- How to Survive the Media Apocalypse
- How to Stop Sexual Harassment in Congress
- The Sumptuous Love Story of <em>Call Me by Your Name</em>
- No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic
- My Army Service Made Me Believe in Universal Health Care
- North Korea's Boldest Missile Test Yet
- DNA Reveals the Yeti Is Actually a Bunch of Bears
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: Bridge That Divide
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Apart of the Deal
- It Took Pelosi Three Tries to Get Her Harassment Statement Right
- The Melting Republican Opposition to Tax Cuts
- Some E-Cigarette Flavors May Be More Harmful Than Others
- North Korea Ends Its Pause in Missile Tests
- You Had to Be There
- Mick Mulvaney Is Pretending Everything's Totally Normal at Work
- What Took North Korea So Long?
- The Fight Over the CFPB Reveals the Broken State of American Politics
- How James O'Keefe Made Himself Irrelevant
- The Algorithm That Catches Serial Killers
- The CFPB’s Employees Will Determine the Agency's Fate
- Democrats Try to Shove Trump Aside
- The Surprising Evolution of Dinosaur Drawings
- The Bad Faith of James O'Keefe
- 'Giving Tuesday' Is No Match for Black Friday
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 04:00 AM PST
Agony is the natural state of the news industry. Newspaper sales per capita peaked before color television was a thing, and magazines have been in decline since the Clinton administration. When it comes to the finances of the Fourth Estate, bad news is, generally speaking, the news.
But 2017 has been a uniquely miserable year in the media business, in which venerable publications and fledging sites, divided by audience age and editorial style, have been united in misery. At Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faces a 30 percent cut. At The New York Times, advertising revenue is down $20 million annually after nine months. Oath, the offspring of Yahoo and AOL's union, is shedding more than 500 positions as it strains to fit inside of its Verizon conglomerate. Meanwhile, almost every digital publisher seems to be struggling, selling, or soliciting, whether it's the media company IAC exploring offers to offload The Daily Beast, Fusion Media Group offering a minority stake in The Onion and former Gawker Media sites, or Mashable selling for a fifth of its former valuation. So many media companies in 2017 have reoriented their budgets around the production of videos that the so-called "pivot to video" has became an industry joke. Today, the pivot seems less like a business strategy and more like end-of-life estate planning.
Even the crown princes of digital upstarts, Vice and BuzzFeed, are projected to miss their revenue targets by 20 percent each, which amounts to a combined shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. Finally, this week, Time Inc., the storied publisher of magazines and websites, including People, Sports Illustrated, and Time, announced it had reached an agreement to be sold to the Meredith Corporation, whose focus on lifestyle is inspiring rumors that it may yet offload or even shut down Time, Fortune, and Money.
What on Earth is going on? There are at least three major trends contributing to this dismal media moment. They all point to the same solution, and it's something everyone in journalism should know by now: News publishers have to get better at making money outside of advertising.
1. There are too many publishers and not enough ad money.
Here is the briefest possible history of attention and advertising in the 21st century—they have both flowed from desktops to mobile devices and from publishers to platforms. In 2016, 90 percent of websites reported that unique visitors on mobile devices had eclipsed desktop; and 90 percent of the growth in digital advertising came from just two companies, Google and Facebook.
Facebook and Google's dominance stems from one of the great arbitrages in media history. Publishers still bear the cost of reporting, analyzing, and, well, publishing the news. Facebook and Google cinch the bloated web into the straitjacket of vertical content known as results pages and feeds. In the process, they collect unparalleled information about the interests and aspirations of their users and profit from their roles as digital gatekeepers. While some have compared Facebook and Google to cable companies distributing television shows, one difference is critical: TV distributors pay networks an "affiliate fee" for their entertainment, while Facebook and Google owe no such gratuity for the vast majority of its content. In 2017, Google and Facebook are projected to account for about 61 percent combined of the U.S. digital ad market. No other company comes even close.
This reality would be troubling even if online publishing were a static business. But employment in "internet publishing and broadcast," the government's best approximation for online media, has grown by more than 100,000 people in the last decade. As a result, there are too many writers and publications saying the exact same thing—oops, Josh Marshall at TPM already said that—competing for a limited supply of advertising. As a result, digital media's appetite for ads has grown faster than the digital-ad pie.
This is not the same as saying that publishers should just give up on advertising. Without it, The Atlantic might not exist. Neither would most newspapers. According to its SEC filing, The New York Times' ad revenue is still 40 percent greater than its overall spending on wages and benefits. Advertising has been a critical feature of a healthy news business for at least 150 years, since Benjamin Day invented the penny press, and its centrality to the news business isn't disappearing, just dissipating.
2. Media companies accepted VC money. Now they're accepting VC reality.
In many ways, the 2017 correction in digital media is a perfectly normal and predictable outcome of digital media becoming an investment category for venture capitalists. As a rule, the vast majority of VC investments fail. So the failure of several VC-backed digital-media companies isn't an existential shock so much as a mathematical inevitability.
In the last decade, venture-capital firms plowed money into new media companies like BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, Axios, Mashable, Vocativ, Mic, Uproxx, and so many others, all of which essentially made versions of the same promise: "Trust us. We get Millennials." And, in a way, all of them did "get" Millennials in the loosest sense of the word. That is, they lassoed the wayward attentions of a couple million young readers each month with content that was essentially Millennial Mad Libs: "[#] Ways That [Google-Trend-Generated Subject] Totally Made Us [Past-Tense Verb]."
It's easy to say that this is all Facebook and Google's fault. But the truth is that many digital publishers ruined themselves. To impress venture capitalists with a story of scale, countless sites chased viral trends and search-engine optimization to grow monthly visitor figures. But they chose to optimize for clicks—shallow traffic meant to generate ever-more ad revenue—at the expense of reporting, or unique editorial identities. In any healthy market—for clothes, food, or furniture—competitors try to differentiate, by quality, convenience, or price, to compete directly for consumers' income. But in the free-for-all of VC-subsidized ad-supported publishing, too many sites tried to grow by chasing viral trends, which led to the growth of insouciant meme merchants that were purposefully duplicatory. A massive correction was inevitable.
And now it's here. Venture-capital funding for digital media has shrunk for two consecutive years, according to CB Insights, a VC database. Realizing that sites like Vocativ will never reliably reach audiences even one-tenth the size of platforms like Snapchat, investors will simply cut off funding and force sites to sell at a huge discount, like Mashable, or simply close. It won't necessarily be "a full-blown crash," as Marshall gloomily predicted. It will be a far more awkward landing, as several companies redefine themselves as video producers, then tech companies, then data-driven storytellers, before they run out of money.
3. Donald Trump is the Ghost of Christmas Future.
It's advisable to resist the impulse to tie every observable trend on Earth to President Donald Trump. In this case, however, the effect is too obvious to ignore.
As the news cycle has concentrated around the polarizing president, many ad buyers have said they don't want their name near any news story that involves him. (This is a difficult proposition when Trump inserts himself into previously nonpartisan topics, like the NFL). Some companies are simply refusing to spend money with publishers that specialize in hard news. Others participating in automated, or "programmatic," advertising markets have stipulated that their ads cannot appear near any political content. As some premium advertisers abandon political news, ad rates fall and political news becomes a tough venture for media companies, even as traffic is soaring.
The president is the media equivalent of a toxic herbicide, whose very presence makes the ecosystem uninhabitable for advertisers. It's created one of the paradoxes of the 2017 news cycle: Readership has increased within one of the least profitable categories of news.
But the Trump effect isn't all negative for digital-media companies. Fear of and fascination with the president has supercharged an old-fashioned revenue source for news publishers—readers. Subscription revenue has been record growth at The New Yorker and The Washington Post. At The New York Times, revenue from digital-only subscriptions jumped 44 percent—or $75 million—in the first nine months of 2017, compared with the same period from last year. That's three times larger than the $20 million of lost advertising revenue over the same period.
In short, President Trump has pulled forward the future of news by accelerating both the decline in digital advertising and the rise of reader subscriptions.
* * *
Whatever one wishes to call this media moment—a correction, a crash, an apocalypse— it is unevenly distributed. Doom is coming for companies that relied on an unlimited supply of VC money floating them until they cracked a nonexistent code to advertising. Something far less than doom is coming for companies that balanced cost and revenue while experimenting with various forms of direct advertising, events, subscriptions, and memberships. And something almost like success has come for companies that have used the instability of the 2017 news cycle to establish themselves as vital and irreplaceable.
Advertising has been critical to the affordable distribution of news for a century and a half in the U.S. Today's media companies don't have to reach all the way back to the early 1800s for a business plan, to when newspapers were an elite product, selling at the prohibitive price of six pennies per bundle. But they are going back in time, in a way, and excavating a dusty business model that relies more on readers, and less on advertisers, than the typical online publisher. The New York Times is leading the trend. In 2000, circulation revenue accounted for 26 percent of its business. Last quarter, print circulation and online subscriptions accounted for 64 percent of the company's revenue.
The near future of digital news may be as tumultuous as the near past. But it's tough to imagine that readers and viewers will be ill-served by news organizations exchanging a fixation with breadth of scale with a renewed devotion to making a product worth more than $0.00 to its audience.
In its inexhaustible capacity for experimentation, digital media has pivoted to programmatic advertising, pivoted to native advertising, pivoted to venture capital, pivoted to Facebook, pivoted to distributed, and pivoted to video. Here is a better experiment: Pivot to readers.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
The pressure on Congress to do something about sexual harassment is mounting. Senator Al Franken's public apology for grabbing women inappropriately, Congressman John Conyers stepping down from his position on the House Judiciary Committee after reports of confidential sexual harassment settlements, and the very real possibility that Roy Moore—who faces multiple allegations of sexual molestation and sexual assault—will soon represent Alabama in the Senate have put the issue front and center. And all of these stories are happening under the shadow of a president who has faced multiple accusations of sexual assault and who has displayed very little sympathy for those who are trying to improve this situation.
Some experts predict that as a result of all these stories, as well as the multiple scandals coming out of the private sector, this will be the "Year of the Woman" just as it was in 1992. They anticipate that the fallout from the scandals will be the possibility that large numbers of female candidates will be elected in the 2018 elections, greatly increasing the number of women in Congress, who currently only make up a little less than 20 percent of lawmakers. If that happens, the new blood could transform Congress and create a new culture on Capitol Hill. We might be on the cusp of finally having a Congress where all male politicians treat their peers and their staffers with the full respect accorded by the law. The era of the skirt chasers and touchy hands will end.
Or so they hope.
The last time Congress faced a moment of reckoning like this, it failed to pass strict rules governing sexual harassment that would ensure accountability. That is why we are where we are today. The pattern was one that has played out many times before. In moments when there is great pressure for reform, legislators are often reluctant to go as far in fixing themselves as they are in dealing with other branches of government or with the private sector.
The missed opportunity of the 1990s began in October of 1991, when the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, President George H.W. Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, revealed how little sensitivity there was in Congress toward the challenges that women face in the workplace. During the hearings, the news media broke the story that there were allegations that Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill, an African American law professor at the University of Oklahoma who had worked with Thomas when he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Office under Ronald Reagan.
Her testimony was shocking. "After a brief discussion of work," she told the committee, "he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes." What struck many observers was how hard it was for the senators to take her seriously. Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson's response was to ask: "If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God's name when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, and you left it in 1983, why in God's name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?" When she tried to explain her concern for her professional future and reminded the senator that this kind of response was not uncommon in cases of harassment, he simply said it was "incredible" to him that they still spoke. Democrats such as Senator Joseph Biden, the chairman of the committee, did not try to bring the hearings under control when Hill came under attack.
The handful of female legislators in the Senate decried the behavior male colleagues, who constituted 98 percent of the upper chamber. They vowed to change the culture of Congress and worked to recruit a large number of female candidates to run in the 1992 elections. When there were four victorious female candidates (Patty Murray, Carol Mosely Braun, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer) in the Senate elections—while Maryland's Barbara Mikulski won reelection—and a significant surge in the House and in state legislators, the media reported on "The Year of the Woman."
It was a moment when things should have changed and much did. These female legislators brought a huge number of new issues to the table, and their presence as elected officials had an impact on what kinds of behavior was deemed permissible, certainly in the public settings of committee hearings and the congressional dining hall. The ultimate victory would come in 2007, when Nancy Pelosi became the female first speaker of the House in American history.
Yet when it came to Congress as a workplace, the accomplishments were more limited. The nub of the problem was that, unlike the executive branch, there had not been civil-service protections for jobs on Capitol Hill. Congress has resisted any kind of institutional infringement on its prerogatives based on claims about the constitutional separation of power. Ohio Democratic Senator John Glenn and others called Capitol Hill "The Last Plantation" as a result of these exemptions. His original reference was to the congressional insulation from civil-rights laws, but by the 1990s, he and others were using the term to talk about gender relations as well. The independent management of members' offices, which has also been a sacrosanct principle, prevented almost any kind of serious centralized oversight of members and their staff. Beneath these constitutional and managerial issues has been the ongoing fear that any type of stringent rules would merely become weapons for politically motivated attacks using employees to smear the reputation of members.
Unexpected momentum to change the status quo came again in 1995 after Republicans took over both chambers of Congress. Although many Republicans had been resistant when there were efforts to pass legislation creating more stringent rules about sexual relations on the Hill, under Speaker Newt Gingrich the GOP decided to take on the issue. Extending civil-rights and workplace-protection laws on the congressional labor force had been one of the promises that Republican candidates had made when telling their supporters that they wanted to transform Capitol Hill.
Republicans were eager to demonstrate that they could take this issue seriously as the party was reeling from a scandal of their own. Oregon Republican Robert Packwood, a champion of women's rights issues, was found to be been guilty of sexual misconduct. News stories and an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee had provided the public with shocking detail about the senator grabbing women by their hair and reaching down beneath their cloths. With Republicans like Mitch McConnell speaking out about what the committee was finding, there were predictions that the Senate might vote to expel him by a two-thirds vote when the investigation was done.
To demonstrate that they were serious, the Republicans took the issue up as soon as the session started. Within a few weeks, the House and Senate passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 by huge bipartisan margins. The new law applied 13 federal labor and anti-discrimination laws to Congress. The legislation established an Office of Compliance, under the control of Congress, to handle employment cases when they arose. The measure enabled the over 30,000 workers on the Hill to make claims in federal court—following mediation and counseling that would be handled through the Office.
Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who co-sponsored the bill, explained, "If a law is right for the private sector, it is right for Congress." Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman called it the "Golden Rule" since Congress would do to "ourselves as we have done unto others …" The only dissenting vote came from West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who said that even this went too far in subjecting the legislative branch to external oversight. The proponents reminded Byrd that the Office of Compliance, which would control the process, would prevent that. When President Clinton signed the bill into law, he proclaimed that: "It is about time that Congress lived by the same laws it places on the private sector."
There were many employees on the Hill who were skeptical that the law would really change anything. The old timers had heard about reform in previous eras, only to see legislators exempt themselves from serious punishment. Eddie Moore, who did janitorial work for the architect of the capitol, told a New York Times reporter that "Nothing has changed, and nothing is likely to change. This is still Congress."
He was right. The most important problem with the legislation was that Congress continued to maintain the constitutional barrier to external oversight. By continuing to abide by this principle on these employment issues, it was virtually guaranteed that enforcement would be toothless. The EEOC, for instance, would have no authority to shape how legislators handled sexual harassment. The Office of Compliance, which had a Settlements and Award Fund to pay out settlements, was in fact as much a way for Congress to protect itself as it was to a mechanism to protect workers. "Congress, once again, has elected to police itself," wrote Robert Turner, a conservative legal expert who had advised Senator Robert Griffin.
The second problem was the manner through which the office would handle cases that emerged. The office does not provide anything comparable to the human resources departments found in private sector offices. There was to be very little accountability or transparency even when the office paid out settlements to accusers. The new process created 30-day cooling off period where they had to continue going to work while being counseled about workplace rights. Then there is a 15 day waiting period during which to decide whether to bring this to mediation. If the accuser chooses mediation, they are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Mediation lasts for 30 more days. When that period ends, there was to be 30 more days for a "cooling off" period before a worker could file a formal complaint. At this point in a very long process, a formal settlement, paid for through taxpayer money, required the signature of a nondisclosure agreement. There would be little information about how the process worked or the cases it dealt with. Legislators could be shielded from the public fallout over these incidents.
"It was a system set up in 1995," California Democrat Jackie Speier recently complained, "to protect the harasser. We say zero tolerance, but I don't believe that we put our money where our mouths are." In a 2016 survey by Congressional Quarterly, four out of ten women reported that they saw sexual harassment as a problem in Congress while one in six had personally been victimized.
What will Congress do about the current mess? Will this be another Anita Hill moment, where Congress fails to implement effective changes after the heat of the scandals fade? If Congress is going to do more than make promises about a changed "culture" they need to put into place much a stricter and transparent process for handling these cases that holds legislators accountable.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress Act, co-sponsored by Jackie Speier and Senator Kristin Gillibrand, is a good start to addressing these problems by raising awareness through mandatory training and strengthening the process to offer more protection to the accuser. According to The Hill, only ten percent of women working on the Hill even know that the process for dealing with harassment exits.
The information surrounding financial settlements and the process through which these are resolved need to provide better mechanisms for allowing the press and the public to know what has transpired. Expenses must be accounted for, as they are in the rest of congressional operations.
The process needs to be streamlined so that it is speedier and less cumbersome, creating less time for workers to find themselves subject to threats from the attorneys of members seeking to protect themselves. The kinds of confidentially agreements required of accusers must be reformed as well. "Because the process is so broken," one employment lawyer argued in the Washington Post, that "people choose to either not engage in the process or, once they engage it, to settle their claims for a fraction of what their claims are worth, because the process is so traumatizing to people. Who would go through all of this and be muzzled for life for three months' severance if the system wasn't stacked [against the victim]? I think the answer is: nobody."
This is also the moment when there needs to be a full-blown legal debate about whether the separation of power really should insulate Congress from these kinds of tightly-enforced workplace rules or whether there is a way for legislators to be regulated by some kind of external or independent body that can make sure rules are enforced. Given that members are subject to criminal prosecution (as was evident with the Abscam scandal), the protections are not as impregnable as often thought.
A change in the "culture" can only go so far.
Rules, regulations and enforcement are the only mechanisms that can revolutionize what work is like in the House and Senate, and make sure that the kinds of improprieties becoming public on a daily basis finally become a thing of the past.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
"What do you do around here?" the tall, strapping Oliver (Armie Hammer) asks Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the 17-year-old giving him a tour of the charming Italian village where Oliver will be living for the next six weeks. "Wait for the summer to end," the bored-seeming Elio says with a sigh. "And what do you do in the winter? Wait for the summer to come?" Oliver shoots back. That only gets a chuckle from Elio, but that line nails the initial mood of Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's sumptuous new romance, which follows a deep connection that springs out of those restless days of late adolescence.
Elio is the intelligent, charming son of archeology professor Lyle Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), with whom Oliver, a graduate student, is interning for the summer. Guadagnino's film, based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, charts Elio and Oliver's relationship, which develops haltingly at first but then burns brightly. It's a swooning tale about the seismic power of first love—one that doesn't dismiss Elio's experience as a folly of youth, but instead digs into the unmistakable trace it leaves, for better or worse.
It's also a story of queer love that isn't tinged with horror or tragedy, a gay romance about a genuine attachment. At the same time, Call Me by Your Name doesn't attempt to sanitize itself as a bland, "universal" film in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. It's both intensely erotic and intensely contained, acknowledging the very private lives gay men were forced to lead in the early 1980s, when the film is set. As a result, in Call Me by Your Name, virtually every bit of physical contact is crucial and electrifying.
The intimacy Guadagnino (and James Ivory, who wrote the film's script) finds in these characters is present from the beginning, but Chalamet (a 21-year-old budding superstar who I knew best from an old season of Homeland) is the audience's way in, as a boy on the verge of adulthood who develops immediate, if confused, attraction to the confident Oliver. Not long after the two first meet, Elio retires to his room and reclines in his bed, looking at the tuft of hair sprouting from his armpit, and lazily blowing on it. A few scenes later, Elio is bold enough to sneak into Oliver's empty room and put Oliver's swimsuit over his head.
Guadagnino doesn't include these moments to advance the plot or to let the audience in on some secret; the connection between Elio and Oliver is apparent very quickly. Rather, he's trying to sketch a portrait of personal, formative experiences of sexuality, and of Elio's relationship with his own body. It's tremendously insightful work from a director who has long appreciated actors' bodies as more than aesthetic objects. In his 2009 film I Am Love, Guadagnino presented Tilda Swinton—as a married woman having a dangerous affair—at her most ravishing, and then spends the movie digging into her vulnerable psyche. In A Bigger Splash, a music producer played by Ralph Fiennes was all physicality, dancing wildly for the camera in an extended introduction, but Guadagnino goes on to expose just how strung out his character really was.
Even compared to the director's previous films (which are excellent and worth watching), Call Me by Your Name is a huge step forward for Guadagnino. The story manages to transcend all its genre trappings: This isn't just a luxurious vacation movie, but it's still crammed to the gills with gorgeous shots of the Italian countryside and Elio's family home. This isn't just an erotic drama, and yet the love scenes are all choreographed with care. And most importantly, this isn't just a coming-of-age tale, but the ardor Elio and Oliver have for each other feels utterly vital, as if every touch will be seared into their memories.
Chalamet is handed the difficult task of making Elio authentically aloof and cold at times. Though he's a teenager desperate for the approval of everyone around him, he possesses a vulnerability that he displays only occasionally. Hammer, who could so easily be reduced to the part of a typically handsome Hollywood stand-in, is mesmerizing; he switches between Oliver's public brashness and private tenderness with ease, making his character far more than a simple object of desire. And lurking in the background is Stuhlbarg, wonderful as a knowing father who is content to mostly let his son figure things out by himself, but who steps in with a guiding hand when things get a little tougher. (He also delivers one of the most astonishing film monologues of recent memory.)
Call Me by Your Name soaks in that end-of-summer mood throughout, one where each move in Elio and Oliver's courtship is loaded with tension (simply because their time together is so short, and thus so meaningful). As such, it's thrilling to watch, even as the pair waste the days away swimming, biking, and talking around their feelings; when their dynamic finally explodes into passion, it's one of the year's most satisfying film moments. Each element is carefully calibrated, but deployed with consummate grace—this is a film to rush to, and to then savor every minute of.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
The last photograph of my son Jonathan was taken at the end of a new-student barbecue on the campus green at the University of Denver. It was one of those bittersweet transitional moments. We were feeling the combination of apprehension and optimism that every parent feels when dropping a kid off at college for the first time, amplified by the fact that we were coming off a rocky 16 months with our son.
We had moved him into his dormitory room only that morning. I remember how sharp he looked in the outfit he selected, and his eagerness to start class and make new friends. We were happy, relieved, and, knowing what we thought he had overcome, proud. Earlier that day, at lunch, I asked Jonathan whether he thought he was ready for the coming school year. "Dad, I can handle it as long as I continue my recovery," he said. "Everything flows from that."
Only three days later, Jonathan was found unresponsive in his dormitory-room bed, one of several victims of a fentanyl-laden batch of heroin that had spread through the Denver area that week.
* * *
Jonathan grew up as the introverted, but creative, younger kid in a career Navy officer's family. He was born a week after I returned from a long deployment, and lived through two more before reaching his fourth birthday. During one six-year stretch, he attended school in five different districts due to military moves. The one constant was his big brother, his best friend, whom he followed around like a rock star. I remember him grinning from ear to ear when he was asked to play on his brother's soccer team because they were short one kid, and again when the two of them learned to ride a bike on the same day.
It wouldn't be the last time Jonathan proved himself a quick study. In second grade, Jonathan's teacher called to notify us that he was selling school supplies to his classmates, lending them money with interest. In fifth grade, he made a perfect score on the Virginia Standards of Learning science test. In ninth grade, he hit a walk-off single in a baseball tournament. A year later, he pitched seven gritty innings of no-hit ball over two consecutive all-star games, with the help of a curveball that seemed to defy gravity.
Jonathan was quiet, but he had a big heart. He helped coach little kids in baseball and laid wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. He had no enemies, only friends. His baseball coach told us his mind was a gift. "He was a brilliant kid who never laughed out loud that I can remember, but he had a wry and knowing smile," he told me. And Jonathan was humble, only replying "thank you" when complimented, never letting anything go to his head. "Jon didn't brag about what he knew or who he knew," his coach told us.
Jonathan's military lineage extended to a grandfather and great-grandfather who also served in the Navy, and a great-great-grandfather who was a Prussian cavalryman. One of the few times I saw Jonathan beam with genuine pride was when he was given his great-great-grandfather's sword at my retirement ceremony. The moment was deeply meaningful to him because it signaled equal recognition among family; Jonathan had to pedal hard in the shadow of a successful father and a brother now carrying on the tradition of military service.
On the surface, Jonathan was a handsome, shy, gentle kid with a warm and disarming demeanor. But underneath that exterior he struggled with anxiety and depression that eventually spiraled into addiction, with all its sickening complexity.
* * *
Many people have a simple understanding of addiction. They think it only happens to dysfunctional people from dysfunctional families, or to hopeless people living in the street. But our addicted population is spread across every segment of society. Rich and poor; white and black; male and female; old and young.
There are several gateways to opioid addiction. Some suffer a physical injury, and slowly develop a dependency on prescribed painkillers. Others self-medicate for mental ailments using whatever substance is available. Because the brain is so adaptable while it's still developing, it's highly susceptible to dependencies, even from non-opioids like today's newly potent marijuana strains. We now understand that such early marijuana use not only inhibits brain development, it better prepares the brain to be receptive to opioids. Of course, like opioids, marijuana has important medical applications, and it seems to leave less of a mark on the fully mature brain. It's worth examining whether it would make sense to raise the legal marijuana age to 25, when the brain has fully matured.
From an early age, Jonathan lacked confidence and self-esteem. He never seemed comfortable in his own skin. He followed more than he led. Like many of the 40 percent or more of teenagers who have reportedly suffered from one mental-health issue or another, Jonathan started on the road to addiction early. He began by sneaking a bit of alcohol at night in order to bring himself down from the Adderall a doctor had prescribed him, based on a misdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder. By eighth grade, he was consuming alcohol in larger quantities, and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Next came Xanax, and eventually, heroin.
We first tried counseling and psychiatry for Jonathan, thinking this was merely a matter of bad friends and worse choices. We figured he would age out of it and turn away from drugs. Not understanding how addiction progresses, we foolishly hoped, reinforced by his assurances, that every incident would be the last one. The incidents worsened after a girlfriend turned away from him and he was disqualified from playing varsity baseball his senior year due to deteriorating grades. One April night that year, a suicidal gesture and a car accident left him in the hospital and us with no doubt that we needed to make a radical change.
With no available spaces in treatment facilities in Washington, D.C., Jonathan detoxed in Richmond, Virginia, for a week while we frantically searched for an inpatient center that would accommodate his dual diagnosis of depression/anxiety and addiction. He growled that putting him into treatment was the worst mistake we would ever make. But we stuck with our decision, and sent him away to two sequential state-of-the-art inpatient treatment programs.
According to the treatment professionals with whom we worked, it takes most addicts well over a year of skilled, intense inpatient treatment to even have a chance of recovery, and my son is evidence that not even that amount of time is a guarantee. Effective treatment generally requires a combination of craving-reducing drugs (to give recovery a chance), time (for the brain to literally recover), counseling (for the addict to understand what he or she is going through), mutual support (to maintain sobriety), and transition training (to prepare for reentering society).
Even getting people into treatment can be difficult, although some are trying to make it easier. In drug courts, for instance, judges are able to suspend drug-offense sentences in favor of an addict entering—and remaining in—a treatment program. But these programs are still terribly expensive. Because the military's Tricare medical system would not adequately cover treatment for a dual diagnosis, we dug in and spent more than the equivalent of four years' tuition at a private college for 15 months of treatment for Jonathan, a sum that would be well beyond the reach of most American families.
It wasn't until our exposure to the parent-education sessions at Jonathan's first treatment center that we awakened to the full horror of addiction's relentless spiral. Unlike cancer, which can be seen under a microscope, addiction works away at the brain much more covertly, using its own flexibility against it.
As Sam Quinones writes in his book Dreamland, the morphine molecule has "evolved somehow to fit, key in lock, into the receptors that all mammals, especially humans, have in their brains and spines ... creating a far more intense euphoria than anything we come by internally." It creates a higher tolerance with use, and, as Quinones continues, exacts "a mighty vengeance when a human dares to stop using it." What starts as relief of physical or mental pain transforms into a desperate need to avoid withdrawal.
Treatment was tedious for Jonathan, due to long periods of boredom and his discomfort in being required to reach out to others and talk about himself. But he knew he needed help to recover. Over 16 long months we saw him almost miraculously begin to pull out of the abyss. We were gradually getting our son back. We watched his brain recover as he turned back into his old self. He was more communicative, happy to see us when we would visit, and even led a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meeting once per week.
