- The Battle Over DACA Reaches a Fever Pitch
- Why 'Cooking With Your Mouth' Exists
- The Power and Perils of Speaking 'Your Truth'
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: When the Actors Wore Black
- The Koreas Start Talking
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: You Get a Candidate! And You Get a Candidate!
- The Perfect Pairing of Subject and Chronicler
- Mountain Gorillas at Home
- America's Rivers Are Getting Saltier
- What the Oprah Boomlet Means for Democrats
- The Weird, Wondrous World of Competitive Dog Grooming
- How Stephen Miller Got What He Wanted From CNN
- New Year's Resolutions Are Predictions About the Future
- The Black and Hispanic Unemployment Rates Don't Deserve Applause
- 2018: The Golden Globes’ Year of (Literal) Fashion Statements
- Pakistan Will Try to Make Trump Pay
- How Letting Felons Vote Is Changing Virginia
- How the Olympics Could Help Defuse the North Korea Crisis
- The Atlantic Grows Politics & Policy Team: Elaina Plott Hired as Staff Writer, Reihan Salam Becomes Contributing Editor
- What the Men Didn't Say
- A New Way to Find the Tree of Life's Missing Branches
- The False Promises of Worker Retraining
Posted: 09 Jan 2018 03:00 AM PST
Over the next several weeks, chances are that one of two things will happen in Washington: Either a Republican-controlled Congress will pass, and a Republican president will sign, the most significant changes to U.S. immigration law and border security in more than a decade, or the federal government will shut down.
The precarious status of about 700,000 young immigrants is coming to a head, and leaders of both parties are finally hunkered down in negotiations over whether—and under what conditions—to protect them from the threat of deportation. Without congressional action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will end in March, halting the reprieve former President Barack Obama granted to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But the real deadline is likely much sooner, because Democrats on Capitol Hill are under increasing pressure to use their limited legislative power to block any new extension of government funding if Republicans don't act on DACA. Under a stopgap measure Congress enacted last month, the next spending bill must pass by January 19.
"The urgency is there for us to get something immediately," said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. "Even though there is positive momentum, that momentum isn't translating into concrete policies and a final policy deal."
The wild card in the negotiations, as ever, is President Trump, who has vacillated in his demands for legislation to enshrine DACA provisions into law. Will he accept a path to citizenship for most or all Dreamers, as Democrats are insisting upon, or will he draw a line at more limited protections? And will Trump demand money for construction of his signature southern border wall and changes to the legal immigration system, or will he accept more modest enhancements to border security? In recent days, the president has returned to a more confrontational posture, as the White House angered Democrats by sending over the same list of hard-line demands it released in October.
"It is part of a pattern of behavior on the part of this White House during sensitive bipartisan negotiations," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer complained on Monday afternoon. "Over the past year, the Trump White House has much more frequently been a disruptive force rather than a unifying force." Schumer's top lieutenant and a leading DACA negotiator, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, was more blunt last week after the president pushed for $18 billion in wall funding: "President Trump has said he may need a good government shutdown to get his wall. With this demand, he seems to be heading in that direction," he said.
In addition to the wall funding, Trump wants Congress to end the diversity visa lottery and limit the ability of citizens and green-card holders to sponsor the entry of their family members—what restrictionists refer to as chain migration. Those demands go far beyond what Democrats thought the president had agreed to back in September as part of a "Dream-Act-for-border-security" arrangement they hashed out over dinner at the White House. Beyond extending protections for DACA recipients, the broader Dream Act could cover millions more immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally. In exchange, Democrats had offered to spend billions to beef up the border through a combination of hiring more and better-trained patrol officers, building more roads and guard towers, enhancing existing fencing, and bolstering the use of new technology—basically anything except the hulking, 2,000-mile wall that Trump had promised would be paid for by Mexico during the campaign.
"Hardliners in the administration and on Capitol Hill are now demanding 90 percent of their immigration agenda in exchange for 10 percent of the Democrats' immigration agenda," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading advocacy group for immigration reform. A person familiar with the talks said that while Democrats would not consider changes to family sponsorship, there had been discussions about limiting the diversity visa program in exchange for extending temporary protected status to immigrants from nations stripped of the designation by the Trump administration. On Monday, the administration announced that about 200,000 people from El Salvador must leave the U.S. after earlier stripping similar protections for immigrants from Nicaragua and Haiti.
Several different bipartisan groups have worked on DACA legislation in the House and Senate, and it's unclear which effort will form the basis of a final deal. Trump is hosting a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the issue, and Republicans are waiting to see which, if any, proposal he decides to endorse.
Republican leaders have said they want to address DACA by the Trump-imposed March deadline, but they need the president to sell any deal to the party base and give them cover with the GOP's most ardent immigration foes in the Capitol. It is that expected backlash that has stalled previous attempts at reform in the House under both the Bush and Obama administrations. "Congress and President Trump cannot legalize DACAs without sacrificing the Rule of Law and broadcasting a call to come to America to be here for the next amnesty," tweeted Representative Steve King of Iowa, perhaps the nation's loudest restrictionist voice. "No matter the 'deal' the Rule of Law would fall!"
Democratic leaders, however, aren't in much better shape with their own base. The party's chief leverage is in the Senate, where at least eight Democratic votes are needed to defeat a filibuster of spending bills. Dreamer activists were angered when Schumer chose not to press the DACA issue in December, agreeing to punt the issue to January rather than corral his caucus for a shutdown fight before Christmas. The Dream Act is one of several pieces that Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hope to attach to a longer-term spending bill, but it's possible that Congress might need to buy even more time after January 19 and pass another interim measure instead.
Immigration activists are losing patience, and not just with Republicans. "Senator Schumer needs to step up his game," Vargas told me. "At this point, we're seeing very amateur dealmaking skills from supposedly the master strategist." Activists spent much of December demonstrating outside the Capitol and at the offices of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. "We really don't like that we are being used as bargaining chips for this supremacist agenda," said Juan Manuel Guzman, outreach and policy manager for United We Dream. "The Democrats need to use all the power they have, all the leverage they have, to make this a priority."
