- The Lines That Divide America
- The Two Clashing Meanings of 'Free Speech'
- Firing Rex Tillerson Won't Change What He Did
- Senate Republicans Pass Their Tax Cuts
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: ‘Speak What I Cannot Declare’
- Foreign Policy by Symbolic Half-Measures
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Flynndictment
- ‘Lock Him Up’
- Flynn's Plea Raises New Questions About Whether Trump Obstructed Justice
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- The 7 Myths of the GOP Tax Bill
- The Worst Secretary of State in Living Memory
- U2's Political, Unstoppable, Grating Cheerfulness
- Democrats Warn Against White House Interference in Russia Inquiry
- Photos of the Week: 11/25–12/1
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- The Painful History of a Confederate Monument Tells Itself
- How the Index Card Cataloged the World
- What to Do When a Patient Has a 'Do Not Resuscitate' Tattoo
- Pressure North Korea, Antagonize China
- Should Women Be Paid for Donating Their Breast Milk?
- <em>The Disaster Artist</em> Is a Hilarious Tribute to a Singular Work of Art
- The Great Recession Is Still With Us
- Obamacare Is on the Ropes—Again
- A Week Around the World With <i>The Atlantic</i>
Posted: 02 Dec 2017 03:00 AM PST
Think of waiting in a long, slow-moving line, like the security lines at an airport. What's your emotional reaction when you see someone cutting ahead of you, or shifting into a faster-moving line that you are not allowed to join? What if you are pulled aside for extra questioning, for no apparent reason?
Lines can bring fairness and order to what might otherwise be a free-for-all. There's even a science, called queuing theory, that examines the optimal ways to make lines move equitably and efficiently. But they don't always work that way; sometimes, they can operate to institutionalize unfairness and inequality. That's why Arlie Russell Hochschild uses lines as a metaphor for the challenges facing contemporary American society in her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
Hochschild argues that, for many years, America's economic and social class structure resembled an orderly queue. The promise was that if you worked hard and honorably, you would make progress toward the American Dream. This meant a settled life, grounded in a job that paid wages sufficient to own a nice home, raise a family, spend time with friends and family, find community in neighborhood and church, and live a life of dignity. For decades, America's economy allowed people with a high school education and few specialized skills to take their place in a line that provided a steady pace of upward mobility.
This dynamic has changed, in Hochschild's account. Access to the line that delivers the American Dream in exchange for hard work is now both limited and unevenly granted. Worse yet, white working-class citizens perceive others—mainly minorities and immigrants—to be unfairly cutting ahead of them in line. And members of the white working class believe the government, rather than enforcing the fair process they had come to expect, is increasingly aiding and abetting these line-cutters. Their strident opposition to welfare programs—which, in their view, support those who don't work—and policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which, to them, encourage illegal immigration—are akin to the loud protests we hear when people cut ahead of us in a line.
Adding further insult to injury, when they protest about these line-cutters, they are subjected to moral scolding—called bigots, racists, and rednecks. Having lost confidence that the government will help them, they place faith in their church, friends, and family, which makes them appear even more parochial and rigid. "It has to be said: The line-cutters irritate you," Hochschild writes. "They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it's right that you do. So do your friends."
As I read Hochschild's analysis, my thoughts turned to a different sort of resentment the white working class is feeling. Even as it stews over people cutting into its ever slower-moving line, it also envies another faster-moving queue: the special one reserved for people with means—the ones who travel business or first class. The affluent people in this line believe they have earned their preferred status through a meritocratic process that has assessed and rewarded their ambition and enterprise. This group becomes accustomed to its special privileges and comes to expect them everywhere, from legacy admissions to college for their children to special seating at sports events to VIP treatment at theme parks. It begins to believe that there should be a special line for innovators and pioneers who have sacrificed time with friends and family to achieve their personal best—those who want to reach for the top, to be number one. Yet even preferred status is not enough; those on any fast track can always see a still-faster track. If the first-class line is short, flying on a private aircraft from a terminal with no security lines is even faster.
People on the fast tracks don't always empathize with the complaints of those in the working-class line. They see this group as resistant to change and unwilling to adapt to the requirements of the new economy, which demands higher education, technical skills, and geographic mobility. They see them as clinging to outdated traditions and becoming more and more out of touch with changing realities. Recall the uproar over candidate Obama's 2008 remark about how economically-disadvantaged, small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion." The folks in the working-class line, meanwhile, believe those in the privileged lines have rigged the system in their favor. While they lose jobs and their place in line, the privileged get bailouts and golden parachutes, protected even from their own failures.
Ironically, those in the working-class line feel most resentful towards those who have no place in line at all. These are the immigrants who get into the country, sometimes through abusive middlemen, and are then preyed upon by employers who barely pay them minimum wages and rarely give them benefits. These people are afraid to even get in line for fear they may be deported. They wait for the government to provide them amnesty, and with it a legitimate opportunity to stand in line.
Beyond immigrants, there are other groups whose principal hope is to simply get into the working-class line. These include minority groups that live in impoverished neighborhoods, send their children to schools known as failure factories, rely on food stamps, and too often end up in police line-ups. They feel they have no chance without external help—from the government or local nonprofits. People from these groups who can find their way into the working-class line are resented as line-cutters who found their place through affirmative action or some other government policy. And for each who succeeds, there are 10 others who don't.
Class lines are nothing new, of course, but in many parts of American life, they have become far more distinct and visible in recent years. Not long ago, even though people grew up on different sides of the tracks and in different parts of town, they met at the grocery store, the bank, and the post office. This gave them an opportunity to develop at least a modicum of mutual understanding. Now there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people in different lines to ever encounter each other in person. They go to different schools, shop at different stores, and rarely interact. Yet they are hyper-aware of each other due in part to the ubiquity of social media and television. You can gawk at the lives of the privileged on Instagram, tap into the resentment of the white working class on Brietbart, and see the plight of the disenfranchised on Vice. This ready visibility has unleashed a range of emotions, including resentment, entitlement, envy, and despair—and it's tearing America apart.
These emotions have a pernicious and corrosive effect on American ideals. What makes America's culture special is that it celebrates positive emotions—ambition, hope, doggedness—that have been sustained by a shared belief in the promise of social mobility, the opportunities people have for moving ahead in line or from one line to another. Over the last few years, research has pointed to the reduction of social mobility in America; increasingly, the line into which you are born seems to determine your life prospects. The key to reducing the divisiveness in America lies in restoring shared confidence that everyone who is willing to work toward upward mobility can still credibly aspire to it.
To restore that confidence, Americans need to understand and empathize with those who are in lines different from their own. For me, that responsibility starts close to home. Many regard Harvard Business School, where I serve as dean, as offering its students an all-but-guaranteed path into the lines for the privileged. That places a particular burden on us to ensure our students understand their responsibility to create value before they claim value, and their need to foster economic opportunities and a better life not just for themselves, but for others.
We also try to make it easier to gain access to the line. Last year, for example, we matriculated almost a hundred students who were first in their family to go to college, and we actively recruit students from a range of employers, including social enterprises and the military. Once they're here, we expose students to cases that describe the challenges of the working class and the impoverished. Through intensive, small-group, field immersion courses, our students pursue projects whose primary aim is to help them develop genuine empathy for and an understanding of those whose lives are different than their own. In our narcissistic age, this virtue doesn't always come naturally, but we use various means to encourage them to understand that true leaders are not those who claim that title for themselves, but who are looked to for leadership by others.
These efforts are imperfect, but Hochschild's book makes clear how necessary they are—and how much more we all have to do to better understand those who may not be in the same line as us. Americans must search for ways to restore a sense of fairness, reduce the time we spend gawking at those more fortunate than us or resenting those who are less fortunate—and prevent the divisions between these lines from hardening any further.
Posted: 02 Dec 2017 03:00 AM PST
Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech. Yet ongoing controversies at American universities suggest that free speech is becoming a partisan issue. While conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down. Free speech for some, they argue, serves only to silence and exclude others. Denying hateful or historically "privileged" voices a platform is thus necessary to make equality effective, so that the marginalized and vulnerable can finally speak up—and be heard.
The reason that appeals to the First Amendment cannot decide these campus controversies is because there is a more fundamental conflict between two, very different concepts of free speech at stake. The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria, on the one hand, and parrhesia, on the other, is as old as democracy itself. Today, both terms are often translated as "freedom of speech," but their meanings were and are importantly distinct. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.
When it comes to private universities, businesses, or social media, the would-be censors are our fellow-citizens, not the state. Private entities like Facebook or Twitter, not to mention Yale or Middlebury, have broad rights to regulate and exclude the speech of their members. Likewise, online mobs are made up of outraged individuals exercising their own right to speak freely. To invoke the First Amendment in such cases is not a knock-down argument, it's a non sequitur.
John Stuart Mill argued that the chief threat to free speech in democracies was not the state, but the "social tyranny" of one's fellow citizens. And yet today, the civil libertarians who style themselves as Mill's inheritors have for the most part failed to refute, or even address, the arguments about free speech and equality that their opponents are making.
The two ancient concepts of free speech came to shape our modern liberal democratic notions in fascinating and forgotten ways. But more importantly, understanding that there is not one, but two concepts of freedom of speech, and that these are often in tension if not outright conflict, helps explain the frustrating shape of contemporary debates, both in the U.S. and in Europe—and why it so often feels as though we are talking past each other when it comes to the things that matter most.
Of the two ancient concepts of free speech, isegoria is the older. The term dates back to the fifth century BCE, although historians disagree as to when the democratic practice of permitting any citizen who wanted to address the assembly actually began. Despite the common translation "freedom of speech," the Greek literally means something more like "equal speech in public." The verb agoreuein, from which it derives, shares a root with the word agora or marketplace—that is, a public place where people, including philosophers like Socrates, would gather together and talk.
In the democracy of Athens, this idea of addressing an informal gathering in the agora carried over into the more formal setting of the ekklesia or political assembly. The herald would ask, "Who will address the assemblymen?" and then the volunteer would ascend the bema, or speaker's platform. In theory, isegoria meant that any Athenian citizen in good standing had the right to participate in debate and try to persuade his fellow citizens. In practice, the number of participants was fairly small, limited to the practiced rhetoricians and elder statesmen seated near the front. (Disqualifying offenses included prostitution and taking bribes.)
Although Athens was not the only democracy in the ancient world, from the beginning the Athenian principle of isegoria was seen as something special. The historian Herodotus even described the form of government at Athens not as demokratia, but as isegoria itself. According to the fourth-century orator and patriot Demosthenes, the Athenian constitution was based on speeches (politeia en logos) and its citizens had chosen isegoria as a way of life. But for its critics, this was a bug, as well as a feature. One critic, the so-called 'Old Oligarch,' complained that even slaves and foreigners enjoyed isegoria at Athens, hence one could not beat them as one might elsewhere.
Critics like the Old Oligarch may have been exaggerating for comic effect, but they also had a point: as its etymology suggests, isegoria was fundamentally about equality, not freedom. As such, it would become the hallmark of Athenian democracy, which distinguished itself from the other Greek city-states not because it excluded slaves and women from citizenship (as did every society in the history of humankind until quite recently), but rather because it included the poor. Athens even took positive steps to render this equality of public speech effective by introducing pay for the poorest citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as jurors in the courts.
As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia, was more expansive. Here again, the common English translation "freedom of speech" can be deceptive. The Greek means something like "all saying" and comes closer to the idea of speaking freely or "frankly." Parrhesia thus implied openness, honesty, and the courage to tell the truth, even when it meant causing offense. The practitioner of parrhesia (or parrhesiastes) was, quite literally, a "say-it-all."
Parrhesia could have a political aspect. Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings. In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. But the paradigmatic parrhesiastes in the ancient world were the Philosophers, self-styled "lovers of wisdom" like Socrates himself who would confront their fellow citizens in the agora and tell them whatever hard truths they least liked to hear. Among these was Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light—all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.
The danger intrinsic in parrhesia's offensiveness to the powers-that-be—be they monarchs like Alexander or the democratic majority—fascinated Michel Foucault, who made it the subject of a series of lectures at Berkeley (home of the original campus Free Speech Movement) in the 1980s. Foucault noticed that the practice of parrhesia necessarily entailed an asymmetry of power, hence a "contract" between the audience (whether one or many), who pledged to tolerate any offense, and the speaker, who agreed to tell them the truth and risk the consequences.
If isegoria was fundamentally about equality, then, parrhesia was about liberty in the sense of license—not a right, but rather an unstable privilege enjoyed at the pleasure of the powerful. In Athenian democracy, that usually meant the majority of one's fellow citizens, who were known to shout down or even drag speakers they disliked (including Plato's brother, Glaucon) off the bema. This ancient version of "no-platforming" speakers who offended popular sensibilities could have deadly consequences—as the trial and death of Socrates, Plato's friend and teacher, attests.
Noting the lack of success that Plato's loved ones enjoyed with both isegoria and parrhesia during his lifetime may help explain why the father of Western philosophy didn't set great store by either concept in his works. Plato no doubt would have noticed that, despite their differences, neither concept relied upon the most famous and distinctively Greek understanding of speech as logos—that is, reason or logical argument. Plato's student, Aristotle, would identify logos as the capacity that made human beings essentially political animals in the first place. And yet neither isegoria nor parrhesia identified the reasoned speech and arguments of logos as uniquely deserving of equal liberty or license. Which seems to have been Plato's point—how was it that a democratic city that prided itself on free speech, in all of its forms, put to death the one Athenian ruled by logos for speaking it?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, parrhesia survived the demise of Athenian democracy more easily than isegoria. As Greek democratic institutions were crushed by the Macedonian empire, then the Roman, parrhesia persisted as a rhetorical trope. A thousand years after the fall of Rome, Renaissance humanists would revive parrhesia as the distinctive virtue of the counselor speaking to a powerful prince in need of frank advice. While often couched in apologetics, this parrhesia retained its capacity to shock. The hard truths presented by Machiavelli and Hobbes to their would-be sovereigns would inspire generations of "libertine" thinkers to come.
Still, there was another adaptation of the parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power available to early modern Europeans. The early Christians took a page from Diogenes's book in spreading the "good news" of the Gospel throughout the Greco-Roman world—news that may not have sounded all that great to the Roman authorities. Many of the Christians who styled themselves as "Protestants" after the Reformation thought that a return to an authentically parrhesiastic and deliberately offensive form of evangelism was necessary to restore the Church to the purity of "primitive" Christianity. The early Quakers, for example, were known to interrupt Anglican services by shouting down the minister and to go naked in public "for a sign."
Isegoria, too, had its early modern inheritors. But in the absence of democratic institutions like the Athenian ekklesia, it necessarily took a different form. The 1689 English Bill of Rights secured "the freedom of speech and debates in Parliament," and so applied to members of Parliament only, and only when they were present in the chamber. For the many who lacked access to formal political participation, the idea of isegoria as an equal right of public speech belonging to all citizens would eventually migrate from the concrete public forum to the virtual public sphere.
For philosophers like Spinoza and Immanuel Kant, "free speech" meant primarily the intellectual freedom to participate in the public exchange of arguments. In 1784, five years before the French Revolution, Kant would insist that "the freedom to make public use of one's reason" was the fundamental and equal right of any human being or citizen. Similarly, when Mill wrote On Liberty less than a century later, he did not defend the freedom of speech as such, but rather the individual "freedom of thought and discussion" in the collective pursuit of truth. While the equal liberty of isegoria remained essential for these thinkers, they shifted focus from actual speech—that is, the physical act of addressing others and participating in debate—to the mental exercise of reason and the exchange of ideas and arguments, very often in print. And so, over the course of two millennia, the Enlightenment finally united isegoria and logos in an idealized concept of free speech as freedom only for reasoned speech and rational deliberation that would have made Plato proud.
