everywhere.

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How to Deal With a Crisis of Misinformation

There’s a disease that has been spreading for years now. Like any resilient virus, it evolves to find new ways to attack us. It’s not in our bodies, but on the web.

It has different names: misinformation, disinformation or distortions. Whatever the label, it can be harmful, especially now that it is being produced through the lens of several emotionally charged events: the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential election and protests against law enforcement.

The swarm of bad information circulating on the web has been intense enough to overwhelm Alan Duke, the editor of Lead Stories, a fact-checking website. For years, he said, false news mostly consisted of phony web articles that revolved around silly themes, like myths about putting onions in your socks to cure a cold. But misinformation has now crept into much darker, sinister corners and taken on forms like the internet meme, which is often a screenshot overlaid with sensational text or manipulated with doctored images.

He named a harmful example of memes: Those attacking Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker in Louisville, Ky., who was killed by the police when they entered her home in March. Misinformation spreaders generated memes suggesting that Ms. Taylor shot at police officers first, which was not true.

“The meme is probably the most dangerous,” Mr. Duke said. “In seven or 20 words, somebody can say something that’s not true, and people will believe it and share it. It takes two minutes to create.”

It’s impossible to quantify how much bad information is out there now because the spread of it online has been relentless. Katy Byron, who leads a media literacy program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, and who works with a group of teenagers who regularly track false information, said it was on the rise. Before the pandemic, the group would present a few examples of misinformation every few days. Now each student is reporting multiple examples a day.

“With the pandemic, people are increasingly online doomscrolling and looking for information,” Ms. Byron said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find it and feel confident you’re consuming facts.”

The misinformation, she said, is also creeping into videos. With modern editing tools, it has become too easy for people with little technical know-how and minimal equipment to produce videos that appear to have high production value. Often, real video clips are stripped of context and spliced together to tell a different story.

The rise of false news is bad news for all of us. Misinformation can be a detriment to our well-being in a time when people are desperately seeking information such as health guidelines to share with their loved ones about the coronavirus. It can also stoke anger and cause us to commit violence. Also important: It could mislead us about voting in a pandemic that has turned our world upside down.

How do we adapt to avoid being manipulated and spreading false information to the people we care about? Past methods of spotting untruthful news, like checking articles for typos and phony web addresses that resemble those of trusted publications, are now less relevant. We have to employ more sophisticated methods of consuming information, like doing our own fact-checking and choosing reliable news sources.

Here’s what we can do.

Get used to this keyboard shortcut: Ctrl+T (or Command+T on a Mac). That creates a new browser tab in Chrome and Firefox. You’re going to be using it a lot. The reason: It enables you to ask questions and hopefully get some answers with a quick web search.

It’s all part of an exercise that Ms. Byron calls lateral reading. While reading an article, Step 1 is to open a browser tab. Step 2 is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is behind the information?

  • What is the evidence?

  • What do other sources say?

From there, with that new browser tab open, you could start answering those questions. You could do a web search on the author of the content when possible. You could do another search to see what other publications are saying about the same topic. If the claim isn’t being repeated elsewhere, it may be false.

You could also open another browser tab to look at the evidence. With a meme, for example, you could do a reverse image search on the photo that was used in the meme. On Google.com, click Images and upload the photo or paste the web address of the photo into the search bar. That will show where else the image has shown up on the web to verify whether the one you have seen has been manipulated.

With videos, it’s trickier. A browser plug-in called InVID can be installed on Firefox and Chrome. When watching a video, you can click on the tool, click on the Keyframes button and paste in a video link (a YouTube clip, for example) and click Submit. From there, the tool will pull up important frames of the video, and you can reverse image search on those frames to see if they are legitimate or fake.

Some of the tech steps above may not be for the faint of heart. But most important is the broader lesson: Take a moment to think.

“The No. 1 rule is to slow down, pause and ask yourself, ‘Am I sure enough about this that I should share it?’” said Peter Adams, a senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, a media education nonprofit. “If everybody did that, we’d see a dramatic reduction of misinformation online.”

While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter help us stay connected with the people we care about, there’s a downside: Even the people we trust may be unknowingly spreading false information, so we can be caught off guard. And with everything mashed together into a single social media feed, it gets tougher to distinguish good information from bad information, and fact from opinion.

What we can do is another exercise in mindfulness: Be deliberate about where you get your information, Mr. Adams said. Instead of relying solely on the information showing up in your social media feeds, choose a set of publications that you trust, like a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcast news program, and turn to those regularly.

Mainstream media is far from perfect, but it’s subjected to a standards process that is usually not seen in user-generated content, including memes.

“A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking no source of information is perfect,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s when people really start to feel lost and overwhelmed and open themselves up to sources they really should stay away from.”

The most frightening part about misinformation is when it transcends digital media and finds its way into the real world.

Mr. Duke of Lead Stories said he and his wife had recently witnessed protesters holding signs with the message “#SavetheChildren.” The signs alluded to a false rumor spread by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy about a child-trafficking network led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. The pro-Trump conspiracy movement had effectively hijacked the child-trafficking issue, mixing facts with its own fictions to suit its narrative.

Conspiracy theories have fueled some QAnon believers to be arrested in cases of serious crimes, including a murder in New York and a conspiracy to kidnap a child.

“QAnon has gone from misinformation online to being out on the street corner,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s dangerous.”