Schumer's office chose not to respond, though Democratic leaders have said they will continue to demand a DACA deal before agreeing to any one of several other legislative priorities that Republicans want to resolve, including lifting spending caps for the military or giving final approval for an $80 billion disaster relief package. "We maintained all of our leverage," a leadership aide said.
For Vargas, a Dreamer himself, and other immigrant advocates, the frustration goes back years—to when Democrats had majorities in Congress and Obama in the White House and still couldn't pass the Dream Act, much less a more comprehensive immigration overhaul. Now, he concedes that with Republicans in control, permanent protections will come with pricey strings attached, and perhaps even something that Trump will call a wall. He said he could live with updated fencing on the border, or "a digital wall."
"For me, if Trump wants to say he has built a wall, an actual wall that's going to promote border security, that's a victory he should take," Vargas told me. "Frankly, if the Republicans and the administration are able to come out with a deal, they have played their cards very well. And Trump could get credit for a really good deal, because Democrats have failed to do that."
Posted: 09 Jan 2018 03:00 AM PST
In a short time, 2018 has provided plenty of material to make people queasy, from a YouTubed corpse to a president bragging of his stable genius. But one piece of media that went viral in the year's first days offered a particularly bizarre, and oddly inspired, gross-out experience.
Trigger warning: chewing, spitting, and salmonella risk ahead.
In a video entitled "Cooking With Your Mouth" a woman prepares a Christmas stuffing by using only her teeth as utensils. Raw onion, garlic, carrots, and other items enter and leave her mouth on camera while she gamely struggles to maintain composure. At the end, the turkey she stuffed comes out of the oven looking magazine-perfect. She kisses it, then eats it.
An edited version, below, has received millions of views on Facebook and Twitter. The full, original clip is here.
Some write-ups have treated the video as an earnest, if upsetting, cooking tutorial. One site referred to it as "the food trend that we never, ever asked for." But the clip's creator is the 29-year-old video artist Nathan Ceddia. He has an entire catalogue of surreal, discomfiting work related to food.
I spoke to Ceddia over Skype for an answer to the question: Why does this exist? This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: Tell me about your background generally.
Nathan Ceddia: I've always been really interested in cooking. After school I studied hospitality and hotel management but hated it because I wanted to do something more creative. So I did things like try out for MasterChef, and then I studied video arts for three years.
[The project] that started off my food videos was a thing called "sneeze art." Wasabi makes me sneeze; I was eating a sushi roll, and it went all over the wall. So I created a film about an artist [whose] painting work was done by sneezing onto a canvas. People actually believed that character was real.
After that, I moved to London and I worked for Bompas & Parr, which is a food design company. One of the projects we did was called "Cake Holes." We invited 20 people into our studio and asked them to get naked and sit on cakes. It started to go viral, and we got a lot of emails from people who do sploshing. Do you know what sploshing is?
Kornhaber: I don't think so.
Ceddia: Sploshing is where people cover themselves in food for fun. It's maybe a sexual thing, but also a playful thing. There's a whole community.
From there, I moved to Berlin and started creating videos for myself. The idea [for "Cooking With Your Mouth"] came to me when I was in my friend's kitchen, having a meal. My friend was trying to find some utensils and I said, "Well if you don't have utensils, why don't you use your mouth? What's the sharpest tool in the kitchen right now? It's our teeth."
On that night, I came up with maybe 10 recipes that I could do. But I sat on it for about two years, with it always in the back of my head. A few months ago we decided to film an episode with my friend Iska [Lupton]. She came over to Berlin for 24 hours—she'd never been there before—and we shot two recipes, one still to come. But we'll keep that quiet for now.
Kornhaber: Oh god.
Ceddia: I can say that this one goes the next step. It goes even further.
Kornhaber: Like raw meat?
Ceddia: It's very meaty. Yeah. There's a lot of ripping, pulling, and tearing.
So we shot the episode. We had two cameras on her. Everything was real, we didn't want to fake anything. She firstly chopped up the onion in her mouth, which was really full-on for her, and she cried tears. For me as the director, watching her, it was a bit challenging because you can't help—all the pain was going on in her mouth. It got tougher once we got to the garlic, which started to burn. She was a pro. At the end of it, the meal that we turned out looked like it could have come from a restaurant. It was tasty; we all had a taste.
For us, it was a test to see, "If you didn't have anything in the kitchen, what could you do to create a meal?" Obviously people think it's gross, but you're putting food in your mouth at the end of the day. If you're cooking for a partner, someone you kiss, why not cook in a totally different way?
Kornhaber: There have been a couple of write-ups that took the video extremely at face value, saying that cooking with your mouth was a "trend" of 2018. What did you make of that reaction?
Ceddia: I think it's a great trend for 2018. It's making people think outside the square. Cooking has become boring. Everyone knows how to do it. Why not take it to the next step?
Kornhaber: But it's a satire of cooking culture, right?
Ceddia: Well it's definitely looking into cooking culture. Social media has overshared food too much. Everyone watches the cooking show, but no one cooks the meal. It's become food porn, over-the-top and gross and extreme.
Kornhaber: It made me laugh because it resembles all those tiny viral cooking videos you see on Facebook about using some cutesy design or unconventional ingredient.
Ceddia: Yeah. I actually just applied for a job at [a publication that covers food] and went through a few rounds of interviews to be the content producer. I had to do a full document to show them how I'd get them views and "likes." At the end they never contacted me. So maybe I felt a bit hard done by. I'd like to put "Cooking With Your Mouth" on their website.
Kornhaber: What draws you to food and cooking?
Ceddia: Since I was a young kid I've had a weird obsession with food. I come from an Italian background, and my Nonna used to feed us until we couldn't eat anymore. I used to experiment with my sister in the kitchen when we were 6 or 7, putting things in the microwave and taking things out of the cupboard. Packets of chicken noodle soup with frozen peas—anything we could find, we would create a concoction.
I wanted to be a chef, and I worked in kitchens, [but] the chefs were crazy and usually alcoholics or addicted to drugs. So that threw me off a bit, and I went down a different path.