This logo-centric Enlightenment ideal remains central to the European understanding of free speech today. Efforts in Europe to criminalize hate speech owe an obvious debt to Kant, who described the freedom of (reasoned) speech in public as "the most harmless" of all. The same could never be said of ancient or early modern parrhesia, which was always threatening to speakers and listeners alike. Indeed, it was the obvious harm caused by their parrhesiastic evangelism to their neighbors' religious sensibilities that led so many evangelical Protestants to flee prosecution (or persecution, as they saw it) in Europe for the greater liberty—or license—of the New World. American exceptionalism can thus be traced all the way back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: while America got the evangelicals and libertines, Europe kept the philosophers.
Debates about free speech on American campuses today suggest that the rival concepts of isegoria and parrhesia are alive and well. When student protesters claim that they are silencing certain voices—via no-platforming, social pressure, or outright censorship—in the name of free speech itself, it may be tempting to dismiss them as insincere, or at best confused. As I witnessed at an event at Kenyon College in September, when confronted with such arguments the response from gray-bearded free-speech fundamentalists like myself is to continue to preach to the converted about the First Amendment, but with an undercurrent of solidaristic despair about "kids these days" and their failure to understand the fundamentals of liberal democracy.
No wonder the "kids" are unpersuaded. While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or "silencing," pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all. What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear—including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce "free speech" to a license to offend.
Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America's parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria—and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for—one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to "exercise their reason" but to speak their minds. It does so because the alternative is to allow the powers-that-happen-to-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals while denying it to others.
In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that. As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America's parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.
Posted: 02 Dec 2017 02:00 AM PST
As questions swirl about whether Rex Tillerson is about to be pushed out as secretary of state, there's another more pressing question to consider: Does it matter?
Tillerson and President Donald Trump have both denied the latest reports that the president's staff is moving forward with a plan to replace Tillerson. But the State Department is already under strain, and Tillerson's standing abroad is already complicated by his boss's proclivity for contradicting him in public.
Besides the business of diplomacy, two initiatives have marked—or, depending who you ask, marred—Tillerson's 10 months as secretary of state: a 30 percent budget cut for the department, and efforts to redesign how the department works. While, in theory, these are two distinct endeavors, they have merged in the public imagination, since they've both arguably contributed to frequent reports of poor morale at State. There have been allegations that diplomats are being "pushed out in droves;" the official in charge of the reorganization resigned after three months on the job; and two highly respected retired diplomats accused the Trump administration in The New York Times of "dismantling the foreign service" with its budget cut and hiring freezes. Tillerson's future may be uncertain, but the budget cuts probably aren't; the fate of the reorganization is unclear.
Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Algeria, and who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, wrote to me Thursday: "Since the reorganization has been slow, painful and is hurting the Foreign and Civil Service I hope that a change might be better; but who knows."
Tillerson himself was asked about these kinds of criticisms Tuesday at the Wilson Center in Washington, and he defended the budget proposal. He said the reduction would bring department funding in line with historic levels, noting its budget had increased over the past few years to $50 billion. That spending level is "just not sustainable," he said. Debatable, but defensible.
Then came the rest, in which Tillerson seemed to say less money would be needed because there would be fewer conflicts. "Part of ... bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we're going to have success in some of these conflict areas, of getting these conflicts resolved, and moving to a kind of place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them," he said.
The reaction from former U.S. diplomats: disbelief.
"The Syrian civil war, probably good for another 10 years," Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan and who co-wrote the Times op-ed this week, told me. "Afghanistan-Pakistan, no solutions in sight. The Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations—that would be not be low-hanging fruit. These problems are there because they are so damn hard to resolve. But unless you've got a robust foreign service working these issues, not only are you not going to solve them, you may not be able to manage them. It's precisely because we're looking at a world unglued, particularly in the Middle East, this is exactly the time you need a focused, robust foreign service."
One could add to that list: Just hours after Tillerson made his remarks, North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile yet—one that is believed to put the entire continental United States in range. Then there's the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, involving among other things proxy fights in Yemen and Lebanon plus the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq could usher in new conflicts, in particular between Arabs and the Kurds. Russia seems determine to destabilize politics in Europe and elsewhere, including the United States.
The world does not seem to fit Tillerson's projections. "It's sort of like someplace in 1944 saying Eisenhower is doing well, so we're going to cut the troops in Europe because we think we're going to win," Neumann told me earlier this week.
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, tried Tuesday to clarify Tillerson's statement. "I don't think that's what the Secretary was saying," she said. "I think issues are being conflated there, one with dollars and two with personnel." She said the U.S. expected to spend less on de-mining in Syria and on nation-building around the world. "We won't be in that business anymore," she said. "We won't be spending that kind of money."
That leaves the matter of personnel, which Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association representing foreign-service employees, wrote recently was being "depleted at dizzying speed" in the leadership ranks. "The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January," she wrote. "Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today—and are still falling."
Tillerson and others have downplayed those numbers, saying the number of senior foreign-service officials at the State Department is almost the same as the figure in 2016. Additionally, they say that the claim of a 60 percent reduction in the number of career ambassadors is misleading because the figure went from six to two—well within the historic average.
Either way, the effect on morale is palpable. And the uncertainty and anxiety at the department may only be reinforced by continuing rumors about Tillerson's future, which Trump and Tillerson's statements are unlikely to dispel. Ambassador Laura Kennedy, who served at the State Department for four decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations, said Tillerson "may have figured that he could develop the reform plan, present it, and then leave after declaring 'mission accomplished.'" Even that possibility now appears in doubt, and with or without Tillerson, she said, his plans for a redesign may not "amount to much organizationally."
"They've already picked off the low-hanging fruit with the scrubbing of the bloated ranks of the special envoys—a natural process which virtually every one I know applauded," she said.
On the other hand, the hiring freeze Tillerson has implemented while the reorganization plan is developed has not been cheered. There are U.S. embassies overseas with empty posts, and several senior State Department posts are still vacant. Career diplomats are performing the functions of assistant secretaries that have yet to be appointed or confirmed. Tillerson has praised their work, but Crocker pointed out that "they would be the first to tell you that there is a difference between acting assistant secretary and being assistant secretary with Senate confirmation."
"If there wasn't a reason to have assistant secretaries, then we wouldn't have them. ... You would never have a situation in which you're sending your Army to war with an acting division commander, an acting brigade commander, an acting battalion commander, and an acting company commander. That would be insane. It's the same thing."
"These things just kind of multiply so you have distortions throughout the building because of 10 months of a freeze," Neumann said. "This like basically saying we want to stop all of the trains while we redo the schedule, and 10 months later they're on the siding still."
On Tuesday, Nauert defended Tillerson's approach, saying "the commitment to this building, the commitment to our staff is solid. It is not changing."
The former diplomats I spoke to thought didn't question Tillerson's commitment, but as Neumann put it: "There is an open question on whether they understand government or not. There's a lot of ideas for reform that could be implemented without stopping everything. What you seem to have looking from the outside in ... is an effort to apply a business model to government—and the model doesn't fit, and it's causing all sorts of dislocation and morale problems."
Posted: 02 Dec 2017 03:16 AM PST
After a day of twisting arms and striking side deals, Senate Republicans muscled through an overhaul of the tax code that puts the party on the brink of its first major legislative victory of the Trump administration.
The $1.47 trillion bill cleared the Senate shortly before 2 a.m. Eastern on a 51-49 vote, as Republicans overcame the unified opposition of Democrats who argued it was a budget-busting giveaway to big business and the GOP's political patrons. Just one Republican, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted against the measure on the grounds that it would add too much to the deficit.
The bill's central provisions would reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, double the standard deduction, and enhance the child tax credit for individuals. But while it would modestly reduce personal income-tax rates, millions of middle-class families could face tax increases in later years if Congress does not act again to extend the bill's provisions. And according to independent analyses, some people in larger, high-tax states like New York, California, New Jersey, and Illinois could see an immediate tax hike: Their cuts would be wiped out by the elimination of a provision allowing them to deduct their state-and-local income taxes off their federal bill.
Yet GOP senators made compromises everywhere—except with Democrats. In the end, self-described deficit hawks voted for legislation that, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, would increase the nation's budget gap by $1 trillion over a decade even after factoring in economic growth. Supply-siders allowed tax cuts for individuals to expire after six years while making them permanent for corporations. And Republicans who blanched at gutting Obamacare earlier this year agreed to eliminate the law's individual mandate as part of the tax bill.
Passage of the proposal sets up negotiations with the House on a final bill for President Trump to sign that would represent the most far-reaching change to U.S. tax policy in more than 30 years, as well as the most significant one-party legislation to pass since the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Republicans hope to enact their tax package by Christmas.
Aside from Corker's defection, Saturday's vote was a rare display of unity from a Senate Republican conference that could not agree on a repeal of Obamacare earlier this year. And it showed how much more comfortable Republicans are with cutting taxes than with just about any other legislative issue, much less health care. Supporters of the bill said it would deliver tax relief, on average, to families at every income level while putting U.S. businesses on a more competitive footing with their global competitors.
Democrats countered it would do nothing of the sort.
"With the passage of this tax bill, today will be the first day of a new Republican party – one that raises taxes on the middle class, abandoning its principles for its political paymasters," Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said in the lead-up to the vote.
In the end, Republicans decided to essentially ignore a late report from the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation finding that their bill would add $1 trillion to the debt over 10 years because it wouldn't translate to the kind of economic growth party leaders had promised. The nonpartisan analysis came out on Thursday at the same time that GOP deficit hawks, led by Corker and Jeff Flake of Arizona, were learning that their proposal for a provision triggering future tax increases would not comply with Senate budget rules.
But rather than accommodate the deficit hawks by scaling back the tax cuts, party leaders won the final critical votes elsewhere. They deepened tax breaks for so-called "pass-through" businesses to win over Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Steve Daines of Montana. Bowing to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, they restored a state-and-local property-tax deduction up to $10,000. And they made Flake a completely unrelated commitment to work on a fix for undocumented immigrants who are at risk of deportation starting in March, when Trump ends former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The only holdout who apparently won nothing was Corker, the retiring Tennesseean who had vowed he would not support a tax bill that added "one penny" to the deficit. Republican leaders apparently decided they didn't need his vote, and late Friday afternoon, he confirmed they wouldn't get it. "I am disappointed. I wanted to get to yes," Corker said. "But at the end of the day, I am not able to cast aside my fiscal concerns and vote for legislation that I believe, based on the information I currently have, could deepen the debt for future generations."
Just like their counterparts in the House, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee spent months writing the chamber's original draft. But it got passed in a madcap rush, as party leaders rewrote the bill in significant ways to win the final, crucial votes. Well into the afternoon, Republicans were literally still writing the bill. Democrats took to the Senate floor to deride the GOP's hurry to pass the legislation that Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said they were drafting "on the fly." Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted that her office received a list of changes first from lobbyists on K Street. And when the 479-page text of the revised proposal finally came out early in the evening, Democrats were appalled to find that sections of the bill were written by hand, with some provisions crossed out with lines across a page. "This makes no sense," Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said on the Senate floor.
One of the few significant amendments that received a vote came from Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, who had been pushing to expand the child tax credit even more than Republicans already plan to do. The Senate proposal would double it to $2,000 per kid, but Rubio and Lee wanted to make it fully refundable so that lower-income families who pay less in taxes can take advantage. To offset the cost, they would cut the corporate rate to 21 percent instead of 20 percent—threatening a red line that Trump and conservatives have drawn on the latter number. But the amendment failed by a wide margin, 71-29, as most Democrats declined to help Rubio and Lee make a change they might otherwise have supported as policy.
Democrats offered amendments late into the night, to no avail. They tried several times to send the bill back to committee and as a last-gasp delay tactic, Schumer offered a motion to delay the vote until Monday to give the Senate more time to scrutinize the bill. But Republicans defeated all of those efforts on party-line votes. And in perhaps the final drama of the night, not a single Democrat broke ranks and supported the final bill. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota had not ruled out working with Republicans. They are facing reelection bids in states where Trump remains popular, and while they were not expected to help pass the tax bill, there was speculation they would vote for it once Republicans demonstrated it was going to pass.
But both Manchin and Heitkamp rejected the final bill, denying the tax overhaul the bipartisan support Republicans said they wanted but never really tried to gain.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 03:44 PM PST
What We're Following
Michael Flynn's Plea: The former national-security adviser pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, and agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation. Of the four indictments in the probe so far, Flynn's comes the closest to President Trump; court filings indicate that he was operating on behalf of the president's transition team. His guilty plea raises new questions about whether Trump obstructed justice in urging former FBI Director James Comey not to prosecute Flynn. Now congressional Democrats say it's crucial to prevent the White House from interfering with the investigation.
Taxing Times: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says his party has the votes needed to pass its tax-overhaul bill, putting Republicans closer than ever to accomplishing one of their major legislative goals. The bill, which could pass as soon as this evening, would amount to $1.4 trillion in tax cuts, which supporters claim would pay for themselves by boosting the economy, but a bipartisan group of economists is skeptical that these promises will play out. Annie Lowrey explains why.
Affairs of State: President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are still denying that Tillerson is set to be removed from his position—but his flubbed attempt to reorganize the State Department demonstrates amply that he's unfit to lead it, writes Eliot A. Cohen. Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and Tillerson's expected successor, may be a more effective leader—yet his past statements about Muslims suggest that he's unlikely to keep bigoted behavior from the president in check.
A decade after the Great Recession officially began, Alana Semuels profiles a family that's still experiencing its effects:
The Santillans' story shows how profoundly the recession has changed millions of Americans' lives. Read it here, and listen to Alana discuss the past decade's lessons with Annie Lowrey on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic.
What Do You Know … About Culture?
Change of several kinds is afoot in the entertainment world. The first look at the next film in the Avengers franchise appears to foreshadow an ending to some of its main characters' story lines, which is a rarity for Marvel movies. As the current basketball season heats up, the Philadelphia 76ers are mounting a possible comeback after several years of historic losses. And as people's understanding of dinosaurs has shifted over centuries, so have the ways they've depicted those animals: Recent tomes on paleoart show the evolution of prehistoric-creature drawings since the 1800s.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's culture coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. The Chilean director ____________ is adapting his Spanish-language film Gloria into a U.S. version starring Julianne Moore.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. Meghan Markle will be the first American to marry into the British royal family since Wallis Simpson, whose planned marriage sparked a constitutional crisis in the year ____________.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. The writer Christian Wiman has compiled an anthology of ____________ that explicate the idea of joy.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
Poem of the Week
From our December 1866 issue, "My Garden," by one of The Atlantic's co-founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Read more here.
Looking back at the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" 50 years after its release, Ben Zimmer makes a case for seeking sense in the song's nonsensical-sounding lyrics. Our reader David agrees that an analysis is worth it:
Read Zimmer's essay here.
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Carlos (a year younger than VCRs); to Rohan's father (a year younger than NASA); to Sandy's amazing mother, Doris (who was 18 when the U.S. joined the UN); to Naomi's boyfriend, Rupert (twice the age of Facebook); from Phyllis, Philip, and Ben to their son and best brother, David (the same age as the Michael Jackson album Thriller); and to Elizabeth (the same age as Nancy Pelosi), who remembers many historic changes of the 20th century, including this moment:
For tomorrow, happy birthday to Ada's daughter-in-law (13 years older than Mean Girls); to Sarah's partner (a year younger than Game Boys); to Joanne (a year younger than the FIFA World Cup); and to Sarah (twice the age of Google).