In his last few months in treatment, Jonathan sought and earned his emergency medical technician qualification. He said he wanted to use it to help others, especially young people, avoid his experience. He was so proud that he had found something he loved to do. It was one of the very few things that would light him up in a discussion, so we brought it up with him whenever we could.
Based on his steady progress in recovery, and his successful completion of the rigorous EMT certification program, we thought Jonathan was ready to reenter normal life, and we believed he deserved the chance. Together, we decided he would attend the University of Denver, which had granted him a gap year after high school. Thanks in part to a sympathetic admissions counselor who had an experience with addiction in her own family, the school agreed to allow him to enter in the fall.
His incoming class was required to read J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy over the summer and write an essay about a person who had a profound impact upon their life. Jonathan wrote powerfully about encountering a man in the grip of an overdose-induced cardiac arrest in a McDonald's bathroom during the first ride-along of his EMT training. He said the experience made him realize how precious life is. "I never found out his name," he wrote, but the experience made him see his life "in a whole new light."
Sadly, the morphine molecule had burrowed deeper into his brain than we understood. Even as he was writing his moving essay, referring to himself as a former addict, his relapse was already one week old. Such is the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the disease of addiction.
In the weekend before we dropped Jonathan off at college, we missed the telltale signs of relapse. Feeling the shame of his condition, Jonathan used the addicted person's shrewdness to hide them. As for us, we were blinded by our own optimism. We read his restlessness as an understandable case of nerves about what was coming next, or perhaps too high a dosage of anxiety medicine. In retrospect, it appears he was experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.
* * *
Scientists who study addiction understand how little it takes to return at full strength. Even brief flashing images of drug paraphernalia are sufficient to trigger a flood of dopamine in a recovering brain that can, in turn, cause a relapse. The addict is all the more vulnerable when access to the drug is so easy. The location where Jonathan, two weeks away from entering the University of Denver, was taking a nighttime EKG course is close to one of that city's open-air heroin markets. He told one of his friends back home that he had been offered heroin while walking back to where he was staying, but had refused. This encounter likely provided the stimulus for his relapse and eventual overdose.
Instead of allowing these open-air markets to thrive, we would do well to develop "safe-use zones" like those in Portugal and parts of British Columbia. These areas not only dramatically reduce opioid overdoses (because trained users of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone can be right on the scene), they can offer treatment to addicts who are ready to seek help.
We are hopeful that the exceptional efforts of a determined Denver police detective will lead to the apprehension, prosecution, and punishment of the drug dealer who sold our son that fatal fentanyl-laced dose. Indeed, the deadliest link in the overdose supply chain is the street dealer who looks an addicted person coldly in the eye and sells what he or she knows could be their last high. However, much of our prosecutorial apparatus views selling drugs as a "nonviolent crime." Many refuse to prosecute for the small amounts dealers carry. Dealers are sometimes released overnight, allowing them to move on to another location to resume their deadly work.
Meanwhile, addicts continue to suffer under long-standing stigmas associated with drug use, and are subject to the same punishments as dealers. Data from the FBI's Uniform Crime-Reporting Program shows that of the approximately 1.2 million people arrests for a drug-related offense in 2016, 85 percent were for individual drug possession, not the sale or manufacture of a drug. This is no way to solve an epidemic.
* * *
Drug overdoses, like the one that took Jonathan from us, are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016, including 15,446 heroin overdoses alone. The total is more than 20 times the number of Americans killed on 9/11.
The costs of the opioid epidemic—in terms of health care, its corrosive effects on our economic productivity, and other impacts on society—extend far beyond the loss of life. The White House Council of Economic Advisers just raised its estimate of the epidemic's annual cost from $78.5 billion to a whopping $504 billion. Princeton University's Alan Krueger recently completed a study suggesting that 20 percent of the reduction in male participation in our workforce is due to opioid use, and that nearly one-third of prime-working-age men who are not in the labor force are taking prescription pain medication on a daily basis. I sit on the board of a medium-sized industrial company in America's heartland that has had trouble recruiting employees, despite being willing to hire anyone who walks in the door who can pass a drug test.
If America is going to reverse this epidemic, we need to start treating it like the national emergency it really is. We need a call to arms like the one that led to our nation's dramatic decrease in cigarette usage, or the effective Mothers Against Drunk Driving movement. There are reasons to hope that public awareness of the opioid epidemic is finally beginning to catch up with the facts on the ground, but its defeat will only be possible through a concerted effort that includes full-spectrum prevention, stronger prescription-drug controls, more robust law enforcement, and far more access to quality treatment. All of this will in turn require major increases in public resources.
The final sentence of Jonathan's University of Denver freshman essay reads, "I now live my life with a newfound purpose: wanting to help those who cannot help themselves." Jonathan was very serious about his recovery. He wanted to live, and was on an upward trajectory, with brand-new hopes and dreams. He fought honorably against the demons of this disease but, as with so many others, he lost his battle. Losing Jonathan has left us heartbroken, but we are determined to carry his purpose forward. If his story leads to one less heartbroken family, it will have been worth sharing.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:00 AM PST
This is the seventh installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life.
In July, I experienced a flash of panic that only one of America's 28 million uninsured citizens can truly understand. Life—and my right ankle—took a tough turn. I had broken my leg running in a charity mud race in St. Petersburg, Florida, and for the first time since I'd left the Army the summer before, I didn't know what to do when I needed to see a doctor. As a soldier, I had health-care providers available at all times to treat my every medical need, at no direct cost to me. As a civilian, I felt suddenly out in the cold.
As the pop of my fibula snapping was still fresh in my ears, my body still caked in mud, I sat in the grass under the event's medical tent. Leg swollen, with an ice pack melting in the 92-degree heat, I furiously used my phone to consult Google about what to do next—and how much it would cost.
Query: "cost of ER visit"
Query: "cost of broken leg"
Google: "... typically costs up to $2,500 or more …"
And as my military training had conditioned me to do, I investigated the worst-case scenario.
Query: "cost of ankle surgery"
Google: "... between $9,719 and $17,634 …"
But one final search changed my prospects that day—and my perspective on the health-care debate in the United States.
Query: "cost of VA hospital visit"
I was taken aback: The results suggested I'd pay little to nothing. For me—an honorably discharged veteran of the war in Afghanistan with no disabilities—the total out-of-pocket cost for multiple X-rays, visits to orthopedic specialists, medications, and a knee scooter was just $8 through the Veterans Health Administration medical system.
Prior to that day, I had no idea how deeply my own government, and by extension my fellow Americans, cared for my well-being—that by virtue of my five years of military service, I was given the benefit of affordable health care even after I had stopped wearing a uniform. The vague, hour-long health-benefits briefing I sat through when I left the Army did little to explain how the system actually worked. My service had introduced me, unwittingly, to a lifetime of socialized medicine: care that is paid for with public money and provided by the government. According to the latest available data, 9.4 million people are covered by TRICARE, the membership-restricted, public health-care program for uniformed service members and their families. A further 6 million veterans use Veterans Health Administration services each year, with up to 15 million more eligible.
After my July revelation, I felt a deeper connection to my country. But I also felt very guilty. Before I learned the extent of the services available for most veterans at low or no cost, I was just another uninsured American anxious about a broken bone and the financial disaster that can come with it. While U.S. troops deserve compensation for their unique national service—for the long separations they endure; the long hours they work; and, sometimes, imminent threats to their lives—a thought has stayed with me: Do service members' sacrifices mean they should be some of the only Americans to have guaranteed care?
There are teachers who work in dangerous neighborhoods to make sure disadvantaged children get an education. There are small-business owners who risk everything—including going without health insurance—to pursue the kind of entrepreneurial dreams that make the country an economic powerhouse. There are wage earners, artists, and single parents who may never get a job with health benefits, but who nonetheless work hard and contribute to the fabric of America.
It makes little sense to me, then, that my service should entitle me to any more or less medical care from my government than any other citizen receives.
In fact, as congressional Republicans have tried, and failed, to repeal and replace Obamacare, I've considered whether the alternative floated by Democrats like Bernie Sanders may be better for Americans—and America.
That plan—a single-payer, "Medicare for all" option in which taxpayers contribute to a national health-insurance program—remains something of a third rail in Washington, and it's opposed by more than a third of the U.S. population. The opposition is, in part, rooted in the economy: It'd necessitate raising taxes or adding significantly to the deficit. And there's philosophical opposition, too. Some Americans simply don't think they should have to pay more to ensure coverage for their fellow citizens, while others are wary of how foreign the system would be. Before I enlisted, it never occurred to me that universal health care, let alone socialized medicine in any form, was a desirable option in the United States. Government health care in any form seemed oppressive to me, a limit on my freedom. But I found that, in many ways, the opposite was true. While any type of universal health-care system would have economic consequences, the associated gains—no longer worrying about coverage loss after a job change, for example, or feeling stressed about finding in-network doctors—for me outweigh that burden.
As a 2016 RAND Corporation study suggested, the U.S. government is capable of providing medical care that's on par or better than many private alternatives. While it is something of a sport both within the military and among veterans to complain about the care they receive—and the system has seen its fair share of problems and failures—surveys show that in recent years, they are happier with their care than civilians with private providers.
Some critics argue that government-run health care is inefficient, pointing to long wait times at veterans' hospitals. But, again, compared with the private sector, the waits may not be all that bad. If Anthem, Cigna, or another large U.S. health-insurance company were subject to the same level of congressional scrutiny as the military's systems, I'm not sure they'd fare much better.
The VA is maligned for its failures because, in the eyes of many Americans, it should be held to a high standard as the care provider for men and women who have put their bodies on the line for their country. But the medical needs for which I've sought aid through the VA and military systems haven't been extraordinary—only the cost and access to care have been.
During my Army service, I did my job, lived my life, and didn't think twice about premiums, deductibles, or annual limits. Treatment was seamless, automatic, and focused on helping me perform my duties as a soldier.
When I broke my thumb while playing in my unit's annual turkey bowl in South Korea—a decidedly non-mission-essential endeavor—X-rays, physical therapy, and an on-base orthopedic specialist were provided. So was my time off from work to make my appointments: To the Army, soldiers' return to duty as quickly as possible is so important that they are often reprimanded by superiors if they miss scheduled appointments. A year later, after I'd changed stations to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, I sliced open my leg in a hiking accident. After driving myself to the emergency room of Madigan Army Medical Center on base, I limped through the doors, got some stitches, and received easily accessible follow-up treatment. My unit's embedded physician's assistant worked out of an on-base clinic three blocks from my motor pool.
The rationale behind this type of care is clear: The Army understands that healthy soldiers are more effective soldiers. A national health-care system that treats all citizens this way may offer similar benefits. Chief among them is what I discovered earlier this year with the help of a Google search, when I realized I could get care when I needed it: a better quality of life.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 04:06 PM PST
The most remarkable thing about North Korea's missile test on Tuesday wasn't that it happened; as the country's nuclear-weapons program has entered the final stretch of development, Kim Jong Un has steadily demonstrated missiles of increasing range and nuclear bombs of increasing power. What was most striking was how the Trump administration initially responded to one of North Korea's most provocative actions yet toward the United States.
The North dramatically concluded a 74-day pause in its nuclear and missile tests, which had raised hopes that tensions on the Korean peninsula were easing. It launched into the waters off Japan a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that, according to an assessment by the arms-control expert David Wright, appears to "have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States," challenging the American president's professed commitment to preventing North Korea from acquiring the capability to fire nuclear weapons at the U.S. (Wright points out that it's unclear whether the missile displayed on Tuesday can carry a heavy nuclear warhead to the American mainland.) And Donald Trump and his advisers reacted with considerable restraint.
"I can only tell you that we will take care of it," said Trump, who has previously threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea and its "Little Rocket Man" leader with unprecedented "fire and fury" from the U.S. military. During a press conference in which he focused on the prospects for tax reform, the president deferred to his defense secretary on the missile test, noting only that the development hadn't changed his policy toward the North. Initial tweets from the president in the hours after the missile test focused on the U.S. economy, specifically that the stock market was at "RECORD HIGHS!"
Defense Secretary James Mattis observed matter-of-factly that the missile had flown higher "than any previous shot they've taken," indicating once again that North Korea now possesses missiles "that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically." The "bottom line," Mattis said, "is it's a continued effort to build a ballistic-missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly the United States."
And yet despite that ever-growing threat, "diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed in a statement. The United States "remains committed to finding a peaceful path" to remove North Korea's nuclear weapons and end its "belligerent actions"—specifically through its campaign to pressure North Korea into negotiations by escalating international sanctions on the North and persuading China and Russia to withdraw their support for the Kim regime. Speaking to reporters, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described the test as "a disappointment" but refrained from lending it more significance than that. "North Korea is not showing any serious signs of wanting to sit down and have conversations with the ... global community," she said, as if speaking about a misbehaving child. The tenor was reminiscent of the studiously subdued reactions previous administrations have had to North Korean provocations. "Twenty-four hours ago they weren't prepared to talk. Today they certainly aren't prepared to talk."
At a moment of intense speculation about whether war could break out between the U.S. and North Korea, the Trump administration has signaled that it is sufficiently encouraged by its progress in isolating North Korea economically and diplomatically to not let a missile test, however menacing or record-breaking, sway it off-course. For now.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 04:37 PM PST
In the fall of 2013, Charlotte Lindqvist got a call from a film company making an Animal Planet documentary about the yeti, the mythical apelike creature that roams the Himalayas. So, not the kind of thing scientists usually like to mess with. "Friends or colleagues were saying, 'Oh, watch out. Don't get into this whole area,'" she recalls with a laugh. But she said yes.
Lindqvist said yes because she is a geneticist who studies bears, and the rare Himalayan brown bear is one possible origin of the yeti legend. The team from Icon Films wanted to use science to investigate whether the yeti is real; Lindqvist wanted to investigate the enigmatic bears of the Himalayas.
Wild bear DNA is not easy to come by. Over the years, Lindqvist, a professor at the University at Buffalo, has built up a network of wildlife-biologist contacts in Alaska, who send her samples that have helped illuminate the evolution of polar bears. Scientists know much less about bears that live around the Himalayas. But if a film-production company was going to pay a crew to travel around the mountain range collecting possible samples of fur and bone, then she just might get a scientific project out of it, too.
The results of that unusual collaboration were published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Lindqvist and her colleagues used DNA to identify nine "yeti" samples.