Kornhaber: A lot of your art plays with things that people consider disgusting, whether it's chewing and spitting, or sneezing, or sitting on cakes. What's your interest in disgust?
Ceddia: People think things are disgusting, but it's something natural they do every day. What's the difference between sitting naked on some grass or sitting on a cake you can wipe off? It's all the same thing. It's just context. And sneezing is something natural that happens all the time. Why can't it be more than that? It's not just a sneeze that happens and goes away—it's something you can visualize. If you could see all the particles flying through the air, you'd see all the beauty in it.
Cooking with your mouth might be disgusting to people. But it also shows us what we don't need. If you didn't have a knife, what would you use? We are more powerful than we think we are.
I really like people who are taking food to the next level. There's a girl called breadfaceblog. She's got thousands of followers online, and every day she squashes another piece of bread on her face. I find that really interesting. She's got this small piece of bread that people have been eating for thousands of years, and she's gone, "What if it's something else?"
Kornhaber: Have you heard of anyone cooking with their mouth since the video went up?
Ceddia: No, but I'm sure people will. I'd love to see people creating their own recipes and sending them to me, or requesting recipes. It'd be amazing to start a YouTube channel where we cook with our mouth.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 04:14 PM PST
On Monday, as Oprah Winfrey's stirring acceptance speech at the Golden Globes secured a place in the national conversation, Byron Tau of The Wall Street Journal tweeted, "Oprah employed a phrase that I've noticed a lot of other celebrity using these days: 'your truth' instead of 'the truth.' Why that phrasing?" He fretted that "your truth" undermines the idea of shared common facts.
Well, Garance Franke-Ruta replied, "sometimes you know something is real and happened and is wrong, even if the world says it's just the way things are. It's a call to activism rooted in the individual story, grounded in personal experience."
Another Twitter user chimed in to add that, "it's also a well-known tactic in building leadership in community organizing that allows people who are rarely heard to tell their story, learn that they are, in fact, not alone, connects individual experiences to systemic issues, and helps develop powerful public speakers."
And yet, others chimed in to ask: What about the people whose earnestly held "truth" is that immigrants are ruining America; or that the white race is inherently superior to all others; or that the rules set forth in Leviticus or the Koran are the only way to live; or that the latest Alex Jones conspiracy theory is correct; or that climate change is a hoax cooked up by liberals to gain control over all aspects of life in the United States?
* * *
It is fitting that Oprah would trigger a debate about the power and the perils of speaking "your truth," for her tremendously impressive career illustrates both sides of the phenomenon.
Some years ago, marking the finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show, my colleague Caitlin Flanagan recounted Oprah's poverty-stricken childhood, the physical beatings she took from her grandmother, her traumatic rape at the age of 9, and the early pregnancy that threatened to consign her to a life of deprivation—and persuasively argued that she was able to become one of the richest, most influential humans in large part because of an idea that she was "born for greatness."
That was among her truths. And she clung to it and fought to manifest it—no matter that she grew up in a culture that told her black women were inferior, and was abused by people conveying the message that she personally deserved no better. Decades later, having become a billionaire celebrity as beloved as anyone in America by going to television each day to earnestly convey her beliefs and experiences—and to urge others to do the same—how could Oprah of all people fail to believe that "speaking your truth" is "the most powerful tool that we all have"?
And yet, "in her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types," Mark Oppenheimer observed in The New York Times, in another critical evaluation of The Oprah Winfrey Show published back in 2011 as it was ending:
An overlapping indictment appeared in Newsweek a couple years before. One section recounted Oprah appearances by Suzanne Somers, who was advocating for a highly unusual approach to health and medicine to stave off aging:
Somers was speaking "her truth," as was another celebrity guest, perhaps the most controversial to ever appear on Oprah Winfrey's show. As Newsweek recounted:
McCarthy was sharing "her truth." And doing so has undoubtedly been a powerful tool: There are enclaves where so many parents are declining to vaccinate their children that "herd immunity" against devastating diseases is at risk.
* * *
It could be that Oprah has learned something from those bygone controversies about a TV show that was, it's worth noting, enormously constructive on the whole, with many more uplifting than destructive instances of speaking "one's truth."
In fact, Oprah's speech at the Golden Globes actually used the word "truth" five times. First, she praised the press, observing that "it's the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice." Next, segueing to the #MeToo moments of recent months, she declared that "speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories."
Those passages suggest a person who values seeking "the truth" as a vital project, even while maintaining that speaking "your truth" is indispensable, inspiring, and empowering. There is truth in both insights. If any observer of the #MeToo moment doubts the importance of believing in oneself—or the cost some abused men and women have paid for insufficient confidence in what they felt to be correct—Salma Hayek's description of her years-long ordeal with Harvey Weinstein is as powerful an illustration of both points as I can imagine.
As for Oprah's final three invocations of "truth" in her speech?
She told the story of Recy Taylor, "a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she'd attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road."
They threatened her with death if she told anyone about her crime.
But she wound up seeking justice with the help of Rosa Parks, then of the NAACP:
On reflection, it seems to me that the speech's take on "truth" would've been improved not by eliminating any notion of speaking "your truth," which has its place, but by phrasing that final anecdote in a way that made one point more clear: that Recy Taylor wasn't just speaking "her truth," she was speaking "the truth" to power—and that her unpaid claim to justice is inseparable from that fact.
Rosa Parks didn't take up her case to vindicate "her truth," but on behalf of "the truth." The Jim Crow elites who failed to prosecute her attackers may or may not have been living out "their truths," but they were utterly at odds with "the truth."
None of that is incompatible with the claim that "speaking your truth" is a powerful tool. But it makes clearer that powerful tools can be used for good and ill; that they can have ill effects even when used with the best of intentions; and that tools of great power confer great responsibility on all users.