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 03:05 PM PST
Not least among the many news items this week—Donald Trump's former national-security adviser pleading guilty to lying to the FBI and North Korea "completing" its nuclear-weapons program and the U.S.-U.K. "special relationship" splintering over the American president's anti-Muslim retweets (but becoming even more special thanks to Harry and Meghan) and the U.S. Senate advancing a transformative $1.5 trillion tax overhaul and a convicted war criminal swigging poison in a Dutch courtroom and promptly dying—was another item that could also rightly be called big news: Reports indicating that next week Trump will break with past U.S. presidents and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The White House has yet to confirm that a decision has been made, and the details of the administration's plan are still fuzzy. But early reporting suggests that Trump may reveal the new U.S. position on Jerusalem while simultaneously sticking with his predecessors in waiving a requirement in a 1995 law that the United States relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv—at least temporarily. (The 1995 legislation, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, states that Jerusalem should "remain an undivided city" and be considered, as a matter of U.S. policy, the "capital of the State of Israel." In practice the U.S. sidesteps this issue, basing its embassy alongside others in Tel Aviv while Israel conducts its government operations from Jerusalem.)
Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama regularly issued waivers on the embassy relocation and refrained from recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, because its status would likely be settled as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Israel claims the entirety of Jerusalem as its capital and the Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the future capital of their state. Negotiations might result in the two sides dividing and sharing the city, which is home to Muslim and Jewish holy sites, among others.
If Trump doesn't follow suit, it would fit a precedent he set with regard to the Iran nuclear deal. The basic approach: Make a bold statement that honors his campaign promises without fully fulfilling them. Instead of dismantling the Iran deal as Trump pledged to do during his campaign, he "decertified" it and initiated a process for Congress and U.S. allies to address its weaknesses. In this case, too, Trump would be taking a symbolic half-measure relative to his vow on the campaign trail to move the U.S. embassy.
But half-measures, however symbolic, have real consequences. Trump's threat to terminate the Iran deal if U.S. lawmakers and America's European partners don't revise it to his liking has placed the accord in great peril—perhaps by design. Jake Sullivan, a top State Department official in the Obama administration, has argued that Trump's blows to the deal are a self-fulfilling prophecy: "They decertify so as to destabilize, and then they have the tools to at any moment—in a month, in a year, in two years—say, 'OK now we're done'" with the nuclear deal. Something similar could happen with Trump's Jerusalem decision, which would delight many Israelis and many of his pro-Israel supporters back home, but antagonize the Palestinians. It could thereby endanger an Arab-Israeli peace initiative that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been leading for months. It's easier to move the U.S. embassy when peace talks have broken down than when they're still on the horizon.
Kushner plans to unveil his peace plans at a policy conference in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, but whatever new ideas he has about the age-old conflict are likely to be overshadowed by his father-in-law's anticipated announcement. Another complicating factor: reports on Friday that Kushner worked with Trump's former national-security adviser Michael Flynn, at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to try to quash a UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during last year's presidential transition. Trump casts himself as a pragmatic dealmaker, and has called Israeli-Palestinian peace the "ultimate deal." But striking that deal would require him to let go of a persona he seems to value more: that of Donald Trump, the politician who settles scores and does what he says he he'll do. Or at least some of it.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 02:20 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national-security adviser, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials, and is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. The Washington Post reports that Flynn was acting in consultation with other senior Trump officials, including Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the Senate has secured the 50 votes it needs to pass its tax bill, which they will officially vote on tonight. Representative Blake Farenthold reportedly used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual-harassment claim in 2014. And Trump is preparing to announce that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
The Definitive Trump-Russia Timeline: Look back through the various events related to the Trump administration's ties to Russia. (Matthew Nussbaum, Politico)
When Dems Were Willing to Cut Taxes: Democrats haven't always hated tax cuts; in fact, some supported George W. Bush's tax package, which contained several similar provisions to the Republicans' current plan. (Kimberley A. Strassel, The Wall Street Journal)
When Abusers Tell the Story: Men in the media have "substantial control over what the public sees, consumes, and ultimately feels," writes Katie Rogers. So what have people learned about politics, power, and accountability from men accused of sexual misconduct? (The New York Times)
The Twitter Feed Misleads: Trump's presidency is far more conventional, and successful, than his tweets and off-script comments suggest. (Rich Lowry, New York Post)
Charlottesville, Criticized: Following the city's call for an investigation into the event, a review found that police failed on many fronts at the August white nationalist rally where Heather Heyer was killed. (Joe Heim, The Washington Post)
Russia Connections: Struggling to keep up with the Russia-Trump relationship? Here's a look at the members of Trump's team who are connected to Russian officials. (Jasmine C. Lee and Karen Yourish, The New York Times)
Question of the Week
This week, we asked you to react to Richard Fausset's profile of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist who Fausset describes as "the Nazi sympathizer next door." We wanted to know: Do stories like this normalize people with extreme viewpoints?
Some of you were indeed critical of Fausset. Christina from Massachusetts wrote that she took issue with the writer being "so glib about Hovater's so-called 'normal' life." It's not a surprise, Christina wrote, that "bigots shop and cook and play Nintendo. The surprise is that Fausset thought there was a story here."
On the other hand, some of you thought that, in "normalizing" Hovater, the piece communicated a crucial aspect of white nationalists. "I thought the story was important precisely because it pointed out that seemingly normal people can hold these types of views," Vicki from Virginia wrote. "Evil doesn't always come with horns; it could be your next door neighbor." Charlie from Minnesota echoed that sentiment, writing that stories like Fausset's are "accurate and effective in that it portrays these guys as they are in most instances."
And many of you put the onus on readers to be aware of the article's larger goal. Sandy from California wrote, "This does seem like a case of killing the messenger. Can we not discern the difference between reporting that some fascists will come across as normal in their day-to-day interactions, especially with those they see as being 'acceptable?'"
Thanks to everyone who submitted responses, and stay tuned for next week's Question of the Week.
-Written by Lena Felton (@lenakfelton)
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 02:17 PM PST
It's not every day that a former White House official pleads guilty to lying to the FBI—especially when that same official once led a crowd of thousands in a rallying cry against government corruption. So on a chilly Friday morning in Washington, dozens of people gathered outside a federal courthouse to revel in Michael Flynn's undoing.
"I've been telling myself if I have the chance to chant 'Lock him up' at Mike Flynn, I will take that chance," said Nick Keenan, a local resident and retiree, referring to the rallying cry both President Trump and Flynn used against Hillary Clinton. Keenan had just arrived on the scene with his wife, Marie Collins, who told me she was "just trying to see a small drop of justice in the chaos of modern American politics."
In the biggest development so far in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged Flynn, the Trump campaign aide-turned-national security adviser, with making false statements to the FBI about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. According to Mueller's team, in one instance Flynn discussed with Kislyak sanctions that the Obama administration had issued against Russia, and then lied about that conversation to intelligence agents.
Flynn arrived at the federal courthouse around 10:30 a.m. ET on Friday to plead guilty to the charge. During his appearance, the sidewalk outside the building was a mix of reporters, curious onlookers, and angry sign-holders waiting for him to make an exit.
One such protester was Paul Romano, a cybersecurity consultant and former captain in the Marine Corps who lives in the Washington area. "I also took an oath," said Romano, who was carrying a sign that read "Lock him up!" He was referring to the enlistment oath Flynn, a former Army lieutenant general, took at the start of his career; Flynn also took an oath to the country when he was sworn in as a White House staffer. "I'm just ashamed that a fellow serviceman would do that," Romano added. Behind him were his parents, who anxiously scrolled through a CNN newsfeed on their cellphones and read updates aloud to each other.
I found John Donner, a bearded man in a University of Southern California Trojans baseball cap, leaning against a barrier to the right of the courthouse entrance. "I was gonna go to the movies and go to the Smithsonian—there's an exhibit at the National Gallery I wanna see," he said. Instead, he found a better show. "I'm a newshound," he added, shrugging.
More and more people filled the sidewalk as the morning went on, shuffling around to get a good view of the doors from behind the press cameras and parked cars. There was a collective intake of breath every time the glass revolving doors started to turn. A taxi driver drove by the scene with his head out the window. "Is this about that Donald Trump guy?" he shouted at the crowd.
"It feels like we're opening a big can of worms," 23-year-old Beatrice said, with one eye on the door. She and her girlfriend, Concie—both of whom declined to give their last names—had crossed over from Northern Virginia after getting a CNN push notification about the plea hearing. "Like a bad can of worms that's going to be good in the long run." Another onlooker, a middle-aged man, told me the same thing: Flynn's plea is "the beginning of the unraveling."
The plea is important in part because Flynn is the first member of Trump's White House staff to be implicated in Mueller's investigation. What's more, as my colleague David A. Graham pointed out, the plea "appears to corroborate reports that Flynn was working toward a deal in which he would plead guilty in exchange for cooperating with the government." That could mean he has valuable information to give Mueller's team.
Just before noon, a stream of suited men and women poured out, among them the tan and well-coiffed former national-security adviser the crowd had been waiting for. "You lying piece of shit!" Romano yelled. "You took an oath!" Others erupted in a boisterous chant of "Lock him up." Flynn's expression didn't change as he got into the back of a black SUV and drove away. His exit lasted all of 30 seconds. "That seemed … anticlimactic, almost," I heard someone say.
While most of the onlookers had yelled and snapped photos in Flynn's direction, Donner, the Trojans fan, stayed quiet. "We have to let nature take its course," he said. "[Trump] may be absolved, Jared [Kushner] may be absolved. I haven't drawn any conclusions. I just think you have to uncover the facts as they come and proceed."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 02:04 PM PST
Former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn's plea deal in the Russia investigation raises new questions about whether the president sought to obstruct justice when he fired former FBI Director James Comey.
"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy," President Trump told Comey in February, according to a contemporaneous memo written by Comey.
Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about his communications with former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Flynn had requested of Kislyak that the Russian government not retaliate against the United States for sanctions the Obama administration had imposed; the penalties were in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election aimed at helping Trump's candidacy. The special counsel's office released a document Friday, signed by Flynn's attorneys, indicating the former Trump official agreed to give his full cooperation in the investigation, which has already implicated several former aides to his onetime boss.
"When they get a deal, that means they're fully agreeing to cooperate and provide information on a bigger crime by a bigger target of the investigation," said Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who now runs the Soufan Group security firm.
Trump fired Comey in May, and has said publicly that he was considering the Russia investigation when he did so; that fueled allegations of obstruction of justice. A week after Comey's firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel, granting him a broad mandate to investigate crimes related to Russian interference, including potential obstruction.
"If it turns out that General Flynn has information implicating Mr. Trump in a crime, there's now a much stronger inference that Mr. Trump was obstructing justice if he asked Comey to let the investigation of General Flynn go," said Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University and a former associate special counsel in the Iran-Contra affair.
According to the statement of the offense Mueller issued, Flynn informed a senior member of the Trump transition team on December 29, 2016, that Kislyak had contacted him. During that conversation, they discussed that senior members of the transition team did not want Russia "to escalate the situation" with regard to sanctions. On January 24, four days after Trump took office, Flynn attempted to mislead federal investigators looking into the matter. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress that she warned the White House that Flynn had been compromised by those conversations on January 26, four days before she was fired for ordering Justice Department officials not to defend Trump's newly issued travel ban. Flynn was not fired until February 13, after his conversations with Kislyak were reported in the press.
"Many points that might form the basis of an obstruction case flow through Flynn," said Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent who is currently a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "President Obama warned Trump about Flynn before he took office. Yates contacted the White House about Flynn and was fired shortly after. Trump pressured Comey about Flynn and then later fired him."
The revelation that Flynn discussed his conversations with Kislyak with a senior member of the transition team raises a number of questions about what Trump and his advisers knew. Vice President Mike Pence led the transition team, but he told CNN earlier this year that Flynn and Kislyak "did not discuss anything having to do with the United States's decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia." The information in Flynn's plea deal suggests that either Pence was kept out of the loop, or he misled the public about the extent of his knowledge.
But Flynn's plea could be even more perilous for another, even closer presidential adviser: Jared Kushner, who is also the president's son-in-law. According to The Daily Beast, Kushner "best fits the description" of the senior transition official with whom Flynn discussed his outreach to Kislyak. NBC News reported Friday afternoon that Kushner is indeed the senior transition official named in the document. If it was Kushner, his own statements to investigators will be closely scrutinized.
"If Mr. Trump knew that Flynn met with the Russian ambassador at Mr. Kushner's request and then lied about it, one can assume that Mr. Trump wanted to shut down the FBI investigation to protect his son-in-law more than Flynn," Green said.
"It's now clearer that Trump was aware—or certainly should have been aware—that a continuing investigation of Flynn would bring things closer to him and his family, as it now has," said a former Justice Department official. "So it's not merely that a continuing investigation might serve as a continuing distraction, or be a source of political embarrassment. It's that it could point to the involvement—and potential criminal liability—for him and members of his family. It goes to motive, which is not something that the prosecutor needs to prove, but it sure makes life easier in making and proving [a] case."
It's unclear whether a sitting president can be indicted, and obstruction of justice is a notoriously difficult charge to prove. But Mueller does have the ability to recommend to the House that Trump be impeached based on whatever he uncovers. And even if Trump himself can't be prosecuted, his advisers can be. (Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has referred to Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt.")
The difficulty for Mueller is that Flynn has already pled guilty to lying—which means his credibility as a witness is already impaired. But that might not matter if Flynn has documents corroborating his claims.
"The fact that he pled guilty to a false-statement charge is a problem for him as a witness; he's a proven liar, so his cooperation might be more useful in documented form," said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University. "If he has recollections that can be corroborated, his testimony could be very powerful."
The fact that Flynn got a deal at all implies that Mueller believes he can use Flynn's knowledge to implicate a more important target. The question is who, and for what.
"Based on my experience," Soufan said, "when someone lies during an investigation, they're usually trying to conceal a crime."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 02:31 PM PST
This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). In part one, we explore why adults gravitate towards books written for children and teenagers. In part two, we hear from best-selling YA author John Green about his latest protagonist and the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Young-adult literature typically centers on teenagers. But while the publishing industry markets these books primarily to young adults, that's not always who reads them. Approximately 55 percent of today's YA readers are adults. To find out why, I consulted the president of a young-adult publishing imprint, a professor of young-adult literature, a few Masthead members who love YA, and Green himself. Here's what they said.
"LANGUAGE ALWAYS COMES UP SHORT IN THE FACE OF PAIN"
On Monday, Masthead members participated in an exclusive conference call with author John Green. Listen to the full call below.
Aza Holmes, the protagonist in Green's new book, Turtles All the Way Down, has severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Throughout the book, she wrestles with what she calls "thought spirals," episodes when destructive thoughts swirl around, one after another, and she can't get out of her head. Green chose to write about these experiences, he told us on Monday, because they mirror his own. "When I get into these thought spirals, it's not that I can't get out of them for a while," Green said. "It's that it feels like I can't get out of it ever, because this thing is going to tighten forever until I die, until it kills me. It's really scary."
Both for Green and his characters, one core difficulty of the experience of mental illness is articulating it. Throughout the book, Aza struggles to explain her internal experience to the people around her. "Language always comes up short in the face of pain," Green said. "I think that's part of what makes pain so isolating." Instead of directly describing what she's going through, Aza opts for the "thought spiral" metaphor. That resonated with Masthead member Jason, who has anxiety and depression. When Jason asked Green to elaborate on how he came up with the metaphor, Green said it was inspired by a painting by Raymond Pettibon. "When I saw the painting, I just thought, 'Yeah, that's it, that's it. That's what it feels like.'"