These include: a thigh bone found by a spiritual healer in a cave that turned out to be from a Tibetan brown bear; hair from a mummified animal in a monastery that turned out to be from a Himalayan brown bear; a tooth from a stuffed animal collected by Nazis in the 1930s that turned out to be from a dog. The rest of the samples turned up five more Tibetan brown bears and an Asian black bear. For comparison with verified bear samples, Lindqvist also reached out to her network of research contacts in museums, zoos, and Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park, who provided her with bear hair, bone, and scat to sequence.
Altogether, this search for the yeti yielded a surprising portrait of bears living around the Himalayas. The Tibetan brown bear and Himalayan brown bear, long considered to be subspecies, are quite distinct genetically. The latter diverged from all other brown bears about 650,000 years ago, when the formation of glaciers may have isolated a population that became the first Himalayan brown bears. Today, this ancient lineage of bears is critically endangered.
Lindqvist focused her analysis on DNA in the mitochondria—structures in the cell that have their own small pieces of DNA separate from the DNA in chromosomes. Mitochondria DNA is only passed down the maternal line, but when it comes to sequencing, it has the advantage of being more abundant in cells. This is especially important when working with degraded and decades-old samples. Her team eventually sequenced, for the first time, the entire mitochondrial genome of the rare Himalayan brown bear.
Other scientists have sequenced supposed yeti samples before—notably Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at Oxford who actually appeared in a previous yeti film by the same documentary team that aired on the United Kingdom's Channel 4 in 2013. (Interest in the yeti never dies, apparently.) In it, Sykes says the hair matched no modern bears but an ancient 40,000-year-old polar bear, suggesting the yeti is actually an unknown, perhaps hybrid bear. Sykes later published the results in a scientific journal, but other scientists criticized him for extrapolating too far from a fragment of a single mitochondrial gene.
Lindqvist thinks she has resequenced one of the same samples, and based on the whole mitochondrial genome, the purposed yeti hair indeed came from a Himalayan brown bear. Ross Barnett, a paleogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen, praised the methods in the new study. It's the first time, he says, that he knows of a study using whole mitochondrial genomes to place bears in their evolutionary and geographic context.
The Animal Planet film eventually aired in May 2016 as Yeti or Not? Near the end, Lindqvist appears to reveal the last of the DNA-sequencing results. The show has been building up to this moment, hinting at possibilities like a new hybrid bear or maybe even an undiscovered hominid. "When I had to reveal to them that okay, these are bears, I was excited about that because it was my initial motive to get into this," says Lindqvist. "They obviously were a little disappointed."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 03:51 PM PST
What We're Following
Missile Test: North Korea resumed its missile testing program after a two-and-a-half-month pause, sending what the Pentagon identified as an intercontinental ballistic missile in the direction of Japan. Some observers had interpreted the pause as a signal that the country was ready to open talks regarding its nuclear program, but—as the new test affirms—North Korea isn't likely to negotiate on the U.S.'s terms. Washington also sees Beijing as a crucial partner in its North Korea strategy, but there are fundamental differences in the two governments' view of the crisis—starting with why they think Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons in the first place.
The CFPB: A federal judge denied the request from Leandra English, deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to block President Trump from installing Mick Mulvaney as the bureau's acting head. Mulvaney had already begun making changes in spite of the legal dispute. The conflict illustrates a broader split between Republicans and Democrats over which pieces of America's political process need fixing. But whether English or Mulvaney is the agency's rightful leader, its future will depend on its employees.
Congressional Tension: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to attend a White House summit aimed at averting a government shutdown after Trump tweeted that he didn't expect the meeting to result in a deal. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans moved closer to passing their tax bill as two key holdouts dropped their objections.
Asher Elbein on the dinosaur murals at Chicago's Field Museum:
Keep reading here, as Elbein explores the evolution of paleoart.
What Do You Know … About Business?
Harmful notions of masculinity can have economic consequences for both women and men. Gender stereotypes are one likely reason why girls have long outperformed boys academically, a gap that's particularly consequential for lower-income kids. In the workplace, hypermasculine, hierarchical organizations can stifle gender equality. Marianne Cooper offers some solutions to rectify this problem.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's Business coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. Charities are expected to raise about $____________ on this year's Giving Tuesday.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. The U.S. has approximately ____________ nonprofit organizations.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. Providing workers in the apparel industry with a living wage would cost an extra $____________ per garment.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
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After James O'Keefe, a right-wing media figure known for his "stings" against liberal organizations, was exposed attempting to feed a false story to The Washington Post, Rosie Gray and McKay Coppins argued that O'Keefe had made himself irrelevant with blunders such as this one. A reader disagrees:
Conor Friedersdorf describes how O'Keefe tried to use the botched plan to gain support from his audience here.
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Graham's partner and soul mate, Sylvia (a year younger than It's a Wonderful Life); to Patricia (twice the age of websites); from Bill to Caroline (a year younger than Harry Potter); to Lynne's high school friend Pam (20 years older than the moon landing); and to Patrick's sister Ellen (the same age as NASA).
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 02:15 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi pulled out of spending negotiations with President Trump after he tweeted, "I don't see a deal." In response, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement saying the Democrats' "antics" put government operations at risk. The Senate Budget Committee approved the Republican tax bill in a party-line vote, moving the legislation closer to a floor vote later this week. A federal judge sided with the Trump administration and refused to block Mick Mulvaney from continuing as interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And North Korea test-fired another ballistic missile.
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
Is Elizabeth Warren Part Native American?: On Monday, President Trump referred to the Massachusetts senator as "Pocahontas," mocking her repeated assertion that she is part Native American. Here's the backstory. (Gregory Krieg, CNN)
Doesn't Make Sense: Ezra Klein lays out five big problems created by the Senate Republicans' tax plan—and suggests what the lawmakers could have done differently. (Vox)
The Problem With Unthinking Belief: The new rallying cry to "believe all women" and their allegations of sexual misconduct feels like a justified response to injustice, argues Bari Weiss. But a better mantra would be "Trust but verify." (The New York Times)
Tracking Without a Warrant: On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case dealing with one of the most important questions facing law enforcement in the digital age. (Nina Totenberg, NPR)
The Left Should Do Better: Liberals continue to fight right-wing extremism with name-calling, instead of by countering toxic ideas with good ones, argues Damon Linker. (The Week)
Whip Count: Senate leaders can only afford to lose the support of two Senate Republicans to pass their new tax bill. Here's where lawmakers stand on the legislation. (Thomas Kaplan and Jasmine C. Lee, The New York Times)
Question of the Week
In a recent story in The New York Times, reporter Richard Fausset described the relatively ordinary life of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist living in Ohio, referring to him as "the Nazi sympathizer next door." Critics argued that the piece didn't offer context and left white-nationalist ideas unchecked. (In this vein, The Atlantic's James Hamblin wrote a parody of the story.) Fausset soon followed up with a piece describing his reporting process.
What do you think? Do stories like this normalize people with extreme viewpoints?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 02:34 PM PST
On Monday evening, Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives, sent out a statement regarding the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Rep. John Conyers. "This afternoon," it read, "I spoke with Melanie Sloan who worked for Congressman Conyers on the Judiciary Committee in the mid-1990s. Ms. Sloan told me that she had publicly discussed distressing experiences while on his staff. I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing. I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me."
The statement, which went on to bemoan the fact that one of Conyers's accusers "cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place," was a marked course correction: On Sunday, during an appearance on Meet the Press, Pelosi had defended Conyers as an icon—a fact his accusers are not contesting—and had also, in response to Chuck Todd's question about whether she believed the women accusing Conyers, replied, "I don't know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward."
It was a surprisingly tone-deaf response for a politician who is not only a veteran of Meet the Press, and who thus had to expect that a question like this would be coming, but also for someone who has previously—and validly—celebrated herself and her fellow women in Congress for breaking the "marble ceiling." Pelosi was, by valorizing her colleague and dismissing the women making accusations against him, aligning herself with a longstanding instinct to mistrust women who come forward to share their experiences and disrupt the status quo. She was aligning herself, more broadly, with those who have defended Senator Al Franken—Franken himself has apologized for sexual impropriety—via suggestions that his first accuser, Leeann Tweeden, had political motivations in sharing that infamous photo. Pelosi was also aligning herself with the defenders of Roy Moore, some of whom have suggested—baselessly—that his accusers were paid by The Washington Post as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy.
And: Pelosi was aligning herself with President Trump, who has said, in his own words and via those of his press secretary, that the 16 women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety have each been lying. And who has recently been spreading the idea that the Access Hollywood tape that emerged in 2016—a recording for which Trump quickly apologized when the tape was released—are, in fact, fake. Somehow.
Pelosi and her team quickly realized the misstep, and on Sunday afternoon, moved to correct it. Pelosi released a statement that read, in part:
So, all in all: initial comment, "brave women" comment, the results of the conversation Pelosi had with one of those brave women. Taken together, the statements offer a striking, and revealing, arc: that initial impulse, in response to Todd's question on Meet the Press, to close ranks, to question the women making accusations—the instinct, essentially, for power to defend power. The next step to course-correct, and to commend the women who come forward to share their stories. And then, finally—I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me and that ridiculous system must be ended and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so—to focus on the systems that make it so difficult for women to come forward in the first place.
It was a good, and productive, place to land. One of the many tragedies of harassment cases, after all, is that accusers' silence and perpetrators' innocence are often equated with each other. Why didn't she come forward when it happened? the doubters often chorus. Why now? The answer is, often, that the "she" in question knew exactly what would greet her were she to go public: excoriation, suspicion, character assassination. The powerful refusing to make space for the less powerful. Pelosi's initial reaction to Chuck Todd's question was in that sense a frank reminder of all that has been endured by Anita Hill, by Juanita Broaddrick, by Leigh Corfman, by every other woman who has come forward to share her story and who has been, rather than commended for her bravery, punished for it. As Deanna Maher, who on Tuesday came forward to make on-the-record allegations of harassment against Conyers, explained of her decision not to share her story sooner: "I didn't report the harassment because it was clear nobody wanted to take it seriously." She added: "John Conyers is a powerful man in Washington, and nobody wanted to cross him."
Conyers denies the allegations, writing on Sunday in a letter to Pelosi, after stepping aside as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee while the ethics investigation is ongoing, that "I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics."
Another of the tragedies of harassment cases is that sexual impropriety and abuse tend, by their nature, to take place in the shadows, with very little evidence to go by save for one person's word against another's. Harassers and abusers have long weaponized this fact, and they have done it so effectively that "he said, she said" has become, at this point, a shorthand for thrown-up hands, hung juries, legal impunities. One person's word against another's, the logic goes: The two cancel each other out. Never mind that, per one recent estimate, only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations end up being false. Never mind the flood of allegations of harassment, in this #MeToo moment, that have proven to be true.
Never mind, on Sunday, any of that. Even Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as the speaker of the House, revealed an instinct to doubt the women. Even she questioned, disavowed, protested. Pelosi's commentary on Meet the Press, as Vox's Laura McGann argued, was suggestive of Madeleine Albright's long-established (and occasionally controversial) maxim that there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women. "Whatever happens next," McGann wrote on Sunday, "today Pelosi is that woman."
As it happens, I recently spoke with Albright about that famous line. At an event at the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the unveiling of Albright's portrait—and with it Albright's being given the Portrait of a Nation Prize for her contributions to American history and culture—Albright and I discussed that line in light of #MeToo. "I came up with that statement because of experience in my own life," the former Secretary of State—the first woman to hold that position—said, "when I found that women were too judgmental of each other and how are we doing." She added that the line, itself, is about systems:
What Albright was suggesting is shine theory, basically, applied to government: the kind of thing women in the Obama administration did, to amplify each others' voices. The kind of thing women in many fields are doing to help each other and have each others' backs. The kind of thing that requires multiple women, at multiple levels of power, to be most effective. And the kind of thing, Albright added, that should be happening across the American government. "I think also, now, if there were more women at all levels of elected offices," she said, "and they were able to speak out in Congress and state legislatures, it would really be an important way to help with the #MeToo movement."
It certainly would. For it to be most effective, though, instincts and impulses—of individuals, and of the culture at large—matter. Those first responses to allegations of harassment set the tone for everything else. They are the id; the stuff of the ego and the superego come later. "John Conyers is an icon in our country," Pelosi said, going on to cite his work in the Violence Against Women Act, implying that the achievement might somehow mitigate the allegation—that work done on behalf of women at large might somehow have a bearing on allegations made by particular women. Abuse of power, though, is abuse of power; if Conyers is found guilty of harassment, that will be its own finding, independent of everything else. And so Pelosi, in her triple-step journey, acted as a representative in the most direct sense of the term. All too often, after all, just as her Meet the Press line suggested, people's impulse is not to trust the women, but rather to doubt them. To explain away allegations as "just what men do" or "just the way he is." To point out the greatness of the person being accused.
Another person who knows that all too well: Anita Hill, who, in her televised testimony against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, was reminded in the cruelest way of what women—women of color, in particular—face when they dare to make allegations against powerful men. On Sunday, as it happened, Hill appeared on the same episode of Meet the Press that hosted Nancy Pelosi. And the law professor was, understandably, not terribly optimistic about #MeToo's ability to move through the corridors of government. "Unfortunately," Hill said, "26 years ago, Washington wasn't ready to lead on this issue, and I'm afraid even today Washington cannot lead the country on this issue." She added: "There seems to be so many conflicted feelings and understandings about what needs to happen when sexual misconduct occurs."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 01:56 PM PST
The closer the Senate tax bill gets to a crucial up-or-down vote, the more Republicans are falling in line.
On Tuesday morning, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was threatening to oppose the proposal in a key Budget Committee vote because it might explode the deficit. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was warning he could do the same if party leaders didn't address his complaints. By the afternoon, both wavering Republicans had provided the crucial "ayes" to send the $1.4 trillion tax cut to the Senate floor.
Then there was Senator Susan Collins, the Maine moderate who defied her party on each of its attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and was seen as likely to do so again on taxes. She had recited a litany of concerns with the bill, chief among them a provision scrapping Obamacare's individual mandate—a change that she warned would cause rising premiums to spike even higher. But by the afternoon, after a party pep talk and a separate side session with President Trump, she, too, was nearing the "yes" column.
The Senate Republican tax overhaul still faces hurdles. Party leaders must keep their verbal commitments to the wavering senators, nail down the support of a few others, and ensure that the changes they've promised accord with the Senate's complex budget rules. But Tuesday was undeniably a day of momentum for Trump and Republican congressional leaders, propelling them closer to enacting their long-sought tax cuts and ending a frustrating legislative slump. The full Senate could vote on the bill by the end of the week after a marathon session of floor debate and amendment votes.