Insofar as Oprah's speech was aimed at young girls in abject poverty like that of her own youth, the failure to clarify that wrinkle is relatively unimportant; insofar as it was delivered to hundreds of powerful Hollywood celebrities now proclaiming themselves inspired by Oprah's words, clarity on that point is essential. Going forward, Oprah would do well to assert her full, rightful claims to "the truth" when speaking it—as she often does insightfully—while eschewing untruths (even when they are "her truths," or expressions that people she esteems earnestly regard as "their truths") in recognition of the power she wields.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 03:19 PM PST
What We're Following
The Golden Globes: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird were the big film winners on Sunday night, but the biggest story was the shift in the industry sparked by last year's reports of the producer Harvey Weinstein's abusive behavior. Among the many women who used the awards show as a platform to speak out against sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond, Oprah Winfrey, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her contributions to the world of entertainment, called for women to "become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say 'me too' again." Her speech (you can read a transcript here) moved some people to call for her to run for president—posing a potential conundrum for the Democratic party.
Trump's Weekend: In the midst of speculation about his competence to lead the country following a provocative new book about his White House, President Trump described himself on Twitter as "like, really smart" and "a very stable genius at that." From his experience interviewing Nobel Prize winners and others, James Fallows notes that these kinds of self-descriptions aren't common among the world's geniuses; indeed, the like alone mystified many observers. (Here's a language expert's take.) Yet as David Frum writes, the episode points to something more important than Trump himself: "the system of power surrounding the man."
Foreign Policy: Trump's decision to suspend security assistance to Pakistan has changed the balance of the two nations' relationship—perhaps in a way that leaves the U.S. stronger. And the upcoming Winter Olympics may offer an opportunity for the U.S. to support diplomatic talks between North Korea and South Korea, opening the way for the White House's own negotiations and easing the crisis in the region.
Vann R. Newkirk II on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe's expanded clemency program:
Keep reading here as Vann explains how McAuliffe set out to bring felons back into civic life after prison by restoring their right to vote.
What Do You Know … About Education?
Government officials tout job-training programs as the solution to worker displacement, but the real-world situation looks a little different: The recent history of federal job-training programs suggests that large-scale retraining efforts tend to fail. And the path from unemployment to retraining, which often includes going back to school in some capacity, has only become more complicated in recent years. As job-seekers with outdated skill sets face an uncertain future, The Atlantic's "What Makes a Worker?" project explores the programs trying to prepare them for the next era of work in the U.S.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's education coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, the bad guy in Phineas and Ferb who speaks in a vaguely German-sounding accent, comes from the fictional European country of ___________.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. LinkedIn's platform for real-time data on the global workforce is known as the Economic ____________.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. HuffPost's analysis of schools that participate in private school-choice programs found that ____________ percent of these schools are religiously affiliated.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
In honor of The Atlantic's 160th anniversary, we're sharing one article every day to mark each year of the magazine's history. From 1900, former President Grover Cleveland reflected on the political process:
Read more here, and find more stories from our archives here.
After an explosive book by Michael Wolff appeared to confirm the "open secret" of President Trump's unsuitability for office, James Fallows criticized Republican leaders for failing to act on the warning signs. A reader replies:
More from readers here. For more on Wolff and his book, here's how one Trump aide's defense of his boss might have rallied the president's base, and here's what Wolff himself has in common with the contrarian president.
Time of Your Life
From yesterday, happy birthday to Mary's husband, Doug (a year younger than LP records); to Brandi (twice the age of Harry Potter); and to Patricia's husband, Barry (a year younger than the Golden Gate Bridge).
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 03:00 PM PST
North and South Korean officials are meeting Tuesday for the first time in two years to discuss North Korea's participation in next month's Winter Olympics in the South.
Talks in the border village of Panmunjom will center on the games in PyeongChang, said Cho Myoung-gyon, the South Korean unification minister, on Monday. But he added: "When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions." North Korea is going to be interested in sanctions relief, according to Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The country is under a host of U.S. and UN sanctions for its illicit nuclear and missile programs.
Two weeks ago, such talks would have seemed unimaginable. Over the past year, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen over the North's ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. The North says its weapons programs are a deterrent against possible U.S. aggression and points to the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea as evidence of Washington's intentions. The U.S. points out that its joint military exercises are legal under international law while North Korea's missile and nuclear-weapons programs are not.
Amid these tensions came an opening: In his New Year's Day speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while warning that "the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons," also offered the possibility of talks with South Korea—with an eye on next month's Winter Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae In, who was elected last year on a promise to repair relations with the North, welcomed the remarks. It was, critics said, part of a classic North Korean strategy of trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
"The real question, I think, is how much do we have to worry about that," Snyder said. "Of course, the North Koreans are going to try to divide the U.S. and South Korea. That's always been part of their playbook. ... [But] it's going to be challenging for the North Koreans to be able to pull that off."
Still, one hurdle remained for talks: the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises that were scheduled to fall in the middle of the February 9-25 games. But on Friday, the two countries agreed to postpone the drills until April, well after the games end. Snyder said North Korea would likely seek a postponement of the joint drills at least until September, which is when it marks the 70th anniversary of its founding.
"I imagine that the North Koreans will make a pass at trying to push the exercises back further and the South Koreans will also want to talk about North Korean missile and nuclear testing," Snyder said.
This is the essence of the so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal put forth by North Korea and China; that is, Pyongyang freezes its testing and the U.S. and South Korea freeze their joint exercises. The U.S. has previously dismissed this proposal.
Snyder said that there could be one other area of direct or indirect conversation between the two Koreas: the opening of a dialogue channel with the United States. It's unclear what the U.S. position on this is. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had previously appeared open to unconditional talks with the North, but was quickly reined in by the White House. But on Sunday, the president appeared to hew close to Tillerson's position.
"Depending on which official or which statement you draw from the Trump administration, that [talks with the U.S.] is either a plausible prospect or completely unbelievable," Snyder said. "But I think the South Koreans would probe that in any event because they have a direct interest in promoting tension-easing, and a big part of that is related to the U.S.-[North Korea] situation."
The problem with the Trump administration's mixed messaging, Snyder said, is it "extends across the entire range of possibilities" in U.S.-North Korea relations: "So you see how it's like a pendulum going back and forth between war and talks." Trump, he said, "really flattens the probability curve with respect to potential outcomes with North Korea." Traditionally, he said, "we're used to a parabola where muddling through is the most likely scenario."