In the book, the people around Aza—her mom, her best friend, the guy she likes—react to her illness in different ways: One tries to fix it; one is brutally honest; and one just (mostly) rolls with it. Green wanted to convey how difficult it is for people to watch someone they love battle mental illness and "not be able to take that pain away, not really know how to respond to it, even." As for himself, Green said he wants people to bear with him. "The most effective people are the people who... reassure me that even though it is difficult to live with this and to love someone who is living with this, there are also a lot of things about caring for me that are very rewarding." Be patient, he says, and let your loved one know that "there's going to be an other side to this."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 01:39 PM PST
Republicans are making some heady claims about their hastily constructed, historically unpopular tax legislation. "If we do this, then America will win again like never, ever before," President Trump said in a speech touting the legislation this week. "A vote to cut taxes is a vote to put America first again. We want to do that. We want to put America first again. It's time to take care of our workers, to protect our communities, and to rebuild our great country."
But a bipartisan group of leading economists have expressed some deep skepticism about many of the central claims the White House and congressional Republicans are making about the potential effects of the legislation. Below are the top seven myths they have put forward—and the evidence that disproves them.
1. The tax bill will pay for itself.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act remains a moving target, with congressional Republicans horse-trading different provisions into and out of the bill and work not yet done to reconcile differences between the House and the Senate versions. Still, the basic parameters are clear. On the household side, the bill would lower the rates charged in each tax bracket, expand the child tax credit, eliminate personal exemptions, and expand the standard deduction. On the business side, it would lower the corporate income tax rate dramatically, and create a big deduction or a special rate for "pass-through" businesses that pay individual income tax rates. It would also let businesses bring back foreign profits at a very low rate, and likely move the country to a territorial tax system, wherein companies pay taxes on profits generated in the United States, not worldwide.
All those rate reductions would mean that the Treasury would be taking in far less money from individuals and businesses. But Republican officials have insisted that the tax cuts would improve growth so much that they would pay for themselves, offsetting the revenue losses. "Not only will this tax plan pay for itself, but it will pay down debt," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised recently.
Not so, one of the country's most respected, nonpolitical economic scorekeepers has said. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) this week found that the Senate proposal would increase output by 0.8 percent over ten years. Because that extra output would get taxed like anything else, it would indeed mean additional money going to government coffers—but not nearly enough to cover the losses from the tax cuts. The JCT estimated that the bill would add $1.4 trillion dollars to federal deficits over a decade, ignoring any dynamic effects on the economy. Taking into account improved growth, it would add $1 trillion to federal deficits—more than President Obama's stimulus bill, passed to save the economy during the Great Recession. A University of Chicago poll of some of the country's top economists came to the same conclusion. Not a single one of the experts surveyed said that the kind of legislation under consideration would lead to a falling debt-to-GDP ratio.
2. It will supercharge growth.
Still, Republicans have insisted that the legislation would supercharge American growth. "These massive tax cuts will be rocket fuel—Little Rocket Man—rocket fuel for the American economy," Trump said this week, referencing Kim Jong Un of North Korea. "Remember I used to say, we can hit 4 [percent growth] and we can hit 3? And they were all saying, forget it, forget it. It was 1.2. It was doing terribly. We were flat. We were even. In all fairness, the stock market was going this way. And now, we're hitting numbers that nobody thought possible."
But the JCT shows that the tax bill would add less than 0.1 percentage points to the country's annual rate of growth, totaling just 0.8 percentage points of additional growth over ten years. The experts quoted in that Chicago poll said much the same. "Tax policy appears to have little effect at the margin on GDP growth in OECD countries," argued David Autor, a Harvard economist.
Why doesn't the bill do more for the economy's growth rate? In part because the government is passing tax cuts when the economy is already doing well—raising the prospect that the Federal Reserve would move to counteract the stimulative effect of all that deficit spending and would raise interest rates to cool the economy off. And in part because giving tax cuts to rich families and corporations is simply not that stimulative of a thing to do, since they do not tend to put the money toward buying new goods and services.
3. Cutting the corporate tax rate will lead businesses to give raises to regular workers.
The Republican legislation would slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, along with eliminating a number of deductions for businesses and tinkering with what gets taxed and when. "It is great for companies, because companies are going to bring back jobs. And we're lowering the rates, very substantially. But right now, we're bringing the rates down from 35 percent—which is totally noncompetitive. The highest industrialized nation in the world, by far, and we're bringing it all the way down to 20 percent," Trump said this week. "But that's good for everybody in the room, whether you have company or whether you want a job."
The idea is that the lower tax rates would encourage businesses to stop using tax shelters overseas and would provide companies with more money to shunt to their workers. Trump's Council of Economic Advisers has suggested that the corporate tax reform would boost the average family's income by $4,000 a year, "conservatively." But that number does not hold up to scrutiny, with most nonpartisan budget scorekeepers and many economists contending that businesses would provide a far smaller bump to average workers. That White House analysis assumes that workers would get 70 percent of the benefit of the rate cut, with shareholders getting the remainder. The Tax Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, for instance, estimates that workers would get about 20 percent of the value of corporate rate cuts, with the JCT, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Treasury all estimating that workers would get around a quarter of the benefit too. The rest would go to shareholders. Plus, of the money going to workers, much of it would flow to managers and executives, not minimum-wage or average employees.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a respected left-of-center think tank, has said that researchers view the White House's analysis "with considerable skepticism due to its methodological weaknesses," and describes its assumptions as "unrealistic."
4. Corporations will invest more.
A second argument the White House and prominent Republicans have made is that businesses will use their bolstered earnings to invest here in the United States, helping the economy as a whole. "Last year, American multinational companies left more than 70 percent of their foreign profits overseas," Trump said this week. "They actually get penalized. Our plan switches to a territorial tax system that encourages companies to return their profits to America—right here to the United States."
One thing is certain: Companies will bring hundreds of billions of dollars home, to take advantage of the tax holiday. But it seems unlikely that most, or even much, of the money would flow to workers and investment, rather than to shareholders. To wit, a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch survey found that companies were eagerly anticipating what they would do with their cash. They were most likely to respond that they would pay down debt and buy up their own shares—neither of which would help workers much. Other executives have indicated that they would use the money for dividends.
Recent history also suggests that companies would do more to improve shareholder returns than to invest in their businesses or expand and enrich their workforces. Back in 2004, Congress let companies repatriate their earnings, much as Congress is planning to do now. "While empirical evidence is clear that this provision resulted in a significant increase in repatriated earnings, empirical evidence is unable to show a corresponding increase in domestic investment or employment," a Congressional Research Service report found.
Economists think the same thing would happen this time around. Companies are already highly profitable and borrowing costs are already low, after all: Businesses do not really need the government to induce them to invest. Moreover, though the United States has high statutory corporate tax rates, few companies pay high effective tax rates. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has found that 258 big corporations paid an average effective tax rate of 21.2 percent in recent years, with 18 companies—among them General Electric and Priceline.com—never paying federal income taxes during the time period studied.
5. The rich are not going to benefit from the bill.
Trump has repeatedly promised that rich families like his do not stand to benefit from the Republican legislation. "We're also going to eliminate tax breaks and complex loopholes taken advantage of by the wealthy. Who are they? I don't know," he said this week. "I think my accountants are going crazy right now. It's all right. Hey, look, I'm president. I don't care. I don't care anymore. I don't care. Some of my wealthy friends care. Me? I don't care. This is a higher calling. Do we agree?"
This is false: As a general point, the richer the family, the more they benefit from the legislation, particularly over time. The Tax Policy Center has found that the biggest benefits would go to families in the top 5 percent as of 2019, with the smallest benefits going to those in the lowest income quartile. By 2027, families in the lowest two income quartiles would be receiving, on average, no benefit at all, with the biggest gains accruing to families in the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution. Moreover, the richest-of-the-rich families would exclusively benefit from initiatives like the reduction in or an elimination of the estate tax, which would let individuals like Trump pass millions and millions of dollars more to their heirs.
5, cont. Trump himself would not benefit.
"This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing—believe me," Trump said this week. "Believe me, this is not good for me. Me, it's not—so‚ I have some very wealthy friends, not so happy with me, but that's okay."
This is not true. In fact, Trump stands to benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, according to tax analysts, though it is hard to know with much specificity, given that he refuses to release his tax returns and House and Senate Republicans keep tinkering with the legislation. The elimination of the alternative minimum tax. The changes to the estate tax. Abbreviated depreciation schedules. Deductions or special rates for pass-through businesses. All these provisions stand to benefit Trump directly. Indeed, tax experts have said that as a real-estate developer he seems uniquely positioned to benefit from tax reform.
6. The plan is designed for the middle class.
"The beating heart of our plan is a tax cut for working families," Trump said this week. "That's what it is. We're going to make sure that you keep more of your hard-earned money. We're going to make sure, also, that you have a job that you want."
This is not true. Indeed, families in the middle of the income distribution would on average see no benefit from the plan as of 2027, whereas families at the top would be paying far less in taxes and many families at the bottom would actually be paying more. One reason is that the legislation changes the way that the tax brackets get adjusted year after year to account for the effect of inflation. More families would get pushed into higher tax brackets sooner under the Republican plan, so they would end up paying more in taxes, even though the marginal rates would be lower. In addition, Republicans have gone after a number of provisions in the current code—the state and local tax deduction and the medical expense deduction, for instance—that help many middle-class and upper-middle-class families.
Republicans have countered some of these claims by saying that it is impossible to cut income tax rates without primarily benefiting the rich: The rich make more money, so inevitably they get big reductions when you cut taxes, the theory goes. But this argument is silly. It is mathematically simple to design tax cuts whose benefits go exclusively to lower-income and middle-income families. It just requires making the code more progressive—something that Republicans do not want and have chosen not to do.
7. It will help small businesses.
"We'll also cut taxes for the millions of small businesses that file as individuals, and that's going to come out of the hopper," Trump said this week. "It's getting there and it's going to be better and better. We're reducing the tax burden on businesses of all sizes and of every, single kind."
Here, the Republican rhetoric is more a distortion than an outright falsehood. The plan, as it stands in the Senate, allows "pass-through" businesses—accounting for hundreds of thousands of businesses that pay under the individual rather than the corporate code—to deduct 22 percent of their income before paying taxes, up to a certain limit. In the House, it allows those pass-throughs to pay taxes at a special low rate. The pool of pass-through businesses includes any number of cookie shops and bodegas and corner stores, but also law firms, hedge funds, consulting firms, real-estate development companies, investment partnerships, and lobbying businesses. An estimated 70 percent of the benefits for such pass-through firms go to the top 1 percent of income earners—meaning this benefit is more about helping rich families than it is about helping small local businesses.
Moreover, such changes to the way pass-through businesses are taxed complicate the code and create a preferential category for rich individuals to try to work their income into—something contrary to the very spirit of tax reform. The new provisions have "the potential to become the single greatest inducement to tax arbitrage ever enacted by a single Congress," the tax expert Daniel Shaviro of New York University Law School has written, also saying that they "might end up being the single worst structural change in the history of the U.S. federal income tax."
Of course, the Trump administration has promised that what it says is true, and that it would produce evidence of how much good its tax plan would do for the American people. Then again, The New York Times reports that a Treasury document purportedly showing that the Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves has not been forthcoming because it does not—and presumably cannot—exist.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 01:32 PM PST
The graceless defenestration is one of Washington's crueler art forms. In the case of Rex Tillerson, who has long stoutly maintained that he has no intention of resigning, it has been done with White House leaks about a reshuffle apparently masterminded by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the Marine Corps, these things are done more forthrightly, one suspects; but Kelly is a Trumpian civilian now, so he called Tillerson's office to deny a story leaked by the White House to major news outlets. Meanwhile, a respected senior colleague gets a prolonged and humiliating shove out the window. Like so much in the capital these days, it's low-end Shakespeare, farcical court politics albeit without the elevated language.
Tillerson was, as is now recognized even by those who put him there, a disaster. As with most spectacular Washington flame-outs, his failures stem not from stupidity or general incompetence, but from a specific set of disabilities: an introverted and cocooned style of management that gave power to a few hated but overwhelmed and incompetent gatekeepers; insufficient skill at buttering up his volatile boss who, in an unguarded moment, the secretary seems to have characterized as a "moron"; morbid suspicion and sequestration of the State Department press, alienating a collection of hopeless foreign-policy wonks who normally fall in love with the secretary and sing his or her praises accordingly; management-jargon-laden reforms heavy on business-speak and low on familiarity with the work of diplomacy that demoralized the foreign service; and incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees who might do the work of diplomacy. He was a debacle, pure and simple, the worst secretary of state in living memory (and there has been serious competition) not because of ineptitude, but because of the semi-intentional demolition job he was doing on his own department even as he fell out of presidential favor.
Even implacable enemies of the administration should cheer the arrival of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. He is a former Army officer, a successful politician, and a veteran of running a large bureaucracy—the CIA. This means that, unlike Tillerson, he is used to motivating career people whom he cannot either fire or incentivize with money. He is sometimes described as a Trump loyalist, but that is nonsense: No one is loyal to Trump—he is too indecent a human being to attract such normal personal attachments.
The administration is not divided into people who are loyal to Trump and those who are not. Rather, it is divided between those who know how to manipulate his vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and those who do not. It is divided between those who think he is their ticket to fame and fortune and those who hope to survive this episode with their reputations more or less intact. It is divided, at the most fundamental level, between those willing to sell their souls completely and at a discount in the service of a man who is doing great damage to American norms and institutions, and those who are trying to get something for their country in return for the slices of honor and integrity that every day they reluctantly consign to the flames.
So here is a plausible account of what Pompeo would do, if he replaces Tillerson. He will fire Tillerson's cabal, shrink the Policy Planning staff, and return it to its more normal role of writing speeches and doing long-range thinking. He will ostentatiously drape an arm around the shoulders of the foreign service. He will bring journalists back onto his plane and schmooze them—in return getting more than his fair share of what Washington journalists sometimes call "beat-sweetener" stories. Unlike Tillerson, who seems in good corporate fashion to have decided that a 30 percent cut ordained by headquarters is the equivalent of a Czar's ukase—unwelcome, perhaps, but not to be questioned—he will fight back. He will either bully OMB Director Mick Mulvaney or, more likely, smile sweetly at him, assure him of his complete support—and then end-run around him on Capitol Hill, letting angry senators do for him the dirty work of subverting the president's budget. He will call in some of the retired senior diplomats—legendary ambassadors like Ryan Crocker who have been uncharacteristically public in their criticisms of Tillerson—and listen to them with at least the appearance of attentiveness. Above all, he will flatter the president shamelessly, praising his toughness and superlative insights while steering policy in a more or less sane (if, to be sure, tough-minded) direction. He will rattle some with hardline rhetoric, but at least he will articulate a coherent view of American foreign policy to the world, and that will be an advance.
This is to be welcomed because it will restore some balance to foreign-policy-making, in which the State Department has been appallingly weak. The task before Pompeo will be enormous. It is easier to say which diplomatic positions have been filled than which have not—we have no ambassadors for Saudi Arabia, Germany, or France, let alone representatives to the European Union or the International Atomic Energy Agency. We have no assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and the Pacific (as we possibly stumble into a second Korean War) and none for the Middle East.
The State Department is indeed due for a reorganization—but it would have been wise to have at least a core staff in place to do it, and to have done it by listening and learning the business of diplomacy first, and leaving the management consultants to work their magic on failing bricks-and-mortar retail companies, which they may understand, rather than foreign policy, which they probably do not. This is not the immediate task in any case. What Pompeo will need to do rather, is to get the department up and running again, and doing the day-to-day foreign-relations work of maintaining America's role in the world.