"I think it's going to pass, and it's going to be very popular," Trump said as he met at the White House with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Top Republicans were in whatever-it-takes mode on Tuesday, seemingly offering assurances to senators left and right as Trump met with the party in the Capitol. To win over Collins, the president reportedly said he was open to supporting bipartisan health-care legislation to restore the insurer payments under Obamacare that he cancelled earlier in the fall, along with a separate and potentially far costlier bill aimed at offsetting the impact of repealing the individual mandate.
Senate Republicans are also considering Collins' push for the chamber's bill to allow people to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local property taxes, which would bring the proposal in line with the House plan that passed earlier this month and make it easier for the two versions to be reconciled. "She's had a number of good discussions with the White House, and they are continuing to negotiate in good faith," a Collins aide told me. "She's encouraged by the response to her proposals on the property tax deduction and on mitigating the impact of the repeal of the individual mandate."
Corker told reporters after the party lunch that he had, according to the Washington Post, secured "a verbal agreement" for a trigger mechanism that would force tax rates to rise if the GOP's rosy revenues projections miss their targets. If it comes together, that pact could also win the votes of Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma along with Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who have all voiced similar concerns about the bill's impact on the deficit.
Johnson was holding out for a different reason. He has pushed for more generous treatment of "pass-through" businesses like the one he ran in Wisconsin, arguing that the Senate proposal was much more favorable to big corporations. But he chose not to block the bill in the Budget Committee, another signal that a deal is in the offing which could bring along Senator Steve Daines of Montana as well.
Republicans can afford to lose no more than two of their 52 members to pass the tax bill without help from Democrats, none of whom are supporting the measure. But unlike their ill-fated tries on health care, not a single Republican has drawn a hard line against the tax proposal or issued demands that cannot, at least in concept, be met. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced on Monday that he would back the tax bill despite his wishes that it would include even deeper cuts. "I don't think anyone wants to be the one stopping this," said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for Club for Growth, the conservative advocacy group.
In unifying around the tax bill, Republicans are setting aside polls showing it to be unpopular with the public, analyses finding that it benefits the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle class, and their own acknowledgement that it will dramatically increase the deficit in the short term and likely beyond. But to an even greater degree than during the health care debate, the risk of another high-stakes failure is holding an otherwise divided party together. As Roth told me on Tuesday: "They know that they can't strike out on this."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 01:02 PM PST
In the 1990s, several employees of a Missouri popcorn factory began reporting mysterious symptoms. They were always tired, wheezing, and out of breath. After doctors found scar tissue inside the factory workers' lungs, they diagnosed the workers with an irreversible lung disease: bronchiolitis obliterans, which would later be nicknamed "popcorn lung." Its cause was traced back to the chemical behind popcorn's buttery flavor.
While the FDA recognizes this chemical, diacetyl, as "generally safe to eat," the case of the factory workers revealed that inhaling heated diacetyl particles day in and day out takes a harsh toll. What was safe to swallow wasn't safe to inhale.
Years later, reports of diacetyl in e-cigarette vapors led to panicky headlines about vapers, too, being at risk of "popcorn lung." Vaping advocates were quick to object, pointing out that spending years breathing in buttery-flavored factory air is very different from taking a few quick puffs from an e-cig. But the incident underscored the motley assortment of chemicals that go into different vape flavors. There can be hundreds of flavor additives in any given vape juice, with concentrations that range from trace amounts to large fractions of the whole e-liquid. Their toxicity profiles vary widely as well.
Many of these chemicals have never been tested on whether they're safe to breathe in. And that makes vaping's already unclear effects on health even murkier, because different flavors could be more or less dangerous. "Just because vanilla flavor or crème flavor is okay in your cookies doesn't mean it's okay when you heat it and then inhale it," says Amanda Dickinson, a developmental biologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It seems that it's a roll of the dice."
A recent study coauthored by Dickinson investigated the effects of six different e-cig vapors on tadpoles, as a proxy test for how vaping while pregnant might affect human embryos. Some of the exposed tadpoles developed "clefts" in the bone behind the upper lip, somewhat similar to cleft palate in humans. These clefts only appeared in tadpoles exposed to two particular flavors out of six tested. When the researchers exposed tadpoles to nicotine-free versions of the same flavors, those tadpoles still developed clefts in the same ratios.
The flavors that correlated with the tadpoles' facial defects weren't "tobacco" and "menthol," but rather flavors with fruit and cream overtones. These two flavors also had the most complex flavor descriptions: About 20 percent of tadpoles exposed to a flavor of "strawberry, almond, caramel, vanilla, biscuit, Vienna cream" and 70 percent of those exposed to a flavor of "cereal, berries, cream, citrus" developed clefts.
Dickinson and her colleagues pointed out that it may not be the fruity or creamy flavor additives per se, but the complexity of the flavor—or the number of chemical components in the vapor—that correlates with the cleft formation.
The tadpole study isn't the first to note e-liquid flavors vary in toxicity. Robert Tarran, a cell biologist at University of North Carolina, has analyzed the composition of more than 100 e-liquids and tested their toxicity against human kidney cells in petri dishes by diluting the e-liquids and then slowly increasing their concentrations. The concentration needed to kill half the cells ranged from 5.997 percent for some flavors down to .002 percent for others, and could vary by as much as an order of magnitude between flavors mixed by the same vape shop. So far, Tarran hasn't singled out any specific flavor ingredients as uniquely dangerous, but he has noticed a pattern. "The more chemicals there tended to be in the e-liquid, the more toxic it tended to be," he says.
Tarran points out that these toxicity assays in kidney cells don't necessarily predict overall health effects in humans, and that at this point, direct comparisons to the toxicity of conventional cigarettes aren't feasible. It's also possible that the effects of e-cigarettes in lungs could predispose people to a different set of ailments than tobacco smoke.
If a vaper wanted to avoid a particular chemical, they'd have a hard time figuring out which flavors contain certain chemicals and which ones don't. E-cig manufacturers are required to file their full ingredients list for each e-liquid on the market with the FDA, and they list the amounts of three chemicals that make up the bulk of most e-liquids—nicotine, glycerin, and propylene glycol—on the label. But they stop short of listing out all the chemicals that contribute to flavor. "The commercial success of a product is in its formulation (that is, its taste) and this is preciously hidden by the manufacturer," Emanuele Ferri, the scientific director of a Milan-based vaping R&D company called TRUSTiCERT, said in an email.
Ferri says that his team has studied toxicology profiles for more than 1,000 e-liquid ingredients and that no two chemicals' effects are completely identical. They've posted toxicology data online from some e-liquids made by the company FlavourArt that tested as safe.
Still, this lack of transparency frustrates many researchers. "If you look at a bottle of e-liquid or the websites where they sell these things, the descriptions of the ingredients are like, 'cookies,'" says Allyson Kennedy, a policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a coauthor on the tadpole paper. "You didn't crush up cookies and put them in there. What are the chemicals that you used to create that flavor? That information I can't seem to find anywhere."
These initial studies are "just small steps," says René Olivares-Navarrete, a bioengineering assistant professor at VCU and another coauthor on the tadpole study. As with Tarran's cell lines, results in tadpoles and mice may or may not translate to humans. Olivares-Navarette says he hopes that e-cigarettes are as safe as vaping advocates claim, but first, "people need to have the information about what is possible."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 12:58 PM PST
On Tuesday in the U.S.—Wednesday in Asia—the world's two-and-a-half month respite from North Korean provocations came to an end. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reported that the North had fired a ballistic missile heading east; NHK, the Japanese broadcaster, said this one, like several before it, may have landed in the waters off Japan. The Pentagon's initial assessment was that the missile was an ICBM, the type of long-range missile that could reach the United States, which the North has tested twice before.
The launch also ended speculation that the North was observing a lull in testing as a show of good faith to the United States, in order to pursue talks on the communist state's missile and nuclear programs. On October 30, America's special envoy for North Korea policy declared that if the North ceased testing for 60 days, it might be a sign the country was open to diplomacy. Sixty days came and went, but as Van Jackson wrote at The Atlantic, there were explanations besides a desire to make peace, including the harvest season, and the military's training schedule. Regardless, the resumption of testing means that this year alone North Korea has tested at least 20 missiles, according to the database maintained by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The figure for 2016 was 24; it was 15 in 2015.
The launch also comes a week after President Trump re-added North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism; the country had been removed from it over a decade ago. That designation, and its accompanying sanctions, was in line with the "maximum pressure, maximum engagement" strategy the Trump administration has articulated for dealing with North Korea—though at times it appears, publicly at least, that only the first part of the policy is in effect. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other national-security officials have said, nevertheless, that they are optimistic about the possibility of dialogue with the North on its missile and nuclear programs. Despite this, though, there is currently little communication between the two countries. Tillerson said in September the U.S. had "three channels open to Pyongyang"—for communication if not negotiation—but Trump himself has publicly undercut them, saying Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to conduct diplomacy.
In any case, those who favor tough action against North Korea will probably see the latest missile test as a vindication of Trump's position. It's not clear though whether tough action can actually bring about a change in North Korea's behavior. This is, after all, one of the world's most heavily sanctioned countries; several countries have recently expelled the North Korean envoys from their capitals, as part of a coordinated international diplomatic effort; and the North's chief ally, China, is getting impatient with its actions. North Korea is, in Russian President Vladimir Putin's words, willing to eat grass in order to possess nuclear weapons.
Experts say it already possesses enough fissile material for at least 20 such weapons. Its intercontinental ballistic missiles are already theoretically capable of reaching the contiguous United States, and the country is believed to be mere months away from fitting a miniaturized nuclear warhead onto such a missile.
So where does this end? Many U.S. experts who favor a tough response to the North say that North Korea's intent is to compel the United States to abandon its alliance with South Korea, and to force reunification of the peninsula on its own terms. But China, North Korea's largest trading partner, sees it differently. As I reported today, Chinese experts say North Korea already possesses the nuclear material required to achieve those goals, and its continued provocations are a way to seek security guarantees. This fundamental difference of opinion between the United States and China, which says it understands North Korea's worldview, is a major obstacle in any resolution of the current crisis. (The U.S. has also pressed China to do more to cut off North Korea's economic lifeline, and Beijing says it will comply up to a point: It doesn't want to destabilize North Korea to the point the regime collapses; doesn't want chaos in its backyard; and doesn't want a pro-U.S. country with U.S. troops at its border.)
The test will almost certainly end the optimistic statements coming from U.S. officials in recent days in response to the lull in testing. There were Tillerson's remarks in September about channels. This month James Mattis, the U.S. secretary of defense, said the pause could lead to direct talks. But Trump, responding the test on Tuesday, had another message. "We'll take care of it," he said.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 12:34 PM PST
There's a question going around on Twitter, courtesy of the writer Matt Whitlock: "Without revealing your actual age, what's something you remember that if you told a younger person they wouldn't understand?"
This simple query has received, at this date, 18,000 responses. Here is just a tiny selection:
Etcetera. You are welcome to peruse the replies looking for your precise moment in time to be pinned to the screen, wiggling.
It is obvious that most of the relics of earlier eras that stick with people are technological, or at least about the material culture of technology.
It is banal to note that these technological eras are becoming shorter. No one expects today's social networks or electronics to last as long as AM radio or the internal combustion engine or even three-channel broadcast television. That's not how products work anymore. Many things are designed for obsolescence and the rest end up there anyway with frightening speed.
Most of the time, this occasions alarm. Everything's speedin' up! Future shock, etc.
But there is pleasure, "That's my shit!" kind of pleasure, in possessing this knowledge of obsolete lived experience. As the technologies we live with exist for less and less time, a more precise psychological archaeology becomes possible. The slices of time that we invoke when we say, "Remember when you could record songs off the radio" or "Remember the sound of a dial-up modem" or "Remember Facebook before News Feed" or "Remember borders on Instagram pictures" become thinner and thinner. A decade becomes a couple years becomes a few months. The combination of your age and life station and technological possibilities fuse into a fixed moment that's more meaningful than any generational label or simple number. What gives these moments their power is that they mark our time as it is smashed to pieces by market forces and what is sometimes called progress.
And yet you share something real with the other people who understand, like really understand, one of these moments. And no one else can join the club. It can't be looked up on Wikipedia or gathered from Google or glimpsed in a YouTube video. You can't buy that experience at Etsy or eBay or even the weirdest vintage place in all of Oakland.
You had to be a body in a place in a culture. You had to be there.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 02:34 PM PST
Updated on November 28 at 5:34 p.m. ET
There are currently two people claiming to be in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's up to a judge to decide who's correct—Leandra English, who was promoted by the agency's outgoing director, or Mick Mulvaney, the Trump administration's pick. On Tuesday afternoon U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, who was appointed by Trump in September 2017, denied English's request for an emergency temporary restraining order. Though English is likely to continue to pursue her lawsuit, the judge's ruling means that for now, Mulvaney can continue to lead the agency.
And he's ready to change some things. "Rumors that I'm going to set the place on fire, or blow it up, or lock the doors, are completely false," Mulvaney, who is currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a press conference on Monday afternoon. "That being said," he added, "anybody who thinks that a Trump administration CFPB would be the same as an Obama administration CFPB is simply naive. Elections have consequences."
Those consequences took the form of some changes that are predictable from someone favored by an administration that doesn't like regulations. On Monday, Mulvaney instituted a 30-day freeze on hiring, rulemaking, regulations, guidance, and payments from the civil penalties fund (which is used to compensate Americans who have been harmed by financial institutions). "Anything that's in the pipeline stops," he said, and it's a move that isn't unusual during a leadership change at a government agency.
Mulvaney went out of his way to stress just how normal such a changeover is. During that press conference, he called the leadership transition an "ordinary course of business." He showed up for his new job early, with communications staff from the Office of Management and Budget snapping pictures of him in the director's office. And he pulled a typical new-boss move by bringing doughnuts with him and holding meetings to introduce himself to staff. By Tuesday, Mulvaney had even taken over the CFPB director Twitter account, and tweeted out a photo of him in the office with the caption "Busy day at the CFPB."
But the appearance of a typical day at the office was overshadowed by the fact that meanwhile, Leandra English was launching a legal battle to get a job she says is rightfully hers. As Mulvaney was giving his first press conference as acting director of the CFPB, lawyers representing Trump and English were making their cases during a hearing at a nearby D.C. District Court. Lawyers defending English have asked for a speedy resolution to determine whether or not the Dodd-Frank Act, which says the deputy director would be the agency's new acting director, supersedes the Federal Vacancies Act, which allows the president to name an interim director to an agency in many cases.