But "with Trump, if you're maximizing uncertainty, there's an equal possibility that you'll muddle through, fight a war, or sit down and make a deal. And nobody can really say until the last minute—like a reality TV show—which one it's actually going to be."
South Korean negotiators are likely mindful of their close alliance with the U.S. as well as their geographical and cultural proximity with their North Korean counterparts. They are likely to want to stage the dialogue in such a way that they talk about the Olympics on Tuesday and find ways to continue the dialogue with the North.
"It's a question of whether the North Koreans are going to be ready to bite on that," Snyder said. "At this point, I think, because of the limited focus of the talks ... I think there will be efforts to lengthen the process."
That brings up the question of the joint U.S.-South Korean exercises in April. Come April, Snyder said, everybody could pick up where they left off: The U.S. and South Korea resume military exercises and the North Koreans resume testing.
"The real challenge, I think, for Moon and company in South Korea is to provide a convincing rationale for Kim at this moment where he is actually talking to someone outside of North Korea to stay on the hook in terms of dialogue," he said. "Obviously, it's an essential prerequisite for addressing and easing tensions—there has to be a dialogue channel. That's what they will want. It's actually what everybody, collectively, can support—and yet I'm still pessimistic about the prospect."
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 02:47 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
The Department of Homeland Security announced it's ending temporary protected status for Salvadorans, giving them until September 2019 to leave the country. Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, rebutted Steve Bannon's recent statement backing away from his comments in the book about Donald Trump Jr. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that natural disasters cost the U.S. a record high of $306 billion last year. A source close to Mitt Romney told CNN that the former GOP presidential nominee was successfully treated for prostate cancer over the summer. After visiting Nashville to speak at the American Farm Bureau, President Trump is headed to Atlanta to attend the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Today on The Atlantic
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What We're Reading
The Complicated Kamala Harris: Jamilah King looks back at Harris's work as San Francisco's district attorney and how it shaped her current politics. (Mother Jones)
Oprah 2020?: Oprah Winfrey's speech at the Golden Globes was widely lauded. Was it her first campaign speech? Some hope so. (Libby Hill, Los Angeles Times)
What Happens Next: The Trump administration's decision to end special protections for 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants raises a question: How should presidents handle humanitarian relief? (Dara Lind, Vox)
Hazing Lindsey Graham: John Fund argues that the media turned on the South Carolina senator when he stopped criticizing President Trump and started asking questions about the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation. (National Review)
'This Is Moving Faster Than Anyone Really Realizes': Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly discussed the possibility of interviewing the president with Trump's legal team. (Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post)
Pencil It In: Large chunks of President Trump's day are reportedly reserved for "executive time," when he watches TV and uses Twitter. Calculate your "executive time" here. (Philip Bump, The Washington Post)
Question of the Week
At Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards, Seth Meyers jokingly suggested that Oprah Winfrey should run for president. Reactions have ranged from fleeting amusement to serious requests for a 2020 campaign. There's even some indication Winfrey could be taking the idea more seriously herself. David A. Graham considered what an Oprah candidacy could mean for the Democratic Party.
If you could pick any celebrity to run on the Democratic ticket in 2020 from any field—entertainment, tech, business, etc.—who would it be? And why?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 01:55 PM PST
Love him or hate him, Michael Wolff, author of the dishy new Trump tell-all, Fire and Fury, is a good sport.
Thirteen years ago, after Wolff won his second National Magazine Award, I wrote a profile of him that was not especially flattering. In addition to deeming Wolff a mediocre political commentator, the piece noted that his journalistic m.o. was … unorthodox. He burned sources, busted embargoes, was less-than-meticulous about details, and had a penchant for gilding his actual reporting with colorful bits of what he imagined had happened in certain situations. He didn't try to pass fiction off as fact so much as he wove both together in a swirl of style, substance, and snark. (Wolff has always been more about painting entertaining, impressionistic portraits than about sweating the nitty-gritty.) His flagrant disdain for journalistic conventions is a key reason Wolff has long been controversial among, and even loathed by, much of the Fourth Estate.
With the release of Fire and Fury—the gist of which is that even those in Trumpworld consider Trump unfit for office—Wolff is getting hammered by the president's protectors. They aim to discredit his book by discrediting Wolff himself, and one of their pet tools has been my 2004 profile, which Trump supporters both inside and outside the White House have been peddling to reporters and political types. I have written many critical pieces. None has been half so fiercely weaponized—which is saying a lot, since I mostly cover politicians.
Despite all this, when I reached Wolff via email Saturday evening to ask how he was weathering the madness, he was nice as pie. He had just listened to a CNN podcast I had done about him and kindly observed that I had a "nice voice." Nor was he crabby about any of my past or current critiques. "As my presumptive biographer, you get it about 55 percent right," he quipped. "That's not so bad."
Wolff was on the Amtrak Acela somewhere between Washington and New York and had time to kill. He wasn't up for an interview, but he and I spent an hour or so swapping emails (which he later said I could share) about random topics: his gift for wooing media moguls (Wolff rose to fame in the late '90s and early '00s with wicked profiles of machers like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black); his "New Yorker's view" on politicians ("salesmen") and other Washington types (he finds operatives and media folks "spectrumy"); his professed allergy to cocktail parties (he insists he rarely gets invited anywhere because he has "no party face," and when he does go, "I am grumpy."); and how he really isn't the calculating suck-up everyone thinks: "You seem to see me as slick flatterer. That's hilarious to friends and family who see me more, with great irritation, as Larry David." He also sent an "in my defense" link to his recent Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter (for whom he writes), in which he presents himself as the rare journalist to approach Trump with no political agenda, driven only by an earnest quest for insight into "how people relate to one another" and "their ability to do their jobs."
He was, in short, spinning me.
Even in casual conversation, Wolff is always "on." Those chatting with him should consider themselves "on" as well—as the Trump folk have so painfully learned. Wolff may well have a David-esque streak of awkward, neurotic misanthropy, but he's also a seasoned, unabashed manipulator. He is famous for knowing how to read people and how to ingratiate himself with the masters of the universe from whom he seeks access. During his years covering New York moguls, Wolff was roundly mocked for his ass-kissing. Among the less delicate assessments in my 2004 profile was a journalist's snarking that Wolff had written a fawning column about former CNN-chief Walter Isaacson to "get his hands on Walter's underwear for his collection."