It will be interesting to see whether Pompeo would do better than his inarticulate predecessor in laying out American values as well as American interests. That will be the big divide with the White House, if he has the stomach for it: making it clear that commitment to free government, rule of law, and individual liberty are critical parts of the American message to the world, and an essential element not only of America's appeal, but American power. Trump does not understand this, of course.
There will be other challenges as well. If he is honest, and has honest subordinates, the new secretary will realize how much damage has already been done to America's global standing as evidenced by the deals cut by Middle Eastern allies with Russia, by Asian allies with China and by the profound disgust and mistrust with which our European allies view our president. Above all, he will—again, if he is honest—have to confront the fact that America's reputation and indeed its stability are in question around the world. That is the meta foreign-policy crisis of our times, and he may not be able to do a great deal about it.
There will be one lesson from this episode that he and every other senior official should also take away. If the president and his immediate staff can treat Tillerson this way, they can, and will, treat anyone this way. Eviction by sustained humiliation was a gambit Trump tried with Jeff Sessions, whose desire to cling to his job seems to have overwhelmed whatever stock of self-respect he once possessed. But if Tillerson has had the experience of getting unceremoniously muscled over the window ledge before a crowd of gaping onlookers, the same may await any of the rest of them, including those even now prying his clutching fingers off the sill. And like Tillerson himself, as they plunge to earth they will see in the onlookers' eyes a kind of disgusted curiosity, but not much in the way of sympathy.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 02:13 PM PST
MechaHitler and HiddleSwift, meet RefuJesus. In one of the passages on U2's Songs of Experience, during which the band tamps down its cheerful noisemaking and lets some anxiety show for a few measures, Bono breaks the gloom with a yelp: "Will you be our sanctuary / Ref-you-jeez-us!" Wait, who? RefuJesus might be the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the tired and huddled. Or it could be the West as a whole. Or just Jesus. Or, naturally, Bono himself. What's clear is that the religious and political concerns that have threaded through U2's career are now getting knotted together more garishly than ever. Never go full portmanteaux.
"The problem with rock now," the singer told The New York Times in September, "is that it's trying to be cool." Songs of Experience, U2's 14th album, is meant to remedy that problem with self-help anthems decked in occasional vocal manipulation and AC/DC riffs. The RefuJesus line clearly shows the band is okay with being laughed at. So does, say, Bono lovingly referring to his wife as a "landlady" who "takes me up in the air." U2 has, for more than 30 years, been pop's savviest provider of can-do uplift, but Songs of Experience reaches a new level: reckless cheer.
The problem with rock now, for the record, is not that it's trying to be cool. The genre's two biggest new commercial successes in recent years, Imagine Dragons and 21 Pilots, certainly don't play coy in the name of hipness. Rather, they channel U2-style tryhard, whether donning costumes or lumbering across genre lines or groaning with arena oomph. No, what really makes U2 out of step in 2017 is their commitment to uplift. The aforementioned two hit bands emphasize ennui and pain; U2 descendants Coldplay and Arcade Fire have entered hyper-cheeky disco phases. The Irish originals meanwhile put at the front of their songs the happy lessons that usually come at the end of sitcom episodes. Just read the titles: "Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way," "You're the Best Thing About Me," "Get Out of Your Own Way."
Such stridently insisted-upon joy is meant to be political—as Bono put it to the Times, it's "defiance" in dark times. 2014's Songs of Innocence was unusually small-scale and autobiographical, and for much of the public its music was overshadowed by the way it showed up in their iTunes libraries uninvited. U2 simultaneously recorded this follow-up—always envisioned as musically grander and broader—but then delayed and reworked it in part to respond to the 2016 election. The results include clunkers such as the "RefuJesus" line, causing songs about love or stardom to double as would-be national mood boosters.
The music itself has a canned swagger to match that effort. Rather than have the Edge mesmerize with otherworldly guitar effects, U2 sound strangely like a bar-band here, thrashing and stomping but not actually scaring anyone. A run of tracks in the middle of the album play with tropes of summertime pop—think more the Monkees than the Beach Boys—partly as a strange homage to refugees who die at sea (I'm not kidding). The more misty and anthemic fare works better, with the gentle "13 (There Is a Light)" massaging clichés into something genuinely affecting. When Bono offers, "this is a song … for someone … like me," it feels like an earned nod at the nonpolitical narrative around the album: a recent near-death experience the singer had.
Bono, to be sure, already had the credibility to argue that smiling through crisis is noble. "New Year's Day" poignantly told of love thriving during war. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" espoused a fully sunny read of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and death. "Beautiful Day" rang out to an ailing country after 9/11. But the specifics are wrong this time. U2 is transposing self-actualization rhetoric—the surety that you are all you need—onto the nation at a moment when listeners probably feel that what's required isn't a pep talk but material change. On Wednesday, while processing the news that the president had just tweeted out a snuff video, I cued up Songs of Experience. The first line, delivered in breathy quiver: "Nothing to stop this being the best day ever." I nearly broke something.
Yet set aside the feeling that you're being condescended to, and the suspicion that reflexive optimism often simply endorses complacency, and you can appreciate some of the lab-perfect hugeness here. "Lights of Home" is a rather gonzo triumph, built on a weird, fractured guitar riff that's, of all things, lifted from Haim's "My Song 5." The chorus offers a patented when-the-Xanax-hits moment, but the band still saves the strongest hook of the album for a final, gang-sung refrain: "Free yourself to be yourself."
If that lyric sounds too much like a chapter title in The Secret, wait until "Get Out of Your Own Way," another instance in which songcraft overpowers annoyance at being lectured about one's own emotions. It's built off a loping, steady beat, and there's something capitulatory and open-handed about the way the chorus melody slopes up and down. To close the track, Kendrick Lamar gives a sermon that feels like a corrective—to U2 itself, and to this album's insistence that simply feeling better will heal the world. "Blessed are the superstars," he raps. "For the magnificence in their light, we understand better our own insignificance."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:00 PM PST
Top Democrats reacted to the news on Friday that former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn had pled guilty to lying to the FBI by warning that President Trump or his allies may try to curtail ongoing investigations into Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election, and insisting that those investigations continue without interference.
Flynn, a close Trump ally who campaigned with the president and briefly followed him into the administration, made false statements to investigators about his contacts with the Russian ambassador about sanctions implemented by the previous administration. Those sanctions were put in place to punish Russia for what U.S. intelligence agencies said was an effort to interfere in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf. Flynn also said on Friday that he is cooperating with the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller.
Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Congress to shield the special counsel probe from White House interference and reiterated her call for an outside independent investigation. Pelosi has praised Mueller, a former FBI director, as "a respected public servant," in the past but has also expressed concern that the White House could attempt to interfere with his investigation, which is operating under the supervision of the Department of Justice.
"The U.S. Congress has a duty to uphold justice, and to take measures to ensure that Special Counsel Mueller's investigation proceed without interference from the White House," Pelosi said in a statement on Friday, calling for "an outside, fully independent investigation." Pelosi has called for an outside investigation for months that could operate in the mold of the 9/11 commission, a bipartisan commission set up by Congress that produced a wide-ranging report on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned in a statement that "the plea secured by Mueller may prompt the White House and its allies to seek to curtail congressional investigations, as President Trump has attempted to do already, or end the special counsel's work prematurely. Congress must make it clear that this would not be acceptable." The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are both probing Russian election interference and potential Trump-Russia ties.
Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, similarly said that "investigations must be allowed to continue without interference," though she did not call for an independent outside investigation.
High-ranking Democrats focused attention on Trump on Friday.
Pelosi called Flynn's guilty plea "a dark moment in our nation's history" in her statement, adding that "the American people deserve to know what the President knows about Russian meddling in our election and why he refuses to take action against Russia."
Schiff added that the Flynn revelations are significant because they include "new details, including that Flynn was directed by a senior transition official to contact Russian officials in an effort" and also because "Flynn's lies to the FBI … were made at a time when he was serving as President Trump's National Security Advisor, a position of incredible influence and responsibility."
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said "this time, the president can't get away with claiming these charges aren't about his inner circle's contacts with Russia, and he can't dismiss Michael Flynn as some low-level aide."
Flynn's guilty plea marks a new stage in the special counsel investigation.
Last month, Mueller brought charges against three former Trump associates: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, a deputy to Manafort on the campaign, and George Papadopoulos, a former campaign foreign-policy adviser. Trump has called the Russia investigation a "witch hunt." On Friday, a White House lawyer said that "nothing about the guilty plea [entered by Flynn] or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:34 PM PST
Tax bill protests in Washington D.C., Pope Francis's visit to Myanmar, athletes race an ultramarathon through a Peruvian desert, Christmas celebrations around the world, a Krampus sighting in Slovenia, an eruption of Mount Agung in Bali, and much more.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 11:20 AM PST
If the ever-stalling Brexit negotiations range in character from bewildering to boring, there was at least something familiar about them this week. To wit, the idea that a border wall could be coming, and that someone else was going to pay for it.
It wasn't President Trump offering his take on the U.K.'s impending exit from the EU. Rather, it was British lawmaker Kate Hoey, stating her own vision for what should happen if a hard border returned between Ireland (part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.). A vocal Brexit supporter, the Labour party lawmaker argued Monday that anything resembling a physical barrier on what will become the only land border between the U.K. and the EU was unnecessary, and that if the EU wanted one, it would have to put it up alone. "We're not the ones who're going to be putting up the physical border," Hoey told BBC Radio 4. "If this ends up with a no deal, we won't be putting up the border—they'll have to pay for it because it doesn't need to happen."
Hoey's comments came in response to the Irish government's recent insistence that it would not assent to Brexit talks moving on to phase two of the negotiations, unless the U.K. government guaranteed in writing that no hard border would return between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such a border, which could involve customs checks and controls, would significantly change the boundary that exists today, namely by rendering it visible. Currently, it's only by noticing subtle changes in the color of road signs or the shift in speed limit metrics that a traveler can tell where one country ends and the other begins.
A hard border would change that. And while Hoey's opposition to such a change is shared on both sides of the Brexit negotiating table, her proposal that they therefore should simply not impose one is not—in part because it fails to recognize the circumstances that could make a stronger border necessary in the first place. In addition to leaving the EU, the U.K. has also opted to leave the bloc's single market and customs union—membership to each of which has allowed goods and services to travel between the U.K. and the rest of its member states tariff-free. Absent a trade deal (which could take years to negotiate) or some sort of transition period, the U.K. will be subject to tariffs like any other country outside the single market and customs union once it leaves the EU in March 2019. This would make at least a customs border on the island of Ireland necessary from that point forward.
It's not just EU law that mandates this. As a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose rules the U.K. will fall under once it leaves the EU, the U.K. will be required to impose its own customs checks. "The idea that you can just not have a border with the EU is mind-bogglingly ill informed," Edward Burke, an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham, told me. "The WTO is really unyielding on this point that for international trade to work, every state needs to essentially police its borders from a customs point of view. … It's non-negotiable."
Both the U.K. and the EU have stressed the importance of finding a "flexible and imaginative," solution to the Irish border issue, with some proposing that Northern Ireland be permitted to independently remain within the bloc's single market and customs union—a special status that would effectively resolve the U.K.-EU land border issue and leave trade and freedom of movement within the island of Ireland largely unaffected. But it's a solution that many hardline Brexiteers, including the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have rejected.
"They simply will not entertain at this point any potential exceptions, as complicated or as difficult but ultimately economically beneficial as they are," Burke said of the DUP, which is currently propping up U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government in London. He noted that the party's opposition to this is more political than economic, stemming from "visceral fears that go back to the idea that once you detach Northern Ireland in a more significant way from the rest of the U.K. in how it conducts international trade agreements [and] how it relates to the EU, that it's essentially a political backdoor then for future conversations about Irish unity."
The reason for that largely has to do with Irish and Northern Irish history, dating back to the decades-long period of sectarian fighting from the 1960s through much of the 1990s known as the Troubles. During this period, Unionists (who are represented by parties like the DUP) advocated for Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K., while Republicans (who are now largely represented by parties like DUP's opposition, Sinn Féin) advocated for the North to join the Republic of Ireland. While the conflict ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the underlying sensitivities are still in place. And on the border, it was the EU that mitigated them; Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K., satisfying Unionists, while being deeply integrated with the Republic of Ireland, as the Republicans wanted.
Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen's University Belfast, told me the effect is already visible in communities along the border, noting in her research that Brexit's impact has already been "polarizing" for those living on either side. "It's still a very important dividing line distinguishing between people's political preferences," Hayward told me in October, adding that "the legacy of conflict and the legacy of complex British-Irish relations—they're all intertwined in the border."
But it's Northern Ireland that stands to be the most vulnerable if a hard border is reimposed. While much of the country's commerce relies on the U.K., a significant amount also relies on the Republic of Ireland, which accounts for 34 percent of its trade. More than half of its exports go to the EU overall. "The economics point in one direction, and the politics point in the opposite direction," Professor Richard G. Whitman, an associate fellow with the Europe Programme at Chatham House, told me. "The problem for the DUP is they're sort of doing the splits on that, because obviously anything that leads to a significant downturn in Northern Ireland's economy is obviously going to hit their supporters and potentially hit them at the ballot box. On the other hand, you're butting up against core Unionist principles in terms of the fact that Northern Ireland should not be in any way different from the mainland."
Northern Ireland's precarious political situation hasn't helped, either. Though the DUP currently enjoys a powerful role within the U.K. government, Northern Ireland hasn't had a government in nearly a year. Since the power-sharing government between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed in January, Belfast has been relegated to being a political observer to Brexit negotiations and, by extension, its fate outside the EU. "The interests of Northern Ireland have been outsourced to Dublin and to London," Whitman said. "They are in a way bystanders at the moment to what Dublin and to what London are suggesting would be in the best interest of Northern Ireland, and that's probably not a good thing for Northern Ireland."
"The U.K. is going off on its own trajectory and its economic interests—the economic interest of London—are not the same as those of Northern Ireland in many ways," Hayward said, adding: "If Ireland is turning its face away from Britain and trying to secure its own interests, then where does this leave Northern Ireland? It almost feels like sort of falling in between the cracks—between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. So this is a deep concern."
With negotiations progressing on the main sticking points about the separation, the Irish border remains the most uncertain issue hanging over negotiations. Whether talks will move on to the next phase of negotiations will depend on what EU leaders decide when they convene for the European Council meeting next month—a decision that will no doubt be informed by Dublin. "If the U.K. offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU," European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday. "This is why the key to the U.K.'s future lies—in some ways—in Dublin, at least as long as Brexit negotiations continue."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 11:00 AM PST
The stated goal of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this year was to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. In the wake of the events that erupted, filmmaker Sierra Pettengill closely followed the debate surrounding the legacy of Confederate monuments. "I was struck by the way the word 'history' was blankly lobbed as a defense of the monuments," Pettengill told The Atlantic. "Take Trump's reaction, for one: 'They're trying to take away our history.' My instinct was, 'Okay, then: Let's look at the history.'"
The history of a single monument is writ large in Pettengill's new short film, Graven Image, produced by Field of Vision and premiering on The Atlantic today. The documentary relies solely on archival record to tell the story of Georgia's Stone Mountain monument, which depicts Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis engraved in the mountain face. Originally conceived of by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1912, Stone Mountain was chosen as the site of the rebirth of the KKK in 1915. Although it was shelved during the Great Depression, it was later revitalized in the wake of the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case, and finally completed in 1970. In 2001, Georgia state law passed a mandate that the monument never be removed or altered.
With Graven Image, Pettengill hopes to recontextualize the Confederate monument and examine the way American narratives are told—and often warped—through time.