The question over who will lead the CFPB, at least in the short term, arose weeks ago when Richard Cordray, the Bureau's inaugural director, announced that he would step down by the end of November. The situation escalated last Friday, when Cordray elevated English to the position of deputy director in hopes of thwarting Trump's naming of a successor. After Trump went ahead with naming Mulvaney, English filed a lawsuit, and things have been getting more and more confusing ever since.
Lawyers representing the Trump administration don't feel a ruling in the lawsuit is as urgent as English insists; in fact, they argue, the two-boss dilemma doesn't constitute an emergency at all. That stance makes sense given that Trump's pick is the one currently winning the battle for control of the CFPB.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 11:16 AM PST
Updated on November 28 at 2:00 p.m. ET.
Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, remarked on October 30 that 60 days without North Korean missile tests would signal to the United States that North Korea is ready to take diplomacy seriously. On Tuesday, North Korea broke a stretch of more than 70 days without testing a missile—the previous test came on September 15. In the interim, even Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he was open to talks. Pro-Trump hawks said the deliberately heightened tensions from the U.S. policy of "maximum pressure" was bearing fruit. Pro-engagement doves said Pyongyang's quiet was a sign of its flexibility, and urged the United States to reciprocate. Both perspectives were misguided. It's now clear the crisis wasn't averted.
North Korea's relative silence the past two months was a false positive; reading it as a signal from Pyongyang ignored both the logic of the situation and what North Korea has stated publicly.
North Korea has no interest in denuclearization, and especially not in the "comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible" formulation (known as "CVID" in wonk parlance) that the United States has long demanded. North Korea will return to diplomacy when it believes it has secured the ability to reliably strike U.S. territory with a nuclear-armed missile, but only if the topic of conversation is decidedly unrelated to denuclearization. North Korea declared the Six-Party Talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula "dead" in 2008, and has done so repeatedly since. Yet the United States persists in the myth that their resumption is possible.
Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, North Korea has embarked on an accelerated schedule of missile testing, the purpose of which is to improve the precision, range, and diversity of North Korea's missile forces. In tandem with its improving ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, a diverse and reliable missile arsenal gives North Korea the ability to credibly threaten a retaliatory nuclear strike should the United States or South Korea attempt to invade North Korea or assassinate Kim Jong Un. After Trump's incendiary speech at the United Nations in September, in which he threatened to "totally destroy North Korea" if attacked, Kim Jong Un responded with a statement that Trump's speech confirmed Kim's conviction that a survivable nuclear arsenal is worth any price: "the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last." We should expect nothing less; most of North Korea's history with the outside world has involved responding to pressure with pressure in kind.
This assessment of North Korea's strategic intentions matters because it implies North Korea will not modulate its pursuit of nuclear weapons in response to outside pressure, whether in the form of economic sanctions, military exercises, or hostile tweets. It therefore doesn't matter what Tillerson or Trump or Mattis says about hoping for diplomacy; as long as the United States keeps demanding what North Korea cannot and will not give, North Korea will not return to the negotiating table.
So why did North Korea pause testing missiles? There are three most likely answers, none of which has to do with diplomatic signaling. First, the fall is the harvest season in North Korea, and many parts of the North Korean military customarily perform mundane agricultural functions during this part of the year. Second, North Korea paused its missile tests according to a schedule of annual program assessment. For years North Korea has slowed missile testing in the prelude to an annual multi-month period of intense military training activity and joint maneuvers. During this calm before the storm, North Korea continues with missile program assessments of past tests; a pause in testing before the "winter training cycle" has never represented a pause in the missile program per se. Each explanation for the paucity of missile testing bears out in the historical pattern. A third, more discomfiting possibility, is that North Korea for a time believed it had achieved the progress it sought in its missile program and it didn't see an immediate need for further provocation. The state-run website Uriminzokkiri said in October that "The status of force between the DPRK and U.S. at present is fundamentally different from what was in the past Korean War in the 1950s." This may have been a reference to the nuclear balance, which has been a primary focus of its nuclear and missile programs. If North Korea achieves something approximating its desired level of success, North Korea might be ready to negotiate, but only on terms that the United States so far refuses to accept.
More important than what we didn't see from North Korea is what we continued to see—namely, North Korean confirmation that it doesn't want talks with the United States until it has rectified what it sees as an imbalance of power with the United States. From North Korea's perspective, who cares if Trump is finally ready to deal? Why should they trust the United States, especially after the administration's decision to undercut the Iran nuclear deal?
As recently as October 20, Choe Sun Hui, one of North Korea's leading diplomats and a familiar face in past nuclear negotiations with the United States, spoke at a nuclear nonproliferation conference in Moscow, repeating that the North does not seek talks with the United States as long as it's facing daily threats from Trump. She also remarked that North Korea sees its nuclear program as a matter of the country's survival, not something to be bargained away. This explains what Special Envoy Yun told reporters concerning the pause in missile and nuclear testing—"…we had no communication from them [North Koreans] so I don't know whether to interpret it positively or not. We have no signal from them." Even during the pause, North Korean media continued to threaten war against the United States and call for the death of Trump; hardly signs of a change in its position. And the day after it launched a ballistic missile over Japan in September, North Korean media stated that it seeks "to establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S. and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about a military option." North Korea, too, wants to negotiate from a position of strength.
None of this means that diplomacy is impossible or undesirable. A robust agenda aimed at crisis stability and forestalling further North Korean nuclear advancements is not only worthwhile, it's essential. But North Korea's pattern of missile testing isn't a harbinger of diplomacy, for good or ill; it's an ongoing statement of North Korea's strategic intentions. If the only American diplomacy on offer is talks leading toward CVID, then from where North Korea sits, there's nothing to talk about.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 11:09 AM PST
The festering feud at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau certainly wins points for baroque legal maneuverings: There are two people claiming to be the rightful director, a lawsuit in process, two different federal laws at odds, and at least two plausible readings of the statutes.
The dispute between Leandra English, the deputy director appointed at the last minute by outgoing Director Richard Cordray, and the Trump administration, the vagaries of which my colleague Gillian B. White explains, is not just about who will run the agency, or even merely about different philosophies of consumer protection. The fight over the CFPB is a proxy war between two political parties that each believe that the system is broken but have wildly different prescriptions for fixing it.
New agencies are not especially common, and the CFPB was one of the signature accomplishments of President Barack Obama, created through the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill. In both mission and structure, it reflected the Obama administration's faith in experts and its wariness about the current political landscape. The idea behind the CFPB was that consumers faced an uneven playing field. In a 2007 article that laid out the case for the agency, Elizabeth Warren—then a professor at Harvard Law School, and now a senator from Massachusetts—wrote, "Some portion of the credit crisis in America is the result of foolishness and profligacy. Some people are in trouble with credit because they simply use too much of it. Others are in trouble because they use credit in dangerous ways."
However, Warren added, "That is not the whole story. Lenders have deliberately built tricks and traps into some credit products so they can ensnare families in a cycle of high-cost debt." The agency that she proposed would serve as an equalizer, putting some heft on the side of consumers, who couldn't be expected to outsmart a system designed to thwart them. To do that, experts would stand in as proxies for consumers.
It wasn't just that the CFPB's framers doubted individuals' ability to parse financial offerings. Given that the institutions the CFPB would limit were politically powerful, its creators also doubted that CFPB could survive a political fight. Even if voters were sufficiently motivated and clued-in to fight an attempt to weaken the agency, the thinking went, it would be yet another unfair fight: They'd be rolled by moneyed donors who have captured Congress and the presidency. The only way to protect the agency, and by extension the consumers, was to insulate the CFPB from interference by keeping those two political actors as far from the agency as possible.
As a result, the Democrat-controlled Congress made it an independent agency, like the Federal Reserve Board or the Federal Election Commission. While its director is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, he or she serves a set term and (probably) can't be fired by the president. Additionally, the CFPB is funded not by Congress, which could decide to close its wallet and starve the agency, but by the Federal Reserve.
There are two predominant, separate objections to the CFPB among conservatives. One is that it serves an unnecessary purpose, that regulation is generally a bad thing, that the CFPB will stifle financial institutions, and that individuals ought to be left to make their own choices. Trump, for example, tweeted, "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has been a total disaster as run by the previous Administrations pick. Financial Institutions have been devastated and unable to properly serve the public." (As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump's concurrent boasts about the booming Dow appear to contradict his claim.)
The second is that regardless of the substance of what the agency does, the way it is set up—shielded from presidential and congressional oversight—is concerning to anyone who believes that the government in general, and unelected bureaucrats in particular, are prone to abusing their power and the people. "It is not inherently 'anti-CFPB' to be appalled by the way the body was established, any more than it is 'anti-children' to believe that any legislation aimed at helping minors must pass through both houses and be signed by the president," argues Charles C.W. Cooke.
As this week has proven, the 2010-era Democrats were correct to suspect that future elected officials would attempt to meddle with the CFPB if given the chance. At the start of his administration, Republicans tried to get Trump to fire Cordray, which might not have been legal, but in any case the president decided to wait for Cordray to leave. Once Cordray announced his departure, Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, to be the interim director of the CFPB in addition to his OMB duties.
The current legal fight will determine just how shielded CFPB is from presidential interference. Trump's argument is that the Federal Vacancies Act authorizes him to appoint an interim director; his opponents insist the CFPB's authorizing legislation creates an alternative process that supersedes the Vacancies Act.
Regardless of whether courts side with Trump, Mulvaney is a cynical choice to lead the agency on an interim basis. That's not just because Mulvaney previously told a House panel, "I don't like the fact that CFPB exists, I will be perfectly honest with you." It is also because in choosing a person who is not just an executive-branch appointee but in fact a direct report to the president, Trump is acting to take full presidential control over the CFPB, contravening Congress's intent in establishing it as an independent agency.
The move reveals a GOP that's just as pessimistic about the political process as the Democrats were in establishing the agency. No one disputes that Trump has the right to appoint a new director. He could nominate someone for Senate confirmation today, and given that Republicans control the chamber, it's likely he could find someone who could be confirmed. (Trump has, however, been extremely slow to nominate people for the many vacancies in the executive branch.) The administration could also ask Congress to rewrite the legislation authorizing the CFPB. In fact, it has done so, though that initiative has been on the backburner as the White House continues to seek its first major legislative win.
Why hasn't Trump simply used these mechanisms to take control of the CFPB, or to eliminate the agency? It's hard to say. Maybe the White House is behind on vetting replacements; Cordray's term didn't expire until next year, though he was widely expected to leave early to run for governor of Ohio. His choice of Mulvaney reflects a pattern in which Trump reshuffles people who are already appointees (like John Kelly). Maybe he's dubious about the Senate's ability to confirm an appointee, or maybe he doesn't think Congress can or will pass the changes he wants to the CFPB. But if that's true, then the president's decision to simply bypass the process conveys the same bleak view of standard political processes that characterizes the agency's establishment.
The fact that neither party sees the political process as effective in resolving these basic issues is worrying; the fact that they might both be right is worse still. That problem will linger long after the question of who's buying doughnuts for CFPB staffers is resolved.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 10:32 AM PST
The conservative provocateur James O'Keefe's latest stunt is possibly his biggest backfire: He attempted to sting The Washington Post with a fake Roy Moore accuser, but found himself stung, as the Post exposed the scheme in a detailed report on Monday night.
It's been eight years since O'Keefe's debut on the national scene. The videos in which he and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute to record ACORN employees appearing to advise them on how to break the law made the kind of impact mainstream news organizations dream of. They lead to ACORN shutting down, and made O'Keefe a key figure in the conservative media of the time. While others in the blogosphere or on cable news complained about the left, O'Keefe was out there doing something about it, infiltrating liberal institutions and exposing their corruption.
But it's been a long eight years. Despite a few big hits along the way, like a recording of an NPR executive making partisan remarks in 2011, O'Keefe's modus operandi has increasingly shown its flaws. The Washington Post incident is just his most recent own-goal. Last year, Project Veritas accidentally left a voicemail for a George Soros group it was trying to sting, laying out its whole plan; there was the 2010 blunder when O'Keefe plotted to embarrass CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau by mock-seducing her on a boat equipped with sex toys; and there was O'Keefe and his colleagues' arrest in New Orleans in 2010 during an attempted sting of Senator Mary Landrieu.
According to tax filings, O'Keefe is raising more money than ever; he drew a salary of over $300,000 last year. But Project Veritas feels like a relic from an earlier era in conservative media, like a Glenn Beck chalkboard or a Fox News segment on "Obamaphones."
Caleb Howe, a longtime conservative blogger and the editor-in-chief of the website RedState, has written optimistically in the past about the potential of "citizen journalism" practiced by conservative activists. But in recent years, he said, Project Veritas has largely failed to live up to its promise.
Like others who came of age in the conservative blogosphere, Howe said Andrew Breitbart played a key role in popularizing O'Keefe's videos and pushing them into the mainstream conversation. It was Breitbart who published O'Keefe's initial ACORN stings. Without his "judgment and experience" to guide the projects, Howe said, O'Keefe's sting operations have often had a hasty, incomplete quality to them—"like the rest of the science project after the nerd kid gets a cold and can't finish, and the partner has to turn it in."
"James has committed important acts of journalism," the conservative writer Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart News editor, said. "This wasn't one. It was misbegotten from the outset. Attempting to indirectly discredit alleged sexual-abuse victims by planting a fake story with a news outlet is bad stuff."
"His track record over the past several years has been increasingly embarrassing," Dan McLaughlin wrote in National Review on Tuesday. "Even if you set aside the factual integrity of his reports – and there are those on the Right who believe that 'war by the other side's rules' means not worrying about such things – and judge O'Keefe strictly on activist terms by the scalps he collects, he's been startlingly ineffective for several years now at actually damaging any of his targets."
O'Keefe's choice of targets over the years has displayed a less-than-keen understanding of what has news value and what doesn't.
"O'Keefe has terrible judgment at times, but his news judgment is even worse," said a former O'Keefe employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons. "His sense of what is legitimately of public interest really is as bad as it looks given some of the trash he publishes. It might help with fundraising from the diehard Bannon wing, but pieces like the Clinton Campaign T-Shirt story also badly water down his brand. Earlier high risk/no reward stunts like the attempted Landrieu and Abbie Boudreau debacle nearly finished him before NPR resurrected him. Even Andrew Breitbart was close to cutting ties."
And O'Keefe has not always carefully prepared for his stings, as evidenced by the Washington Post scheme. A simple Google search for Jaime Phillips, the woman who posed as a Roy Moore accuser, would have turned up the GoFundMe she had created to fund her move to New York to become a conservative media operative—a key piece of evidence that the Post used to figure out what was really going on.