Considering how desperate President Trump is for someone—anyone!—to appreciate his greatness, it must have been embarrassingly easy for Wolff to flatter his way into the West Wing. (As Wolff told Today last week, he was "definitely willing to say what was ever necessary to get the story.") Wolff would have known better than most how to play Trump—and not merely because of his vast experience courting the media's most overinflated egos.
Wolff, like Trump, is a particular kind of New York creature: obsessed with, but not one of, the Manhattan glitterati. (A Queens native, Trump carries a huge outer-borough chip on his shoulder. Wolff is a born-and-bred Jersey boy who schmoozed and slashed his way to the Upper East Side.) Many of the same desires, anxieties, and obsessions that drive this president shaped Wolff as well—from their disdain for playing by the rules to their delight in saying the shocking thing, from their obsession with buzz to their hunger to be embraced by the elite they so often mock. In many ways, the two men are the perfect pairing of subject and chronicler.
Like Trump, Wolff has long been impressed by money and power, and has on more than one occasion attempted to enter the echelons of moguldom himself. His 1998 book, Burn Rate, tells the story of his failed attempt to become an internet mogul. In 2003, Wolff put together a coterie of media players (including Harvey Weinstein) who launched a failed bid to buy New York magazine. So even as Wolff made wicked observations about the power players he covered, his underlying desire to become one of them was clear.
Both Trump and Wolff have gotten famous by being the rebels of their chosen fields. This goes beyond their reputations for caring less about facts than about the truth as they see it. Just as Trump has no time for the boring conventions or niceties—or democratic norms—observed by most presidents, Wolff will not be bound by the tedious or restrictive aspects of reporting, like fretting overly much about who or what is on or off the record. Neither will he play along for the sake of the broader profession. Several years back, in fact, he was shopping around a reality show aimed at exposing what he saw as some of the more ridiculous sausage-making aspects of journalism—for instance, the weird, arguably empty pageantry of press conferences.
Like Trump, Wolff knows how to thrill his audience by making the sort of cutting personal observations and insults most reporters would consider out of bounds. Musing about people's neuroses, insulting people's grooming, tittering about their personal lives—Trump has nothing on Wolff in this department. (The passage in Fire and Fury about Ivanka's mocking her dad's comb-over is at once gratuitously cruel and utterly irresistible.) Few understand the thrill-the-masses power of sex talk, profanity, and ad hominem attacks more than Wolff and Trump.
Then there's the whole New Yorkers-looking-down-on-Washington thing. How could Trump not love Wolff's schtick as a political-media outsider who denounces the ridiculousness of journalistic conventions and conventional journalists? And that's before taking into account all the time that Wolff spent courting Trump by publicly slamming the rest of the media as a bunch of haters.
Perhaps most importantly, Wolff knows that, in modern America, the name of the game is buzz. It's why he can be reasonably zen—grateful even—in the midst of the current tempest. Whatever anyone is saying about him, good or bad, it all adds up to more book sales. What could possibly be more Trumpian than that?
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 12:53 PM PST
According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016, the total population of mountain gorillas living in the wild is about 880. These remaining critically endangered gorillas live within four national parks in the central African countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For decades, the survival of mountain gorillas has been threatened by human activity—by habitat loss due to farming, by war and unrest that can cause both physical harm and habitat loss, and by poaching—either intentional trapping or unintentional harm caused by traps set for other animals. Conservation efforts in recent years appear to have encouraging results, as the mountain gorilla population has grown from a low point in the early 1980s, when only about 254 were counted in the Virunga Mountains. The work to protect the gorillas involves a combination of supporting the neighboring communities, the promotion of responsible tourism, and active protection against poaching.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 03:03 PM PST
America's freshwater is changing. According to an analysis of 232 sites in streams and rivers over several decades, it has become saltier in some places, and in almost all places, it's becoming less acidic and more alkaline. These two processes may be related, and researchers have dubbed it "freshwater salinization syndrome."
There are many likely causes: road salt (particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, where increased freshwater salinity is concentrated), sewage, mining, fertilizers used in agriculture. These continental-scale changes will affect wildlife unused to salty, more alkaline water. It will also likely come around to affect humans and the water we drink.
It's not just that the water will taste a little saltier—though after a snowy winter in 2014, New Jersey did have to warn residents that its water was too salty for people on sodium-restricted diets. It's that America's aging water infrastructure is not built to handle saltier water. Just as road salts rust the metal of your car, dissolved salt in water reacts with the metal in water pipes.
For Sujay Kaushal, a geologist at the University of Maryland who led the recent analysis of 232 sites, this is personal concern. "This affected my house directly," he says. In 2015, the drinking water in parts of Maryland, where he lives, started to turn brown. The water utility explained the color likely came from manganese, which had been carried out of old pipes by water full of dissolved road salt.
Road salt may have contributed to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, too. When the city began drawing water from the Flint River rather than relying on Detroit's tap water to save money, it also began sending water with eight times as much chloride through its old lead pipes. Chloride can come from road salt (aka sodium chloride), and it corrodes the pipes.
"When we're throwing down road salt, we might be thinking about the fact that we're putting salt into the water, but we're not thinking that it may also mobilize lead," says Hilary Dugan, a limnologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who was not involved in the study. Dugan has studied lakes in North America, which she also found to be increasing in salinity.
In the wild, many aquatic organisms will have difficulty adjusting to saltier waters. When Charles Hawkins, an ecologist at Utah State University, studied streams in Nevada, he expected to find toxic heavy metals to correlate with losses in biodiversity. Instead, he found increased salinity to be the big factor. "Salinization of stream systems and aquatic systems in general is just starting to emerge as a really big problem that has gone unrecognized for decades," he says.