"Stone Mountain allows for a full century's worth of reckoning with the motivations and politics behind these celebrations of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative," Pettengill said. "In my film, a voiceover from a 1972 Stone Mountain promotional film says, 'Remember how it used to be? It's still that way for you to enjoy at Stone Mountain Park.' I want this film to make us remember how it actually used to be."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:52 PM PST
Like every graduate student, I once holed up in the library cramming for my doctoral oral exams. This ritual hazing starts with a long reading list. Come exam day, the scholar must prove mastery of a field, whether it's Islamic art or German history. The student sits before a panel of professors, answering questions drawn from the book list.
To prepare for this initiation, I bought a lifetime supply of index cards. On each four-by-six rectangle, I distilled the major points of a book. My index cards—portable, visual, tactile, easily rearranged and reshuffled—got me through the exam.
Yet it never occurred to me, as I rehearsed my talking points more than a decade ago, that my index cards belonged to the very European history I was studying. The index card was a product of the Enlightenment, conceived by one of its towering figures: Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and the father of modern taxonomy. But like all information systems, the index card had unexpected political implications, too: It helped set the stage for categorizing people, and for the prejudice and violence that comes along with such classification.
* * *
In 1767, near the end of his career, Linnaeus began to use "little paper slips of a standard size" to record information about plants and animals. According to the historians Isabelle Charmantier and Staffan Müller-Wille, these paper slips offered "an expedient solution to an information-overload crisis" for the Swedish scientist. More than 1,000 of them, measuring five by three inches, are housed at London's Linnean Society. Each contains notes about plants and material culled from books and other publications. While flimsier than heavy stock and cut by hand, they're virtually indistinguishable from modern index cards.
The Swedish scientist is more often credited with another invention: binomial nomenclature, the latinized two-part name assigned to every species. Before Linnaeus, rambling descriptions were used to identify plants and animals. A tomato, for example, was a mouthful: Solanum caule inermi herbaceo foliis pinnatis incisis. After Linnaeus, the round fruit became Solanum lycopersicum. Thanks to his landmark study, Systema Naturae, naturalists had a universal language, which organized the natural world into the nested hierarchies still used today—species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom.
In 18th-century Europe, Linnaeus became a household name. "Tell him I know no greater man on earth," said Jean-Jacques Rousseau of his Swedish idol. Like other savants of his day, Rousseau saw the study of plants as a moral pursuit, a virtuous escape into nature. Germany's man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, confessed that after Shakespeare and Spinoza, no one had influenced him more than Linnaeus. "God created—Linnaeus arranged," went the adage.
But despite his meteoric success, Linnaeus had a problem. The man who made order from nature's chaos did not have a good management system for his own work. His methods for sorting and storing information about the natural world couldn't keep up with the flood of it he was producing. Linnaeus's appearance only added to an aura of disorder. Stunned visitors described the prince of botany as a "markedly unshaven" man in "dusty shoes and stockings." Writing about himself, Linnaeus was even less charitable: "Brow furrowed. A low wart on the right cheek and another on the right side of the nose. Teeth bad, worm-eaten."
Worms aside, the real issue vexing Sweden's top scientist was how to manage a data deluge. He had started out collecting plants in the woods of his native southern Sweden. But as his profile grew, so did his research and writing, and the number of students under his wing. Achieving scientific renown of their own, Linnaeus's students sent him specimens from their travels in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, West Africa, and China. According to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, most botanists of the era employed a team to manage their affairs that would keep track of correspondence and categorize specimens. But not Linnaeus, "who preferred to work alone." Starting in the 1750s, he complained in letters to friends of feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Burnout, it turns out, isn't a modern condition.
* * *
Linnaeus's predicament wasn't new, either. In her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, the historian Ann Blair explains that since the Renaissance, "the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books" unleashed an avalanche of information. The rise of far-flung networks of correspondents only added to this circulation of knowledge. Summarizing, sorting, and searching new material wasn't easy, especially given the available tools and technologies. Printed books needed buyers. And while notebooks kept information in one place, finding a detail buried inside one was another story. Finishing an academic dissertation wasn't just a test of erudition or persistence; dealing with the material itself—recording, searching, retrieving it—was a logistical nightmare.
Many scholars, like the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, preferred to work on loose sheets of paper that could be collated, rearranged, and reshuffled, says Blair. But others came up with novel solutions. Thomas Harrison, a 17th-century English inventor, devised the "ark of studies," a small cabinet that allowed scholars to excerpt books and file their notes in a specific order. Readers would attach pieces of paper to metal hooks labeled by subject heading. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German polymath and coinventor of calculus (with Isaac Newton), relied on Harrison's cumbersome contraption in at least some of his research.
Linnaeus experimented with a few filing systems. In 1752, while cataloging Queen Ludovica Ulrica's collection of butterflies with his disciple Daniel Solander, he prepared small, uniform sheets of paper for the first time. "That cataloging experience was possibly where the idea for using slips came from," Charmantier explained to me. Solander took this method with him to England, where he cataloged the Sloane Collection of the British Museum and then Joseph Banks's collections, using similar slips, Charmantier said. This became the cataloging system of a national collection.
Linnaeus may have drawn inspiration from playing cards. Until the mid-19th century, the backs of playing cards were left blank by manufacturers, offering "a practical writing surface," where scholars scribbled notes, says Blair. Playing cards "were frequently used as lottery tickets, marriage and death announcements, notepads, or business cards," explains Markus Krajewski, the author of Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs. In 1791, France's revolutionary government issued the world's first national cataloging code, calling for playing cards to be used for bibliographical records. And according to Charmantier and Müller-Wille, playing cards were found under the floorboards of the Uppsala home Linnaeus shared with his wife Sara Lisa.
In 1780, two years after Linnaeus's death, Vienna's Court Library introduced a card catalog, the first of its kind. Describing all the books on the library's shelves in one ordered system, it relied on a simple, flexible tool: paper slips. Around the same time that the library catalog appeared, says Krajewski, Europeans adopted banknotes as a universal medium of exchange. He believes this wasn't a historical coincidence. Banknotes, like bibliographical slips of paper and the books they referred to, were material, representational, and mobile. Perhaps Linnaeus took the same mental leap from "free-floating banknotes" to "little paper slips" (or vice versa). Sweden's great botanist was also a participant in an emerging capitalist economy.
* * *
Linnaeus never grasped the full potential of his paper technology. Born of necessity, his paper slips were "idiosyncratic," say Charmantier and Müller-Wille. "There is no sign he ever tried to rationalize or advertise the new practice." Like his taxonomical system, paper slips were both an idea and a method, designed to bring order to the chaos of the world.
The passion for classification, a hallmark of the Enlightenment, also had a dark side. From nature's variety came an abiding preoccupation with the differences between people. As soon as anthropologists applied Linnaeus's taxonomical system to humans, the category of race, together with the ideology of racism, was born.
It's fitting, then, that the index card would have a checkered history. To take one example, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover used skills he burnished as a cataloger at the Library of Congress to assemble his notorious "Editorial Card Index." By 1920, he had cataloged 200,000 subversive individuals and organizations in detailed, cross-referenced entries. Nazi ideologues compiled a deadlier index-card database to classify 500,000 Jewish Germans according to racial and genetic background. Other regimes have employed similar methods, relying on the index card's simplicity and versatility to catalog enemies real and imagined.
The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective. Anyone who has used index cards to plan a project, plot a story, or study for an exam knows that hierarchies are inevitable. Forty years ago, Michel Foucault observed in a footnote that, curiously, historians had neglected the invention of the index card. The book was Discipline and Punish, which explores the relationship between knowledge and power. The index card was a turning point, Foucault believed, in the relationship between power and technology. Like the categories they cataloged, Linnaeus's paper slips belong to the history of politics as much as the history of science.
This post appears courtesy of Object Lessons.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:53 PM PST
Earlier this May, Gregory Holt had just finished doing the morning rounds at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, when he got a call about a new patient in the emergency room. He went down with seven colleagues to find an unconscious 70-year-old man with breathing problems and signs of septic shock. He was alone and had no identification. His blood was full of alcohol, and its pressure was dropping. And when the doctors peeled back his shirt, they found a tattoo, running along his collarbones.
It said: DO NOT RESUSCITATE.
The NOT was underlined. There was a signature under the final word.
Holt was shocked. "We've always joked about this, but holy crap, this man actually did it," he says. "You look at it, laugh a little, and then go: Oh no, I actually have to deal with this."
By default, doctors would treat patients in this man's condition as if they were "full code"—that is, they'd want everything possible done to prolong their life. "When faced with uncertainty, you pick the choice that's not irreversible," Holt explains. "So let's do everything we can and when the dust settles, we can determine what the patient wanted if it wasn't clear from the beginning. The tattoo threw a monkey wrench into the decision."
In Florida, patients can ask not to be resuscitated by filling in an official form and printing it on yellow paper. (Yes, it has to be yellow.) Only then is it legally valid. Clearly, a tattoo doesn't count. And yet, the patient had clearly gone through unusual effort to make his wishes known. The team members debated what to do, and while opinions differed, "we were all unanimous in our confusion," says Holt.
They decided to temporarily ignore the tattoo, at least until they could get advice. In the meantime, they gave the man basic treatments—antibiotics, an IV drip, an oxygen mask to help him to breathe, and adrenaline for his plummeting blood pressure. But they avoided putting a tube down his throat and hooking him up to a ventilator. "It would have hurt to see a man with a DNR tattoo having a tracheal tube hanging out of him," Holt says.
All of this bought them enough time to get a hold of Ken Goodman, the codirector of the University of Miami's ethics programs. "My view was that someone does not go to the trouble of getting such a tattoo without forethought and mindfulness," Goodman says. "As unorthodox as it is, you do get a dramatic view of what this patient would want."
But tattoos are permanent and desires are fleeting, so the team pondered whether the words actually represented the man's desires. And there's good reason to be cautious. Back in 2012, Lori Cooper at the California Pacific Medical Center was caring for a (conscious) patient who was going to have a leg amputated, when she noticed a "DNR" tattoo on his chest. The man revealed that he got the tattoo after losing a poker bet many years ago, and actually, he would very much like to be resuscitated if the need arose. "It was suggested that he consider tattoo removal to circumvent future confusion about his code status," Cooper wrote. "He stated he did not think anyone would take his tattoo seriously and declined tattoo removal."
Holt's unconscious patient couldn't weigh in, but social workers used his fingerprints to track down his identity. He had come from a nursing facility, and to everyone's immense relief, they had an official DNR form for him, printed on the requisite yellow paper. The man's condition deteriorated, and he passed away in the night.
The team did the right thing, says Nancy Berlinger from the Hastings Center. They provided basic care to buy time, called for an ethics consult, and got social workers involved. "Even if the records weren't there, it was right to honor the patient's preferences," she says. "Paper gets lost, and some people do not trust paper. This man may have been trying to safeguard against that, and [the tattoo] might have been the most reliable way to make his voice heard. It was right to take it seriously."
But Lauris Kaldjian, an ethicist at the University of Iowa, says he wouldn't have honored the tattoo without finding the official form. A DNR order isn't an end in itself, he says. It's a reflection of a patient's goals—how they want their life to end. Patients are meant to discuss those goals with a physician so they can hear all the options available to them, and make an informed decision; the physician must then sign the order. "That's not meant to be a paternalistic move," Kaldjian says. "It's meant to give evidence that a rational discussion was had, and I don't think tattoo parlors are a place to have to have a code-status discussion."
It's the discussion that matters, not the words on the form (or the tattoo), says Joan Teno from the University of Washington, who studies end-of-life wishes. And in many cases, those discussions don't happen, or aren't respected. In a study of bereaved family members, she found that one in 10 say that something was done in the last month of a patient's life that went against their wishes. "The fact that someone has to resort to a tattoo to have their wishes honored is a sad indictment of our medical system," Teno says. "We need to create systems of care where patients have the trust and confidence that their wishes will be honored. That's the important message from this case."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 10:26 AM PST
Not long after North Korea test-fired its longest-range missile yet, the Trump administration settled into its familiar diplomatic routine of putting pressure on China—or blaming the country outright. It started out somewhat subdued on Wednesday, when President Trump tweeted that he had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about additional sanctions on North Korea, and that "This situation will be handled!" But if that seemed restrained, it escalated from there, with a follow-up tweet from Trump on Thursday saying the Chinese envoy to North Korea "seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket man." A Treasury official weighed in too, publicly declaring China was not doing enough on North Korea, or trade.
The comments were emblematic of a side risk posed by North Korea's missiles—raising tensions between the world's two most powerful economies. "If the U.S. continues to pressure China ... there is an increased chance that there will be a confrontation between U.S. and China because China feels it has no available option to pressure North Korea," Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing who studies North Korea's nuclear program, told me in a phone interview. "So we run the risk of making a problem between North Korea and the international community into a U.S.-China problem."
In Beijing following North Korea's missile test, Geng Shuang, the foreign ministry spokesman, expressed "grave concern and opposition to the DPRK's launching activities"—about as strong language as you're going to get from the Chinese government. Geng also noted that China "fully, accurately, earnestly and faithfully implements" UN resolutions against North Korea, and did not explicitly rule out participating in more sanctions. But as I've previously noted, North Korea is already under multiple rounds of U.S. and UN sanctions, and it's not clear what additional diplomatic steps can compel it to change its ambition, which it now appears to have achieved: having an ICBM that can hit the contiguous United States, theoretically with a nuclear warhead.
But realistically, if there were an economic way to exert more on pressure North Korea, it would have to come from China. (China, for its part, argues that its influence over North Korea is limited—and Beijing and Washington are at odds over the nature of the crisis.) Zhao said China has already taken some important steps that could hurt North Korea economically, but it can still limit the number of North Korean workers in China, a major source of foreign exchange for the regime in Pyongyang, and stop the export of crude oil and oil products to North Korea; the exports provide an economic lifeline to the North Korean regime.
"I think China will be okay to further cut the North Korean laborers working in China—or even agree to completely prohibit North Korean workers. But that's not something really big," Zhao said. "The oil supply is something really big, but I think China would still face a lot of difficulties in cutting off the oil supplies given the potential that cutting oil supplies could really destabilize the regime."
In Washington on Thursday, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, said China was "doing a lot" on the North Korean issue, but added: "We do think they could do more with the oil, and we're really asking them to please restrain more of the oil—not cut it off completely. That was the most effective tool the last time the North Koreans came to the table, was cutting the oil off."
Writing in Axios Thursday, Bill Bishop, the China expert, argued that if China doesn't take the kinds of strong steps the U.S. wants it to take, Washington could sanction Chinese financial institutions. Bishop argued that would be counterproductive, "as the anger in Beijing may lead China to halt any cooperation with the U.S. over North Korea."
The U.S. wants North Korea to commit to denuclearization before it begins talks, something Pyongyang will not do. But China has another worry: regime collapse in North Korea, which could create a refugee problem on its border and, ultimately, a reunified Korean Peninsula allied with the United States.
This means that China perceives its security threatened from several different directions—not just from the North Koreans. "North Korea's continuous provocation directly undermines China's security interest, [and] provides an excuse, from the Chinese perspective, for U.S., South Korea, and Japan to strengthen their security alliance," Zhao said.
He said China will likely send a strong signal to North Korea that it is unhappy. Indeed, in recent weeks and months, China suspended Air China services between Pyongyang and Beijing and closed the Friendship Bridge in Dandong, on the border between the two countries.
Yet Zhao said that if the North now launches some sort of diplomatic offensive, "that's something very important, potentially. If that happens, Beijing will be happy to slow down their imposition of new sanctions in order to promote this opportunity.