"O'Keefe's nature is to fly by the seat of his pants," the former employee said. "It's astounding how little O'Keefe understands about how real journalists operate, even now. There's real bias and corruption, but it's not as though reporters don't have basic skills."
Part of why O'Keefe's latest effort stands apart from previous projects is that instead of exposing alleged liberal hypocrisy and corruption as part of a larger goal, the botched Washington Post sting was launched in the service of defending a candidate. And not just any candidate, but one who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers and who is deeply unsympathetic even to many allies of O'Keefe's.
The Washington Post reported that O'Keefe did not answer when asked if he had worked with anyone from the Moore campaign on the scheme, or with any Republican operatives including Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and Breitbart News chairman who is backing Moore.
Breitbart News, the launching pad for O'Keefe's career, has been relatively circumspect about his latest stunt; as of Monday night, the incident was on the front page but not leading the site, and the headline gave as much credit to the Post as to O'Keefe: "James O'Keefe and Washington Post Bust Each Other."
"No one at Breitbart News was involved in, or aware of, O'Keefe's investigation," editor-at-large Joel Pollak wrote.
A source close to Bannon who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Bannon and his circle had not known about or been involved in the plot. Asked if the Moore campaign had known or been involved, Moore adviser Dean Young said no.
In response to questions from The Atlantic, O'Keefe directed us to the hidden-camera videos Project Veritas had made of Washington Post employees. And on Tuesday evening, Project Veritas sent out an email to fundraise off of what was by then widely seen as a debacle: "The good news is...we already got our story."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 06:50 PM PST
"I wonder if we could teach a computer to spot serial killers in data," Thomas Hargrove thought as he parsed the FBI's annual homicide reports. The retired news reporter would soon answer his own question. He created an algorithm that, in his words, "can identify serial killings—and does."
In The Dewey Decimal System of Death, a new film from FreeThink, Hargrove explains how "the real world is following a rather simple mathematical formula, and it's that way with murder."
The numbers are startling. According to Hargrove, since 1980, there have been at least 220,000 unsolved murders in the United States. Of those murders, an estimated 2,000 are the work of serial killers. Many of these cases are not ultimately reported to the Justice Department by municipal police departments; Hargrove has assiduously obtained the data himself. His Murder Accountability Project is now the largest archive of murders in America, with 27,00 more cases than appear in FBI records.
Hargrove has put the database to work with an algorithm that solves an informatics problem called "linkage blindness." In the U.S. justice system, Hargrove explains, "the only way a murder is linked to a common offender is if the two investigators get together by the water cooler and talk about their cases and discover commonalities." Hargrove's algorithm is able to identify clusters of unsolved murders which are related by the method, location, and time of the murder, as well as the victim's gender.
Most recently, Hargrove utilized his software to discover and alert the police department in Gary, Indiana of 15 unsolved strangulations in the area. "It was absolute radio silence," he says in the film. "They would not talk about the possibility that there was a serial killer active." After Hargrove was rebuffed, seven more women were killed. He says it was "the most frustrating experience of my professional life."
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 12:28 PM PST
A legal struggle is unfolding over control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, sparked by Richard Cordray's resignation as director last week. Leandra English, the agency's deputy director (promoted by Cordray) says she's in charge, but President Trump says that his pick to run the agency, Mick Mulvaney, is the acting director. A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., will adjudicate these claims imminently, leaving Mulvaney or English as the agency's temporary head—at least until an appeals court weighs in.
On its surface, the struggle for control of the agency is a question of law—or more specifically, a question of which of two laws takes precedence over the other. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 says that the president "may direct" any Senate-confirmed official to head an agency in the event of a vacancy. (Mulvaney qualifies because the Senate voted 51–49 in February to confirm him as director of the Office of Management and Budget.) The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 says that the deputy director of the CFPB becomes "acting Director in the absence or unavailability of the Director." The question for the courts is whether the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which gives the president the power of temporary appointment, takes precedence over the Dodd-Frank Act, which seems to imply that the deputy director's ascension is automatic.
As I've written, there's a good argument that the Dodd-Frank Act yields to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. But while this statutory dispute is fascinating to law professors like me, whether the CFPB remains a robust champion of consumer interests does not depend on whether Mulvaney or English emerges victorious from this legal battle. Ultimately, the agency's 1,700-plus employees will do more than any judge to determine the bureau's fate.
Even if English prevails in court, her tenure as acting director wouldn't last very long. First, President Trump has the authority to fire her at his whim: The director of the CFPB enjoys what's called "for-cause" removal protection under the Dodd-Frank Act, which means that the president can remove her only "for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." But the Dodd-Frank Act does not give for-cause protection to the deputy director, and it does not extend the director's "for-cause" protection to a deputy serving in the director's stead.
Second, even if Trump does not fire English, she will only serve until a replacement is appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate. With a Republican-controlled Senate that has mostly rubber-stamped Trump's appointees so far, the confirmation process probably wouldn't take long. Maybe English could retain the acting-director post for a few more weeks, but it's a safe bet that she will be out by early 2018.
And in any event, it was always the case that President Trump was going to get to name a new CFPB director. The term of the agency's outgoing head, Cordray, would have expired in July 2018. Even if it weren't for Cordray's premature departure, the president would have had an opportunity in the near future to put a foe of the agency in its top spot.
But by the same token, Mulvaney's power over the agency as acting director would be seriously constrained even if he wins the court fight. As an initial matter, he remains the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which already is a full-time job. While he spent Monday morning at the CFPB headquarters distributing doughnuts to staff, he also has $4 trillion or so in government spending to oversee at his OMB job. And even if he had undivided time to devote to the CFPB, the head of any 1,700-person organization must rely on subordinates to get things done.
Those subordinates are overwhelmingly liberal—more than 99 percent of campaign contributions by CFPB employees since 2011 have gone to Democratic candidates or left-leaning political-action committees. And the very fact that they have chosen to work for the CFPB is a strong indication that they are committed to the agency's pro-consumer agenda. Moreover, the agency's employees are generally protected by the federal merit system, making it very difficult for the director to fire them. Endowed with job security and imbued with a sense of mission, these employees will likely continue to go about their business of enforcing the laws on the books.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened at the Environmental Protection Agency after President Reagan installed the archconservative Anne Gorsuch Burford at its helm in 1981. (Yes, that's Gorsuch as in Neil Gorsuch—the most junior justice on the Supreme Court is her son.) As the political scientist B. Dan Wood has documented, "following the Reagan inauguration, the EPA bureaucracy bucked the administration and used its slack resources to substantially increase surveillance of pollution." It took about eight months for the Reagan administration to rein in the EPA careerists and bring enforcement activity below the level of the Democratic Carter years. And after Burford was forced out of the EPA in early 1983, enforcement activity once again surged above the Carter administration's high watermark.
There are, to be sure, several ways in which a CFPB director who is hostile to consumer interests can impede the agency's efforts. First, the director has control over the agency's budget, so he can try to starve it of cash—and budget cuts at the CFPB could begin as soon as January. Second, the director could freeze hiring at the agency. Indeed, Mulvaney already has imposed a 30-day hiring stoppage, but even with budget cuts and a hiring freeze, existing employees would hold onto their jobs—and in light of federal merit-system protections, their salaries can't be slashed. Third, the director can prevent the agency from promulgating new rules. To this end, Mulvaney says that the agency won't issue any new rules for a month. But it's not so easy for the director to roll back existing regulations. That generally requires a process of notice and comment, which on average takes about 18 months. The process may last even longer if lower-level agency officials who oppose the new director's deregulatory agenda drag their feet.
So in the final analysis, it does indeed matter who is head of the CFPB: A director set on deregulation can slow the agency significantly. But it also matters who staffs the agency, because those employees can stymie the director's efforts to dismantle the bureau. The fight over the acting director title is thus only the first round in what's likely to be a longer struggle between the Trump administration and the CFPB's employees over the agency's direction. At the end of the day, President Trump will get to decide who directs the CFPB, but that director may soon discover that being in charge is not always the same as being in control.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 10:43 AM PST
Now, they're trying to shove him aside.
In a spat that began with—what else?—a presidential tweet, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are refusing to attend a meeting with Trump at the White House on Tuesday aimed at averting a government shutdown that could begin in 10 days. Their decision to pull out of the bipartisan summit came a little more than two hours after the president berated "Chuck and Nancy" over their opposition to his proposed tax cuts and immigration crackdown. "I don't see a deal," Trump predicted.
Given the president's statement, Schumer and Pelosi didn't see much point to a get-together they derided as "a show meeting" that won't produce an agreement. "We don't have any time to waste in addressing the issues that confront us, so we're going to continue to negotiate with Republican leaders who may be interested in reaching a bipartisan agreement," the two Democrats said in a statement. "If the president, who already said earlier this year that 'our country needs a good shutdown,' isn't interested in addressing the difficult year-end agenda, we'll work with those Republicans who are, as we did in April."
Schumer and Pelosi were hoping that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would join them in thumbing their nose at the president, but to no avail: McConnell quickly replied that he'd still be meeting with Trump on Tuesday.
On the surface, Schumer and Pelosi's move is a signal to restive Democrats that they won't be treated as punching bags by the president and that they'll hold firm on immigration, the issue that seems likeliest to determine whether the federal government will stay open beyond December 8, when funding expires. Democrats, along with a few Republicans, are demanding that any year-end spending bill includes legislation protecting immigrants who could be at risk for deportation following Trump's decision to end the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Trump has said he wants a DACA deal, too, but he's under intense pressure from conservatives angry at him for bending on the issue in a meeting with Schumer and Pelosi back in September. The president has since backed off the contours of an agreement that would trade enactment of the Dream Act for additional border-security measures; the White House earlier in the fall sent a list of demands that went far beyond what Democrats would be willing to accept, including Trump's prized border wall and a reduction in legal immigration. There are other issues lawmakers hope to address in a year-end deal as well: Congress still needs to reauthorize the lapsed Children's Health Insurance Program and decide whether to enact a bipartisan bill to shore up the Affordable Care Act's insurance markets.
The odds of a shutdown have certainly increased in the last several weeks. After all, Trump did say back in the spring that the country "needs a good shutdown." And although he did strike a spending deal with "Chuck and Nancy" in September, that brief kumbaya moment probably raised the likelihood of a subsequent confrontation. Trump is undoubtedly sensitive to the perception that he was rolled by the Democrats, and he has only grown more angry at their refusal to bow to his demands on health care and tax cuts.
Yet Schumer and Pelosi's pitch to leave Trump out of this round of spending talks must be tempting for Ryan and McConnell. The four leaders largely ignored the White House in striking their own agreement in April, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have frequently chafed at Trump's habit of using his Twitter feed to muddy delicate negotiations. But Ryan and McConnell don't have much of a choice: They've hitched their sails to Trump, and they know that not only is the president's signature constitutionally necessary (short of a veto override) for a bill to become law, but his support for an agreement drives more Republican votes in Congress than their own.
So on Tuesday, the GOP leaders dutifully sided with the president. "We have important work to do, and Democratic leaders have continually found new excuses not to meet with the administration to discuss these issues," Ryan and McConnell said in a joint statement. "Democrats are putting government operations, particularly resources for our men and women on the battlefield, at great risk by pulling these antics. There is a meeting at the White House this afternoon, and if Democrats want to reach an agreement, they will be there."
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, echoed that message in her own statement. "The president's invitation to the Democrat leaders still stands and he encourages them to put aside their pettiness, stop the political grandstanding, show up, and get to work. These issues are too important," she said. "If the Democrats believe the American people deserve action on these critical year-end issues as we do, they should attend."
Democrats still have leverage over Trump in a number of respects. As the party in power, and one that's associated with antagonism toward government, Republicans have more to lose politically from a shutdown. Their standing in the polls is low as it is, and a fight over spending could delay their top priority of passing a tax bill. Both the president and many GOP leaders have already shown their hand on the question of DACA, giving Democrats another edge in the talks. And most importantly, any spending bill needs 60 votes to defeat a filibuster in the Senate, so Republicans can't keep the government open alone. But while Schumer and Pelosi may find Trump more of a nuisance than a good-faith negotiator, he's shown himself to be a president who's not so easy to ignore.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 07:59 AM PST
Many people visit the fossil hall at Chicago's Field Museum for the dinosaurs; but a certain kind of art lover goes for the murals. Originally painted by the famed wildlife artist Charles R. Knight in the late 1920s, each of the hall's 28 murals presents an elegantly composed moment in time: armored squid tossed onto a desolate Ordovician beach, a duel between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, saber-toothed cats snarling at flocks of giant vulture-like Teratornis. There's a dreamy quality to the images, impressionistic landscapes blending with vibrant animal figures. It doesn't quite matter that the renderings are now scientifically out of date; they're convincingly alive.
Such works of paleoart—a genre that uses fossil evidence to reconstruct vanished worlds—directly shape the way humans imagine the distant past. It's an easy form to define but a tricky one to work in. Paleontological accuracy is a moving target, with the posture and life appearance of fossil species constantly reshuffled by new discoveries and scientific arguments. Old ideas can linger long after researchers have moved on, while some artists' wild speculations are proved correct decades after the fact. Depictions of extinct animals exist in the gap between the knowable and the unknowable, and two recent books, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past and Dinosaur Art II: The Cutting Edge of Paleoart, probe the different ways creators have tried to bridge that divide.
As The Atlantic's Ross Andersen wrote in a piece about paleoart in 2015, "To contemplate a dinosaur is to slip from the present, to travel in time, deep into the past, to see the Earth as it was tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years ago." Paleoart, published by Taschen this fall, is primarily focused on how this past appeared to artists starting in the 19th century, when the genre first took root. A lavishly reproduced gallery of 160 years of prehistory-themed art, the book includes a series of short contextual essays from its author, the journalist Zoë Lescaze. Many of the animals presented in Paleoart may look odd to the modern eye: bloated, skeletal, or dragging their tails in the scientific fashion of the time. Lescaze doesn't spend much time reflecting on the changing paleontological ideas that informed the drawings and paintings, though. "I came at the artwork through a more cultural lens," Lescaze told me. "How they might reflect the political events of that period, or events in that artist's own personal biography, and other techniques that any art historian would bring to a work of fine art."