Kaushal's study did not find increased salinity in the West generally, though the U.S. Geological Survey data he relied on was quite limited for Nevada. Still, the overall pattern in the West is somewhat surprising, as water salinity is a problem traditionally associated with dry regions. Extensive water management in the West—with a focus on salt in some cases—may be a mitigating factor. Hawkins suspects the smaller streams he has studied may also be more sensitive to salt sources than larger rivers. This analysis of 232 sites at rivers and streams in the United States is the most extensive study of its type, but there are still many gaps in the data and unanswered questions.
Another big question is why rivers and streams are becoming more alkaline across the whole continent. Kaushal and his team found that alkalization is happening across 90 percent of the drainage area of the continental United States. Some salts—though notably not the sodium chloride in road salt—make water more alkaline when they dissolve. Other salt sources like mining and agriculture may be the driver behind more alkaline waters. Kaushal thinks that acid rain may, paradoxically, make freshwater less acidic. Acid rain dissolves rocks, which can release an alkaline salt called calcium carbonate.
This all adds up to a complicated picture, but one in which humans are major players. When I spoke to Kaushal late last week, cities up and down the East Coast were salting their roads to prepare for the bomb cyclone. "What happens in winter is a very exciting time from the perspective of stream chemistry," he says. But "it is also a scary time."
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 02:53 PM PST
The revolution will perhaps be televised after all, with specials on OWN, and maybe a splashy spread in O, The Oprah Magazine, too.
The idea that Oprah might someday wish to become President Winfrey is not new, and her name has circulated at various times in the past, enough that by summer 2017, the impresario told The Hollywood Reporter, "I will never run for public office. That's a pretty definitive thing."
But how definitive? Sunday night, Oprah gave a moving speech while accepting a Golden Globe Award for lifetime achievement, speaking about women and especially women of color. The remarks won instant praise and pleas for a presidential run. "She would absolutely do it," her partner Steadman Graham said. By Monday morning, Brian Stelter reported that Winfrey is "actively thinking" about running for president, and that confidants were encouraging her to run.
Just as predictable as the Oprah boomlet is the pushback to the Oprah boomlet, and while it's far too early to draw any conclusions about whether this is a flight of whimsy or a true trial balloon, or about how Winfrey might fare as a candidate, or about what she positions she may take, the frenzy is useful for assessing where the Democratic Party is and how it might be thinking about Donald Trump as 2018 starts.
The cases for and against Oprah as the Democratic nominee are substantially similar: She's a charismatic billionaire who has never run for office but has an enormous national profile and seems (though who knows) generally amenable to the party platform. Of course, it's helpful that she's a black woman in a party that depends heavily on African American and female voters, meaning she could be at once the Democratic Trump and also an anti-Trump.
The excitement, however fleeting, about an Oprah candidacy is a sign of the despair within some elements of the party. In 2016, Democrats nominated a deeply experienced person with a granular hold on policy. Everyone knows how that turned out. With a packed-but-shallow bench ahead of the 2020 election, it's easy to see why some Democrats might be tempted by the siren song of a Democratic Trump. Though one cannot imagine Donald "What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?" Trump giving a speech about Recy Taylor, he and Winfrey have substantial similarities. Both floated around the edges of politics for years and were asked repeatedly about running, and neither has any experience in public office. Winfrey has her own corporate turnaround to brag about, just like Trump. Both have been known to brag ostentatiously about owning their own planes. ("It is really fantastic to have your own jet, and anybody who says it isn't is lying to you. That jet thing is really good," Winfrey said at my college commencement. I am not making this up.)
The anti-Oprah faction is, if anything, even more despairing. A Democratic Trump? How can anyone hope for that, given today's gridlock on domestic affairs, chaos on the international stage, and spectacle of the president's own staffers ridiculing him to the press and treating him like a child? These all spring from Trump's manifest unpreparedness and lack of interest in what it takes to govern. Any time John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol agree on something, progressives are likely best advised to head in the opposite direction. It seems preposterous for Democrats to respond to this by nominating an inexperienced mogul of their own.
Strangely enough, an Oprah candidacy might be the one thing that could heal the still-festering divide over the 2016 Democratic primary, uniting Hillary Clinton supporters appalled by Winfrey's lack of expertise and dues-paying, and Bernie Sanders backers appalled by Winfrey's neoliberalism. (The only Marx Winfrey gets anywhere near is Harpo.)
The cleavage here is partly a familiar divide between whether it's more important to win elections or to govern once they're over, but it's also about what attack Democrats should use on Trump in 2020. Is the president an unhinged wild man, an utter anomaly? Or is he actually the worst possible Republican—a particularly extreme example of all the impulses Democrats have attributed to the GOP for decades? This debate plays out when some Democratic members of Congress talk about impeachment or 25th Amendment remedies, while others focus instead on how the benefits of the Republican tax plan flow to the wealthy and big corporations. Although Democrats as a whole will likely try some combination of the two attacks, these options are largely mutually exclusive: Either the president is different in type or he is different in degree.
If Democrats wish to argue that Trump's essential flaw is that he has no idea what he's doing and should never have been allowed near the Oval Office, then it's effectively impossible to justify nominating someone with no experience in politics. The risks of replicating Trump's lack of knowledge and political skill are too great. The different-in-type argument is especially compelling now, in the midst of publicity around Michael Wolff's book, which reports that even many of the president's top aides find him unfit for office.
The problem with different-in-type is that it's precisely what Hillary Clinton argued, with little effect. Why try that again? One justification is that when Clinton was arguing this, it was all hypothetical; now voters have had a chance to see Trump in action, so they might be more receptive. Then again, Trump's tendencies pre- and post-election are basically the same. But treating Trump as an anomaly allows congressional Republicans to dissociate themselves from the president. Besides, if it's as simple as pointing out Trump's flaws, why risk a Hail Mary candidate like Oprah? Picking a candidate like Winfrey would hasten the de-professionalization of government while at the same time moving the United States closer to a state where everything is an extension of partisan politics.
If Trump is different in degree, that changes the calculus. If Trump is just an extreme version of a Republican president, then the problem lies less with him personally but with his party. It would matter much less to Democrats whether their candidate can govern than whether their candidate can win. If the Democratic bench is as weak—or more to the point, green—as it seems, there might be a more compelling case for picking a charismatic candidate who happens to be a beloved entertainer. The paradox is that party leaders are the ones putting the most emphasis on Trump as different only in degree, and these party leaders are least likely to embrace a newcomer like Winfrey.