Still, even if China is willing to take more steps against the North, Zhao said, "but realistically I don't think there's much left for China to do."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 10:21 AM PST
When Ariyah Georges was born 15 weeks early, she weighed only one pound, 12 ounces. Her mother, Jovan, knew how important breastfeeding was, especially for micro-preemies like Ariyah, so she began pumping milk to feed her through a tube. But two days later, Jovan felt dizzy and feverish—104 degrees, in fact. She had a blood infection and was close to full septic shock.
"I almost croaked," Jovan says. She entered quarantine for nearly two weeks at the regional Northern Virginia hospital where she'd delivered. During that time, she could still pump breast milk, but Ariyah couldn't consume it because of the risk of developing sepsis herself. Without it, the newborn was particularly vulnerable to a disease called necrotizing enterocolitis, the number-one cause of death among premature infants in the United States.
Enter donor milk—breast milk purchased by hospitals for mothers who aren't able to produce enough milk on their own, due to health complications, stress, or other factors. The milk comes from milk banks, organizations that collect, screen, and pasteurize breast milk from lactating women willing to donate. Usually dispensed in neonatal intensive-care units, the milk is only available by prescription. And it hasn't just been found to improve infants' health outcomes; it can lower hospital costs by reducing the number of surgeries and interventions to correct life-threatening conditions.
In recent years, both milk banks and the use of donated human milk have risen swiftly in the United States. In 2011, 22 percent of NICUs used donor breast milk; four years later, that number doubled to nearly 40 percent, and went even higher for the most intensive NICUs—as much as 75 percent. There are 23 milk banks in the United States accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA, double the number that existed five years ago.
But as demand for donor milk rises, banks must find more charitable donors—a task made more complicated by informal, unregulated networks of milk sharing that happens online. And many of the most vulnerable infants are still not being reached.
* * *
I became acquainted with the world of human-milk donation quickly and unexpectedly last April, when my own son was born 10 weeks early. I blamed myself for his premature arrival, even though there was nothing more I could have done to prevent it. When it came to breastfeeding, my body seemed determined to redeem itself. I was lucky to have an immediate and bountiful supply—so bountiful, in fact, that I quickly stocked two freezers full of extra milk. I was producing double what my son needed, and quickly running out of room.
I began donating to the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin, which served the hospital where my son stayed. The Texas-based organization caters to hospitals in 22 states with milk from about 1,200 donors around the country. They're on track to dispense a total of 5 million ounces by the end of this year.
The screening process to become a donor is extensive. Before I began trundling a cooler packed with vials of frozen breast milk through downtown Washington, D.C., I completed several phone interviews with the bank, submitted recommendations from my doctor and my baby's doctors, took a blood test, and filled out a detailed questionnaire to screen for medical history, drug and alcohol use, diet choices, and so forth. Once the bank received my donated milk from the drop-off center in the city, they screened it for bacteria, pooled it with other donated milk, pasteurized it, and shipped it back out to hospitals.
To cover these costs, the bank charges each hospital a "processing fee"—usually $4 to $5 per ounce. The donors themselves don't receive any of this money. Even as I pumped away, I began to wonder about the industry built upon donations from women like me. Were donors ever reimbursed for our efforts or expenses?
"We don't pay donors," says Kim Updegrove, the executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin. Doing so, she explains, might encourage pay-to-pump situations where mothers are cashing in on their "liquid gold," as breast milk is often called. What if a mother begins neglecting her own child's nutrition in pursuit of money? In addition, one study found that breast milk available for purchase is often tainted with cow's milk; and milk sourced via the internet may contain higher traces of bacterial contamination.
Still, a company called Prolacta Bioscience, which produces a human-milk fortifier used to supplement both formula and breast milk for extremely premature babies, pays $1 an ounce to approved donors. Some moms also sell their milk outright—either to a co-op like Mother's Milk Cooperative in Oregon or through the website Only the Breast, kind of a Craigslist for breast milk.
For me, coordinating milk drop-off in the city was enough of a hassle and expense that I soon tried a different route: I found a local mother of a NICU baby to donate to on my own. I met the NICU mom online, through a Facebook group set up to facilitate informal sharing. Every few weeks, she drove to my house and picked up dozens of bags of frozen milk, which helped ease my workload as a donor. (I later learned that milk-bank volunteers may help overtaxed moms like me with milk drop-offs.)
I certainly wasn't the first person to try this approach. Social media is a major factor deterring potential donors from formal milk banks. It's often simpler, logistically, to get milk to a local parent in need than to ship it across the country. And there's no complicated paperwork. There are, of course, no regulations at all.
For Updegrove, informal sharing of this nature is a question of ethics: "how we decide to use the limited resource for the most vulnerable." She argues that extremely premature and ill babies need donor milk more than healthy, full-term infants. Babies fed breast milk are less vulnerable to illnesses such as diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia, and they are less likely to develop asthma or become obese later in life. But among premature babies, the effects can be even more profound; in addition to helping prevent NEC, breast milk can help stave off sepsis and promote long-term development. For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding preemies donor breast milk over formula when mothers' milk is not available.
The very lack of regulations in informal sharing, though, means that breast milk is often not given to the babies who need it most. "We've got babies who would die otherwise if they don't get human milk," Updegrove says. Her reasons were convincing enough for me to resume formal donations once my son's needs eased.
* * *
Although milk banking has sharply increased in the past few years, there are still many hospitals where donor milk isn't an option—and they tend to care for the most vulnerable babies at the highest risk of developing complications.
"I know this will sound backward to you," Updegrove says, "but we are working hard to increase the demand." She is confident that donations will continue to go up as demand increases, because more mothers will learn about the option to donate from hospitals using donor milk.
Expanding the supply of donor milk is about reaching out to women who aren't yet aware that milk banks exist, says Naomi Bar-Yam, the executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast and the current president of HMBANA. "There are a lot of moms who still don't know about this possibility. So we work hard to educate them," she says. Beyond recruiting more donors in the short term, banks also focus on strengthening breastfeeding in general—which has ripple effects for donation. Promoting a culture of breastfeeding, Bar-Yam argues, will result in more breast milk out in the world.
In fact, she highlights a counterintuitive trend: "As hospitals use donor milk in the NICUs, over time they need less donor milk." This has to do with those hospitals' newfound veneration of the bodily fluid, Bar-Yam explains. Both the staff and the parents learn the value of breast milk, and they work harder to support successful lactation with new parents—thus decreasing the amount of donor milk they need. "Just the very fact of having the milk there," she says, "is a very important message."
In Northern Virginia, the hospital staff encouraged Jovan to continue pumping as she recovered from her blood infection, even though she had to discard the milk during her illness. Although she was frustrated to "pump and dump," Jovan was encouraged by the thought that her daughter would seamlessly transition from donor breast milk to her own—without ever relying on formula. In the 1990s, Jovan's two older children had also been born prematurely, and donor milk was not an option at that hospital. "A lot of kids got sick because they had to give [them] formula," she says.
For Jovan, the message was now loud and clear: Donor milk had helped her baby, and it was time to pay it forward. When Ariyah left the NICU after 105 days, Jovan donated all the extra milk she'd saved up for her daughter at the hospital—about 350 ounces. She continues to pump about 100 ounces a month for donation to the milk bank, The King's Daughters, that served her daughter's hospital.
"If someone else didn't donate, it wouldn't have been available for my daughter," she says. "I want to help someone else's baby the way that they helped my baby."
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:34 PM PST
"What do you think?" asks Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), the pale, peculiarly dressed, raven-haired man of ambiguous age and accent at the center of the movie The Disaster Artist. "Am I villain?" The friend he's asking, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), has been roped into co-starring in Wiseau's directorial debut film The Room, and might be forgiven for answering in the affirmative. Wiseau certainly has a touch of the night about him. He's usually wearing wraparound sunglasses, his hair is draped over his shoulders with medieval flair, and his vaguely Eastern European speech patterns could be described as Dracula-esque.
The first part of The Disaster Artist follows Wiseau and Sestero trying to hack it in Hollywood for a while with no luck. At one acting class, a teacher suggests Wiseau go out for more nefarious roles that better suit his look. "I'm trying to give you a shortcut," the teacher insists. But Wiseau rejects him (and all the classmates that begin to laugh at him), yelling, "I hero, you all villain!" Wiseau—both James Franco's character and the real-life man—went on to channel that frustration, and millions of dollars of his own money, into making an independent film that's now known as one of the "best bad movies" ever. Considered a form of outsider art, 2003's The Room is a mainstay of midnight film screenings around the world, inspiring a massive cult following devoted to its distinctive awfulness.
James Franco, who directed and stars in The Disaster Artist—and who himself is no stranger to critical revilement—has found a special muse in Wiseau. Here is a villain, not just in appearance, but also for the myriad ways he bullied and exasperated people on the set of The Room (as documented in Sestero's book on the making of the film, also called The Disaster Artist). Wiseau's opus is a confusing tale that feels like an angry screed against a world he thinks has wronged him. But he still fits the Hollywood narrative of the hero—a man who kept fighting to make his art even as the industry pushed him away, and who created a piece of entertainment so singular and adored that it may never be forgotten.
How many other Hollywood "heroes" might think of themselves similarly, even as they annoyed and alienated their friends and co-workers to achieve their dreams? How much stubbornness and arrogance is essential to the creation of art—even a work as "objectively" bad as The Room, which violates almost every basic law of visual storytelling? These are the questions James Franco picks at in The Disaster Artist, questions that helped him make one of the most compelling and knowingly funny portrayals of the moviemaking process in recent memory.
Of course, the director has plenty of great material to work with. Sestero's book (co-written with Tom Bissell) has been adapted into a pithy, clever screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer). The film spends its first half on Wiseau and Sestero's curious friendship, and its second on the weird, tortured production and release of The Room. To bring the latter half of The Disaster Artist to life, James Franco has recruited a familiar coterie of collaborators he's worked with on Judd Apatow projects, including Apatow himself and Seth Rogen. Other stars like Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron make almost every scene seem like a celebrity-cameo event.
The real Wiseau is intriguing for more than just his mysterious, vampiric persona. As The Disaster Artist (both the book and the movie) details, he made all sorts of bizarre, incompetent decisions, like shooting his movie on 35-millimeter and digital film simultaneously at prohibitive expense, building elaborate and pricey sets for locations he could have filmed on for free, and firing crew members without cause at the drop of a hat. James Franco painstakingly re-creates all the strange mistakes Wiseau made, mimicking the amateurish look and sound of The Room, and scenes are identical enough to stand up to actual side-by-side comparison over the movie's end credits.
It's all hilarious to watch, and James Franco knows Wiseau is a figure of fun for the film while Sestero, played with well-meaning sweetness by his brother Dave, is the audience surrogate. But the director understands something else—Wiseau is a star in the truest sense of the word, someone you can't take your eyes off whenever he appears. Wiseau's odd appeal is the only reason anything in The Disaster Artist is remotely believable, even though it's based on a true story. James Franco is magnetic in the role, so committed to precisely replicating Wiseau's unique presence, that you understand why so many people went along for the ride with him.
In many ways, Wiseau isn't exactly a conventional hero. His relationship with Sestero (who lived as his roommate in Wiseau's L.A. bachelor pad) is borderline creepy at times, with Wiseau reacting negatively to any sign that his much younger friend might not need his support as much anymore. And The Room itself, an absurd drama about a man (played by Wiseau) who is betrayed by his fiancée and his best friend (played by Sestero) and then kills himself, seems reflective of that dark jealousy.
And yet Wiseau retains a hypnotic charm. He can be generous and kind, and is unwilling to participate in social niceties or to let Hollywood force him into a box. That bold spirit is something James Franco is obviously drawn to, and it's what makes his performance sing with genuine love, even as his character becomes truly unhinged on set. Fans of The Room will find much to love here, but even if you've never heard of it, The Disaster Artist should delight. Franco's movie is ultimately a chronicle of the genesis of great art—namely a work even its creator didn't fully understand, and whose popularity few could have ever imagined.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 12:01 PM PST
A decade after it started, the Great Recession has faded into memory. Corporate earnings and the stock market have fully recovered, with the financial sector thriving. The labor market has fully recovered, with middle-class earnings growing and the economy flirting with full employment. The government, at the state, local, and federal levels, has recovered too, and the economy is growing close to what economists think of as the fastest sustainable pace.
Yet, 10 years after the economy tipped into the deepest contraction of the post–World War II era, the Great Recession's scars remain, as seen in academic studies and government figures, as well as the testimony of regional business experts and the families that lived through it. The country has rebounded in many ways, but is also more unequal, less vibrant, less productive, poorer, and sicker than it would have been had the crisis been less severe. And the extent of the scarring holds lessons for the politicians and policymakers who will confront the next recession, whenever it hits and however it starts.
Economists have long known that recessions cause hysteresis—a word derived from the Greek word for "scars"—in the labor market. Some workers do not rebound from a recession for years, if ever, their skills degraded and their earnings diminished. So too with the economy itself; a bad recession can make the unemployment rate higher for years and years, and permanently change a country's potential for growth. Here, there are signs of that kind of scarring: The share of Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 who are working or looking for a job has dropped by more than a percentage point since 2007—a number that might sound minute, but translates into well more than a million people not participating in the current economic boom.
The recession lies at the heart of this. In research drawing on millions of anonymized tax returns, the Berkeley economist Danny Yagan has found that for every percentage point a local unemployment rate increased during the downturn, individuals were 0.4 percentage points less likely to be working in 2015. The intensity of the recession, in other words, squeezed workers out of the labor market. Moreover, as the Great Recession dampened employment, it also dampened earnings, with higher increases in a given area's jobless rate leading to lower earnings there nearly a decade down the road.
More broadly, the downturn seems to have wiped away demand for certain types of work, skewing the jobs market in a way that has hurt the middle class—a middle class for whom wages only recently started increasing again, and a middle class that has been shrinking since before the Great Recession hit. Job losses from the downturn were concentrated in so-called "middle skill" jobs—ones that require more education than a high-school diploma, but less than a college degree, things like parts manufacturing, assembly, telemarketing, mail delivery, cooking, and administrative-support work. "Unemployed middle-skill workers … appear to have few attractive or feasible employment alternatives outside of their skill class, and the drop in male participation rates during the past several decades can be explained in part by an erosion of middle-skill job opportunities," one study found—arguing, in effect, that middle-class jobs were washed away and workers decided to give up rather than taking a fast-food or big-box retail gig.
Those jobs were washed away, economists have found, by employers using the recession as an opportunity to fire workers and invest in labor-saving machines. One look at recession-era data found that employers were much more likely to add skill requirements to their job-vacancy postings in areas with big unemployment spikes: Instead of asking potential workers to have an associate's degree and three years of experience, say, they would ask applicants to have a bachelor's degree and five years of experience. At the same time, those businesses in hard-hit areas would invest in machines that would reduce the need for human workers at all. All together, the effect was that the Great Recession hastened the economy toward rewarding better-educated workers and robots, to the detriment of people without an advanced degree.
These changes in the demand for work and the jobs available have caused income inequality to be worse now than it would have been otherwise. Indeed, the rich have rebounded completely from the recession in terms of unemployment, earnings, and total job count—they did so quickly, in fact, and have flourished through much of the recovery. It is the middle class and lower-income workers who have not. "The employment and earnings impacts were most negative for those with low 2006 earnings, indicating that the Great Recession caused a long-term increase in employment and earnings inequality not only within but also across skill levels," Yagan has found.
Income bands and skill levels are not the only way to look at the deep scars left by the Great Recession. It seems to have permanently altered the economic geography of the country too, with study after study finding that many harder-hit places did not recover, while certain tech-heavy, coastal, and already rich areas snapped back quickly and then expanded. Parts of Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and California, for instance, experienced intense property bubbles, with their economies overly reliant on building activity and rising home values. Thus, they suffered severe shocks when the Great Recession hit, and have struggled to rebound below the surface, Yagan found.