The oldest entries in the genre, in particular, illuminate how paleoart can reflect both political and aesthetic movements, Lescaze said. The first formal reconstructions of extinct animals appeared in the 1800s, around the time the first Mesozoic fossils came under scientific study. Europe was in tumult, with empires wrangling over colonial territory, and discoveries around biodiversity, extinction, and evolution were coming at a blinding pace. As such, reconstructions often took on an allegorical cast. The French artist Édouard Riou depicted marine reptiles such as Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurus squaring off like warships on the high seas, perhaps reacting to the naval battles of the Napoleonic wars, according to Lescaze. In the apocalyptic watercolors of John Martin, nightmarish beasts writhed and flailed in the antediluvian ooze. The artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins thrilled Victorian Britain with paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs presiding as regal monarchs over tropical kingdoms full of lesser reptiles.
But paleoart didn't really come into its own until the arrival of Knight. An American painter who began his career in the late 19th century and reached his peak in the early 20th, Knight worked closely with scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn and Barnum Brown to portray his subjects as accurately as possible, given the assumptions at the time. (In keeping with Osborn's ideas, Knight gave his dinosaurs reedy, lizardy limbs, rather than the beefy, bird-like legs the fossils actually suggested.) Nearly blind by the time he was in his 30s, Knight opted for a naturalistic style full of heft and movement, with complementary colors, soft palettes, and expansive scenery. By Knight's death in 1953, Lescaze said, his creations had directly influenced films like King Kong and Fantasia, writers such as Ray Bradbury, and a plethora of young paleontologists and artists.
During Knight's life—and for some time afterward—paleoart remained a fairly loose field. Painters came from an assortment of backgrounds; some were trained illustrators, and others were enthusiastic amateurs. While they adhered to the larger paleontological views of the time, not everyone was necessarily concerned with anatomical rigor. In the 1930s and '40s, European artists like Mathurin Méheut sought romance in prehistory with Art Nouveau designs and evocative watercolors, setting his bat-winged pterodactyls and drooping long-necked dinosaurs among asymmetrical arabesques. The Soviet paleontologist Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov (a great fan of Knight's, Lescaze said) escaped the enforced artistic realism of the USSR by depicting the ancient world as a series of off-kilter fairy tales filled with dragon-like dinosaurs.
Toward the end of the 20th century, however, overt metaphor and experimentation were largely replaced by rehashes of Knight's style, and artists drifted further away from the genre's scientific underpinnings. The majority of those illustrating extinct animals were commercial artists without much knowledge of paleontology. A lack of accurate references encouraged large amounts of plagiarism; any one artist's whim—a pose, a speculative anatomical detail—often became the de rigueur way of picturing an animal for decades afterward. (Knight's dinosaurs, for example, have had a long and productive career in books, in movies, and on lunch boxes since his death.) There were exceptions, Lescaze said, such as the moody forests and skeletal dinosaurs that Ely Kish began painting in the 1970s. Paleoart ends its survey with her work. In doing so, it misses out on one of the most transformative periods in the genre's history.
* * *
A major reassessment of dinosaurs that began in the 1960s, and finally took hold in the 1980s, positioned them not as dull evolutionary failures but as active, warm-blooded animals. Researcher-illustrators like Gregory Paul and painters like Mark Hallett began developing a rigorous anatomical style in accordance with new findings, slimming their animals down to lean creations of muscle and bone. In 1993, Jurassic Park tapped into this momentum, setting a new baseline for what dinosaurs should look like and sparking a popular craze that never quite faded.
The internet had a fundamental effect on paleoart, too. It became easier to find technical information on prehistoric animals' anatomy, or the latest theories about their behavior. Image-hosting sites like DeviantArt, curated websites like The Dinosauricon, and dedicated blogs served as hubs for a growing paleoart community. Email listservs and the rise of social media meant researchers, professional artists, and amateurs could collaborate with each other on a wider scale. The field, in the 2010s, has become more accessible, accurate, and forward-looking than ever before—as well as more stylistically constrained.
Dinosaur Art II: The Cutting Edge of Paleoart is a dispatch from this internet age of paleontology, and is in some ways a revealing companion to Taschen's Paleoart. Published in October by Titan Books, it compiles in-depth interviews and curated work from modern paleoartists across the globe, as collected by Steve White, a U.K. comics artist. (The book is a sequel to 2012's Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart.) Some of the featured illustrators, like Brazil's Julio Lacerda, create digital images that look like photographic collages, while the artist Andrey Atuchin works in a clean, detailed style akin to that of classic National Geographic drawings. All the animals in Dinosaur Art II conform closely to modern scientific convention; most of the profiled artists work in the hyper-realistic mode that has come to define the genre. Compared to the breadth of approaches contained within Lescaze's book, the results can look a little standardized and tame.
Today, the field is seeing a growing tension between a more cautious approach to paleoart and an urge for experimentation. In an attempt to make paleoart more academically credible, artists of the last few decades have often emphasized skeletal fidelity over all else. This proved to be a bit of an overcorrection: Compare a cat skull and a living cat, and it's easy to see that skeletons aren't always a good reflection of an animal's flesh-and-blood appearance. Dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles illustrated in the modern era have a tendency to look like skin shrink-wrapped over bone. A certain amount of cultural inertia and cliché also lingers, even in more carefully reconstructed art. Predatory dinosaurs in particular are still often depicted in relentless battle, mouths open in frozen roars.
In the 2010s, paleontologists and artists have been pushing for more radically imaginative approaches to soft-tissue anatomy and behavior, and less reliance on standard tropes. The "All Yesterdays" campaign—named after a provocative paleoart book published in 2012—challenged artists to think more broadly about prehistoric animals as living creatures, with sleep habits, social interactions, and foraging behaviors. All Yesterdays–style dinosaurs might have humps, or extravagant inflatable sacs, or unsuspected feathers. "There's a nihilistic aspect to [the movement]," Mark Witton, a British paleontologist and one of the artists in Dinosaur Art II, told me. "We don't really know what's right or wrong about our [soft-tissue] reconstructions, so we might as well be as bold with them as our science will allow. … It's more just about being honest, and exploring many possible truths rather than one tried-and-tested take on a subject species."
Only traces of this new approach appear in Dinosaur Art II. Artists like Brian Engh, David Orr, and Rebecca Groom are exploring a wider range of styles, including conscious homage, fine art, and Pixar-inflected designs. As long as the art is grounded by a scientific understanding of the animal in question, Witton said, there's still a lot of room for inventiveness. "Certain styles distort reality by necessity, so if we simplify the form of our subjects into basic geometries … or apply surreal color palettes, are we still making paleoart?" Witton asked. "We're still scratching the surface of paleoart's potential diversity."
* * *
While paleoart is a form of scientific art, its value doesn't always lie in its level of accuracy. According to Lescaze, while researching Paleoart, she met a Smithsonian paleontologist who showed her an original Knight dinosaur painting he had in his office. He'd fished it out of a dumpster after a new director disposed of outdated art to make space in the collections. "They're complex artifacts, and vulnerable in a way that other works of natural history illustration aren't," Lescaze said of vintage pieces of paleoart. "Nobody's going to throw out the John James Audubon, but works of paleoart that are rendered obsolete regularly get discarded. … It's really important to look back at some of these and say, yeah, they're not scientifically accurate anymore, but who cares? What else can they teach us?"
Whatever the influences or techniques, paleoart is fundamentally an attempt to glimpse something that can never be fully seen. Anybody who tries to reconstruct prehistory fills in the gaps with their own preoccupations, turning real animals into symbols of obsolescence, savagery, or martial power. Many modern artists are trying to strip these projections out of their art, but changing cultural ideas and paleontological consensus can make doing so difficult. "Evolution is a brush, not a ladder," the artist Emily Willoughby notes in Dinosaur Art II: not a direct route going anywhere, but, rather, a messy bundle of approaches. It's only fitting that the art depicting its sweep should be similarly difficult to pin down.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 07:40 AM PST
If James O'Keefe respected the right-wing populists who make up the audience of Project Veritas, a nonprofit he founded to produce undercover videos skewering the left, he would tell them the truth about all of the organizations that he targets.
Instead, Project Veritas operates in bad faith, an attribute it demonstrated again this week in the aftermath of its bungled attempt to trick The Washington Post.
A woman named Jaime T. Phillips approached the newspaper claiming that Republican Roy Moore impregnated her when she was 15, then drove her across state lines from Alabama to Mississippi in order to terminate the pregnancy. She told a Washington Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, that recounting the bygone ordeal made her so upset that she was unable to finish her salad.
The newspaper began to investigate the story.
And they quickly discovered suspicious information that caused them to doubt their source's veracity, including a GoFundMe page posted some months ago that said, "I'm moving to New York! I've accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt of the liberal MSM."
Then, on Monday morning, Washington Post journalists saw their source "walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups," the paper reported.
It's possible to reverse-engineer a plausible account of what happened.
Project Veritas was operating on the premise that The Washington Post wouldn't exercise due diligence in vetting a young woman accusing a Republican Senate candidate of sexual misconduct—that the paper would report the bogus story in the newspaper, enabling Project Veritas to expose them for spreading a false allegation.
The premise that the newspaper spreads "fake news" is widely held on the populist right. But the premise proved incorrect. Washington Post reporters did not reflexively or opportunistically believe a woman falsely accusing a prominent Republican. They assigned multiple staffers to help vet the story's credibility. And they were skillful enough at doing so that they discovered their source's lies.
If Project Veritas was operating in good faith—if it was really trying "to achieve a more moral and ethical society," as it claims on its website—it would have acknowledged that its initial beliefs about The Washington Post were incorrect, and that the newspaper diligently pursued the truth when put to an undercover test.
Instead, even though the newspaper did the right thing, Project Veritas still cast it as an enemy. Even as the Post was exposing what happened in its pages, James O'Keefe was sending out an email trying to fundraise off of the operation:
A bit later on the email concluded:
O'Keefe's team seems less interested in what's true than in making the media look bad. If it gathers footage that makes the media look good, apparently, it simply doesn't release it. In effect, Veritas offers the sort of biased, partial, and politically motivated work they accuse mainstream journalists of producing.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the bad faith that prevails today on the populist right than the actions of O'Keefe as he solicits donations for Project Veritas. And this is not the first time O'Keefe has failed to disclose to his audience that the uncharitable premise of one of his stings was disproved by a target who behaved well, only to be portrayed by O'Keefe as a villain anyway.
O'Keefe still parts credulous supporters from their money in part because the rest of the right-wing media is reluctant to expose his particular con.
It is too close to the con they run.
That's how hucksters like O'Keefe can fail repeatedly for years and still get rich. According to Lachlan Markay of The Daily Beast, O'Keefe took an eye-popping salary of $317,691 in 2016 for his nonprofit work. Meanwhile, the sorts of mainstream media organizations that O'Keefe tries to undermine are consistently breaking stories about actual abuses of power, including abuses on the left. As O'Keefe was stinging The New York Times, for example, its journalists were taking down Harvey Weinstein, using skills O'Keefe appears not to possess. The best way for Project Veritas to fulfill its stated mission of achieving "a more moral and ethical society" is to shut down and donate its assets to a nonprofit like ProPublica that exposes bad behavior without perpetrating any of its own.
Posted: 28 Nov 2017 11:09 AM PST
First, there was Thanksgiving. Then, a few decades ago, Black Friday came along. Next came Cyber Monday, which debuted in the '00s. Then, a few years ago, came a day decidedly not about consumption: Giving Tuesday, a "global day of giving" that is celebrated (mostly on social media) the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Allison Janney celebrates it. So do Bill Gates, Jill Biden, and a host of other other public figures.
Last year, charities big and small raised $180 million on Giving Tuesday, according to the 92nd Street Y, the organization behind the day. That's a significant increase from 2015's $116 million. This year, as per projections from the nonprofit consultancy Whole Whale, that number will likely grow to more than $200 million. Charities and nonprofits in more than 100 countries will take part in the effort, and organizations that have used the day as an occasion to launch an end-of-year campaign have seen significant increases in donations on the season.
That's not bad for a holiday that's only been around since 2012. Giving Tuesday was initially conceived by Henry Timms, now the chief executive director of New York's 92nd Street Y, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. It was intended to counter the shopping frenzy that's increasingly come to pass for the holiday spirit. "It originally followed Black Friday and Cyber Monday here in the United States, as a day to think about giving back after two days of consuming," explains Asha Curran, the chief innovation officer and director of the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y.
Giving Tuesday also takes advantage of a reality in the world of charitable giving: Just under 25 percent of all donations received annually will be given in the roughly five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Years, according to the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University. For a not-unsubstantial 16 percent of organizations, giving in the final months of the year will account for half of contributions received.
There is another insight that drives the still nascent day as well: According to Curran, the most common reason people donate money to a charity is because a friend solicited them to do so. Giving Tuesday takes that idea and updates it for the age of social media: Organizations solicit bids with the hashtag #GivingTuesday and, in turn, those who donated are urged to share too. "People are taking peer-to-peer fundraising online and they are doing it in the form of saying, 'I made this donation,'" Curran observed. "That's a really powerful force for raising more money or attention or awareness for a cause."
Giving Tuesday, in other words, takes the oft-derided concept of virtue signaling and puts it to good use. Of course, the Giving Tuesday campaign is hardly alone on this—a study published in Nature magazine in 2012 demonstrated that Facebook's election-day "I Voted" feature increased voter turnout.
Nonetheless, Giving Tuesday's importance shouldn't be overstated. This year's estimated $200 million charitable haul may sound significant, but it is tiny compared with the estimated $5 billion consumers spent on Black Friday, never mind the entire holiday season. And Giving Tuesday is not on its own significantly boosting overall charitable giving in the United States, which remains just a tick over two percent of the gross domestic product. It also can't disguise the fact that many people are giving less to charity than in the past. When the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, studied the issue, it discovered that while those with six-figure incomes and higher upped their charitable donations over the past decade, households with less money coming in cut their giving by about a third, something the researchers mainly attributed to "economic inequality and insecurity."
However, in the longer run, it's possible Giving Tuesday could help counter (but probably won't reverse) these trends and raise overall giving. The majority of the day's donations are made by "small-dollar" donors, as they are known in the philanthropic sector. According to the day's backers, the mean donation made on Giving Tuesday in 2016 was for $107.69. "We are placing a particular investment in what we might call everyday givers," Curran says.
And there is lots of room for growth. According to a Harris survey conducted shortly prior to 2016's Giving Tuesday, three-quarters of Americans still don't have a clue the day exists. But another poll, this one conducted by Ipsos shortly after last year's Giving Tuesday event, found that 62 percent of those aware of the day say it inspired more giving.
That makes sense. Giving Tuesday offers people a way to feel a little less guilty about the stuff they've already bought and the stuff they plan to buy before year's end. If charities can benefit from that, it's most certainly a day worth celebrating.
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