Rural areas and so-called "distressed communities" also got hit hard and left behind, with the Great Recession amplifying longstanding trends that have seen rural areas, parts of the Rust Belt, and the South suffer. "The prime years of the national economic recovery bypassed many of America's most vulnerable places altogether," a report from the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington-based think tank and advocacy group, has found. "Far from achieving even anemic growth from 2011 to 2015, distressed communities instead experienced what amounts to a deep ongoing recession, with a 6 percent average decline in employment and a 6.3 percent average drop in business establishments."
As the Great Recession has left scars in terms of jobs and income, it has also left scars in terms of housing and wealth—with the rich getting richer and the poor recovering far less, if at all. Indeed, data analyzed by The Washington Post shows that the housing recovery has been strongest in the wealthiest areas, and slowest in the poorest. The average price of a house in a zip code in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution rose more than 20 percent between 2004 and 2015, versus just 13 percent in the rest. That is, at least in part, an artifact of the fact that lower-income individuals had higher unemployment rates during the Great Recession and were more likely to damage their credit scores and lose their homes—with, in some cases, profound effects on their health, wellbeing, and later earnings. After the Great Recession, many rich families saw their home prices climb, and had access to the cheapest credit available in years. Meanwhile, after the Great Recession, many poor families lost their homes, had their credit scores dinged, and could not buy property if they wanted to—with many forced into rental markets overheated by investors.
Indeed, credit scores and access to credit—and all that means for a family's ability to buy a house, finance an education, get a job, and have a comfortable cash cushion during rough economic times—remains an area where the recovery feels far off for many lower-income Americans. The average credit score has hit an all-time high, but millions of Americans still have hits to their credit caused by a foreclosure or bankruptcy. Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center has shown how bad credit caused by a foreclosure or job loss in some cases, particularly among lower-income families, becomes a kind of financial ouroboros. "The damage from a foreclosure or other adverse mortgage-related event could cause a consumer to be denied a job, lose out on a rental apartment after losing his or her home, and pay hundreds of dollars more in auto insurance premiums," she writes. "The cumulative impact of these financial calamities could strand a consumer economically for years after the foreclosure itself. It could create a self-fulfilling downward spiral in a consumer's economic life."
In terms of housing and wealth, the recovery from the Great Recession also had a racial slant, with white families rebounding and black and Latino families still burdened, years later. Families of color were more likely to have their wealth wrapped up in a home, and less in financial investments like stocks. They were more likely to be pushed into risky mortgages, and thus into foreclosure, and far more likely to be targeted by predatory lenders. Controlling for all other factors, the interest rates that black families paid for their mortgages were higher than those of white families. Thus, the Great Recession amplified the racial wealth gap—a racial wealth gap that, statistically speaking, might never close, absent extraordinary government intervention. "In the lead-up to the financial crisis, economic opportunity remained deeply unequal across racial lines, but economic trends suggested that America was on a path toward narrowing the yawning wealth disparities between white and black families," a report by the American Civil Liberties Union has found. "[It is] a tale of two recoveries: among families that owned homes, white households have started to rebound from the worst effects of the Great Recession while black households are still struggling to make up lost ground. The divergent recoveries are important in the immediate term, but they are also an especially ominous sign for the future."
There are other deep scars on American life, as well. The joint crises of the jobs and housing markets spurred stress-related health problems, among them "declining fertility and self-rated health, and increasing morbidity, psychological distress, and suicide." It led to falling neighborhood property values in places hit hard by foreclosure, and decreases in student achievement. It hurt children, too. In a deep and close look at the children of the Great Recession for the Russell Sage Foundation, Irwin Garfinkel, Sara S. McLanahan, and Christopher Wimer found that the recession "seriously exacerbated an already bad situation. This was true not only for families' economic well-being but also for parents' health. Even the effects on family stability were notable, though smaller. The near immunity of college-educated families and the large negative consequences for less-educated families mean that the Great Recession increased the already large divide between families at the top and bottom of the income distribution."
The recession even might have intensified today's opioid epidemic. Researchers have found that rising county unemployment rates lead directly to additional opioid overdoses and unemployment deaths. The twin factors of the opioid crisis and the downturn-fueled economic malaise seen in some parts of the country might also explain some of the decline in the labor force there. The Princeton economist Alan Krueger has estimated that half of prime-age men not working or looking for work take pain medication on a daily basis. "Labor force participation has fallen more in areas where relatively more opioid pain medication is prescribed, causing the problem of depressed labor force participation and the opioid crisis to become intertwined," he found.
A sicker, more unequal, more racially divided country: This is the legacy of the Great Recession. And it has profound lessons for policymakers going forward. For one, the stimulus program and automatic stabilizers—the government programs that expand when the jobs market goes south, like unemployment insurance—did work well to blunt the worst effects of the downturn. But the stimulus was always too small—perhaps three-quarters or two-thirds the size it needed to be, economists have guessed—resulting in still-extraordinary rates of joblessness, long-term unemployment, and other forms of economic stress. Moreover, the Obama administration failed to enact a government policy to keep many families in their homes, with profound knock-on effects in terms of lost jobs, lost sleep, and lost health.
When the next recession comes, the data on what to do about it will be there. Economists have pulled together plenty of studies of the dollar-for-dollar effectiveness of initiatives like extending unemployment insurance and increasing the size of the food-stamp programs, and the relative ineffectiveness of things like corporate tax cuts. Social scientists, social workers, and local officials have urged the importance of acting as quickly as possible to intervene, with efforts to stabilize financial markets, increase the deficit, and make monetary policy more accommodative. The country has now gone through three consecutive jobless recoveries, with downturns tending to amplify long-existing trend to hollow out the middle class, polarize the labor market, and hit already ailing regions hard. It seems likely that the next recession will do much the same.
The question is whether policymakers will take such evidence of the pain and scars left by the Great Recession into account. Congress is today on the verge of pushing forward a tax cut aimed at rich families and profitable corporations that will add more than a trillion dollars to the debt, with no real need for new economic stimulus at the moment. Meanwhile, it has declined to do much for the poorer families that are still feeling the worst effects of the last recession and have not yet recovered. The risk is that next time, they will get left even further behind.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 08:39 AM PST
It's been two months since the last major push to repeal the Affordable Care Act died in the Senate, but the law is still on the ropes. Republican efforts to stymie the law and dismantle connected pieces of the national health infrastructure are taking their toll. With or without a full repeal, policy developments on the horizon could topple Obamacare, causing millions to lose coverage or see their health-care costs increase beyond their ability to pay.
Very few pieces of the health law aren't vulnerable right now. To start, it turns out that despite numerous reports of "surges" in sign-ups on HealthCare.gov, the federal-exchange website, at the beginning of the open-enrollment period in November, overall uptake might still be anemic compared with last year.
This was the desired result on the part of the White House. The Trump administration slashed the open-enrollment advertising budget and halved the sign-up period this year. That means that in order to outpace 2016's numbers on the federal exchange, enrollment would have had to start strong and outpace every 2016 benchmark. Buoyed by promotion from health-care companies and private citizens—including Barack Obama—a strong start materialized, but the pace has recently slipped. So far, 2.3 million people have signed up for coverage on the federal exchange, but about 7 million more would need to enroll before the end of open enrollment on December 15 to match last year's numbers.
If this year's enrollment falls short, it could further imperil exchanges that are already at risk. Insurance companies plan both their rates and their participation in the exchanges based on future margins, which depend on both the volume and health of enrollees. Existing instability on the exchanges—and GOP "sabotage"—have already increased premiums, although most consumers don't actually see those rising costs because federal subsidies hide them. But with the addition of more uncertainty, generated by the administration's refusal to make cost-sharing-reduction payments to insurers, there's a greater incentive to leave markets altogether or find ways to select against poorer enrollees. The number of counties with no insurers offering plans on the exchanges is already rising, and there are over 1,000 counties with only a single insurer.
Given the peculiarities of the open-enrollment period this year, those numbers might increase. The decrease in sign-up volume would be a problem in and of itself, but the kinds of people who choose not to enroll is also an issue. Some navigators, professionals who assist consumers with signing up for insurance, expect that the abridged enrollment period and cuts to advertising will lead to much fewer healthier and younger people signing up for care—and those people are vital to keeping exchange risk pools balanced and keeping premiums from spiking even further. In the words of one navigator interviewed by West Virginia Public Broadcasting: "They are typically the people who waited until [the] last minute and they are typically swayed by the advertising that the federal government isn't paying for this year."
Realistically, even open-enrollment numbers that surge past last year's targets might not keep the exchanges in working order. That's because the Republican tax bill heading toward a final vote in the Senate dismantles the key provision in Obamacare holding those exchanges together: the individual mandate. In addition to its deficit-increasing tax cuts for older and wealthier Americans, the bill in its current form also stealthily kills the requirement that all Americans have insurance, thus accomplishing at least part of the "skinny repeal" that failed to gain traction in the Senate before. While in theory this provision would reduce the bill's overall effects on the deficit—because fewer people signing up for insurance translates to fewer federal tax credits—realistically it would probably be a blow to the exchanges and to much of the Affordable Care Act's coverage gains.
An analysis from the Congressional Budget Office predicts that's what would happen. The CBO report says that repealing the mandate would reduce the number of insured people by 13 million over the next 10 years. While some of the decrease would come from people simply choosing not to pay for insurance, the bulk of it would come from losing the mandate as the "glue" for the whole program.
For example, the CBO projection includes about 5 million people who'd leave Medicaid rolls, even though Medicaid is free. Other, previous analyses have found that the mandate helps ease the stigma of enrolling in Medicaid, a means-tested program traditionally viewed as welfare. They've also found it helps spread awareness about coverage options to low-income people and their children. What's more, diminishing risk pools on the exchanges—the result of an imbalance between high- and low-cost patients—raise premiums and can influence insurer decisions to pull out of markets.
It's hard to imagine those changes would leave stable, working exchanges in the years ahead. Again, insurers make decisions based on risk, and it seems the Trump administration and a Republican Congress are presenting them with plenty of risk.
The bill's potential effect on Americans' health doesn't stop at the mandate. The CBO also reports that if the projected deficit increase of $1.5 trillion isn't mitigated through additional legislation, it'll trigger automatic cuts in mandatory spending, including up to $25 billion a year from Medicare. That alone wouldn't be enough to close the deficit gap, but it'd have serious implications for the decades-old program. Twenty-five billion dollars is only 4 percent of its annual budget, but as Vox's Sarah Kliff explained, for life-saving therapies and programs requiring expensive drugs and devices, that 4 percent makes all the difference.
Additionally, as my colleague James Hamblin noted, the overall health effects from income inequality run deeper and broader than coverage numbers suggest. With the bill expected to increase relative disparities between upper- and lower-income tiers, some researchers predict that the stress of trying to make it out of the working class will only increase, and with it, so will health disparities.
In short, the legislation would put incredible strains on the remaining infrastructure of the health law, just as another blow is potentially around the corner. As more and more senators, including Maine's Susan Collins, have been coaxed to get on board with the GOP's tax plan, a reauthorization bill for the Children's Health Insurance Program has languished since Congress allowed the program to lapse in September. States have been relying on reserve funding to keep the 9 million children insured through the program covered, but for many states that money will soon run out. The lack of a deal on CHIP is baffling for a program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support, and all the more so because the holdup appears to be the cost of the program. CHIP, which costs roughly $15 billion annually, is in limbo while a $1.5 trillion tax plan consolidates GOP support.
Nothing is a sure thing at this point. Obamacare sign-ups could rally over the next two weeks. A final tax plan could still be defeated in either chamber, or lawmakers could ditch the individual-mandate provision. And CHIP could still get reauthorized, even if it takes a bit of congressional brinksmanship to get there. But with markets already wracked by instability and uncertainty, damage to the greater health-care landscape has already been done.
Posted: 01 Dec 2017 08:47 AM PST
What We're Writing
North Korea Is Back: North Korea launched an ICBM on Tuesday after a 74-day pause in its missile testing activities. The initial response it elicited from the Trump administration was limited to a tweet promising to "take care of it." After the test was concluded, North Korea declared itself a fully-developed nuclear power and is believed to have the capacity to launch a missile that would hit the continental United States. This new reality needs a strong U.S. response—and Mira Rapp-Hooper argues that the Trump administration needs to understand that demanding disarmament is no longer on the table. Any future negotiation on the North Korean nuclear program will need to involve China—but, as Krishnadev Calamur explains, the U.S. and China differ greatly in their evaluation of the threat North Korea poses.
Deception in the Hands of Autocrats: Amy Zegart argues that great-power deception has evolved, and autocratic powers are now armed with viral platforms like Facebook or Twitter—and the capacity to take their misinformation campaigns global. Julia Ioffe explains that Vladimir Putin already uses the tools of misinformation and corporate pressure to censure freedom of the press in Russia, and she's worried that the same thing is happening in Trump's America. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also using a denial and negative-press campaign to forestall the effects of the trial in the United States of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman accused of enabling sanctions-avoidance with the help of Turkish authorities.
Religious Extremism: In light of an Islamist attack that killed more than 300 people at a Sufi mosque in Egypt last week, H.A. Hellyer argues that both detractors and admirers share the same dangerous misunderstanding of Sufism as a heterodox form of Islam. A subset of Muslims is also in danger in Burma, where violence against the Rohingya is driving accusations of ethnic cleansing. Pope Francis, who visited this week, chose not to use the word "Rohingya" while in the country, possibly in order to avoid endangering the Christian minority. And in India, Harrison Akins argues, Hindu nationalism is visible in the way Uttar Pradesh's Bharatiya Janata Party government is pushing Hindutva—an ideology that puts Hindu faith and culture at the center of Indian identity—and writing out the sizable contributions of Indian Muslims, including the Taj Mahal.
Read about the Baltic paramilitary groups who are preparing the next generation of soldiers to defend their countries against what they see as an inevitable Russian invasion, in this photo essay by documentary photographer Tomaso Clavarino.
"You don't counter racism and prejudice by backing down to it," said Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign U.K. lobby group, about Pope Francis's decision not to use the word "Rohingya" while in Burma.
"Weeping, evidently, is quite a thing among jihadists," writes Simon Cottee in an essay about Thomas Hegghammer's recent book, Jihadi Culture.
"She's managed to get the [royal] family to move with the times," said Prince Harry of England as he praised the Queen's willingness to celebrate his recent engagement with American actress and activist Meghan Markle. Read about the significance of the engagement here.
Our Long Read of the Week
Annabelle Timsit wrote about feminists in France who are trying to make French more gender-neutral as a way to fight gender inequality. The question of whether language affects perception, which is at the center of the debate, is controversial. Read about it here.
What We're Reading
From North Korea, With Dread, by Adam B. Ellick and Jonah M. Kessel, is the video-based account of a trip the authors took with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and editorial writer Carol Giacomo. Their plea to the international community is heartfelt: "We hope this video can serve as a call for politicians on both sides to seek exit ramps for peace." (Via The New York Times)
A People Without Refuge, by Zeenat Nagree and Hashim Badani, is a vivid depiction of a Rohingya settlement in India, where refugees await a forthcoming court decision on whether they pose a threat to national security and will need to be deported. (Via Roads & Kingdom)
The Abandoned Children of Morocco, by Ali Berrada, tells the story of the thousands of abandoned children who are getting a second chance at a decent life, thanks to organizations like La Ligue Marocaine Pour la Protection de l'Enfance and their volunteer caregivers. (Via Pacific Standard Magazine)
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