In a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, voters favored a generic Democrat over Trump by 10 points. Once pollsters start asking about specific Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, however, the lead starts to disappear. Yet it only takes a brief look at the most generic Democrats kicking around the 2020 sweepstakes—Tom Steyer? Andrew Cuomo?—to see why one powerful Golden Globes speech would be enough to stir up more excitement among Democrats.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 10:39 AM PST
For competitive groomers, dogs are more than pets—they're living canvases. These dedicated hobbyists spend months sculpting, coiffing, and dyeing their canines into vibrant works of art, ranging from recreations of Michael Jackson to Disney characters to lions. Rebecca Stern's whimsical short documentary Well Groomed follows creative groomers as they intricately style their dogs to compete for Best in Show. But this is no Christopher Guest movie; Stern's film is earnest proof of creativity's variegated forms.
"It was surprising to find out how vast the world of competitive dog grooming is," Stern told The Atlantic. "Like a lot of people, I'd only really seen the Westminster Dog Show and had assumed the breeding was what made the coats that shiny. I was so wrong. A lot goes into dog grooming, and there's an entire world of people passionate about making our furry friends look their best. In fact, they've staked their livelihoods on it."
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 02:53 PM PST
The first time I laid eyes on Stephen Miller was in October 2005, in a dingy conference room at Duke University. Miller's Students For Academic Freedom had organized a discussion, with the campus chapter of the ACLU, on political bias on campus. Miller came in a suit and tie; his primary interlocutor was the literary theorist Michael Hardt, who sauntered in wearing jeans and rumpled hair. Miller came with carefully prepared talking points and his now-trademark stentorian diction. Hardt refused to take him seriously, and casually dismantled his arguments for regulating politics in the classroom. It was, to the audience that had gathered, a rout.
I thought about that debate on Sunday, when Miller, now a senior adviser to the president, appeared on CNN's State of the Union opposite Jake Tapper to discuss Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. The debate ended with the host cutting Miller off, saying, "I think I've wasted enough of my viewers' time. Thank you, Stephen," and Miller reportedly had to be escorted off set. Miller's debate tactics haven't changed in the last 12 years: Come with a few talking points. Accuse your opponents of bad faith and deliver ad hominem attacks. Shout over your opponent to make a point. But while the consensus was that Tapper destroyed Miller, I'm not convinced. Miller's old tactics have finally found a forum and audience in which they can thrive, and he seems to have achieved exactly what he wanted from this interview. If he seems silly to many progressives and some conservatives, that's never bothered him in the past.
The segment began with Tapper asking a question, which Miller happily ignored in favor of a meandering, long riff. Tapper let Miller go for a minute and a half, and Miller happily took it, running through a series of talking points that sounded carefully workshopped.
"It's tragic and unfortunate that Steve would make these grotesque comments so out of touch with reality and obviously so vindictive," Miller said. "The whole White House staff is disappointed with his comments, which were so grotesque." (There was a lot of "grotesque" and "tragic" in the interview.) Miller went on that "the book is best understood as a work of very poorly written fiction," a line which might have landed better if he hadn't followed it with a poorly written, juvenile jab: "I also will say that the author is a garbage author of a garbage book."
From there, things devolved. Tapper kept trying to ask questions, but Miller would talk over him and refuse to answer, saying that CNN had 24 hours a day to attack Trump and that he, Miller, deserved a chance to reply to this. When Tapper tried to interject, Miller accused the host of being condescending. This was a neatly laid trap, like accusing someone of being defensive—Tapper had no choice but to dispute it, but his incredulity was condescending, and indeed Miller's comments were deserving of condescension. Also condescending, but also probably true, was Tapper's accusation that Miller was playing for an audience of one, the president. (A laudatory tweet from the president confirmed Tapper's suspicions that Trump was watching.)
But the audience wasn't just Trump—it was his supporters, too. In that demographic, it's likely Miller scored well by calling out Tapper's condescension and refusing to back down. Miller's demand for time to simply ramble makes little sense in the real world—why should CNN give an aide to the president carte blanche to launch ad hominem attacks on Wolff and on the network itself?—but if one believes that CNN makes up facts to take down the president, then why shouldn't Miller be allowed to say what he wants, too?
Miller accused CNN of offering nothing but anti-Trump attacks, and in the process baited CNN into cutting his mic, which just validated his point. Getting cut off was a better outcome for him than having to actually debate the substance of Wolff's book or anything else. He got what he wanted.
Miller's tactics didn't work in the languorous setting of a campus panel discussion, where Hardt could just wait Miller out, allow him to exhaust his talking points, and then rebut them. Nor was an audience of college students all that sympathetic to Miller's "academic freedom crusade." But things are different now. First, Tapper has to control his airtime—it's limited and valuable—and so he couldn't roll his eyes and let Miller talk nonsense. Second, there's now a substantial audience for Miller's ideological bluster. While progressives may have viewed Miller's CNN appearance as a train wreck, I suspect that the president wasn't the only person fired up and excited about it.
There is an important caveat to this. Miller's performance rallies the Trump base, but that group, while still energetic, is shrinking. Simply holding the line isn't enough for Trump. At some point, he needs to start rebuilding his support, and any day the White House is debating Fire and Fury, Trump is not doing that. But failing to understand the way Miller's contretemps with Tapper appeals to a certain swath of the electorate is failing to understand how Trump gathered support in the first place.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 09:17 AM PST
2017 was a wild ride, and 2018 doesn't seem inclined to put on the brakes. Who could have guessed last year that Matt Lauer would go from Today to yesterday—felled, along with Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Bill O'Reilly, and so many others, by the open discussion of their creepy "open secrets"? That FBI Director James Comey would be fired? That Facebook would find Russian influence operations had reached more than 126 million Americans? That ISIS would lose Raqqa and attack Barcelona? That a Nobel peace prize-winner in Burma would allow ethnic cleansing within her borders? That a Congress with a 19 percent approval rating would pass a tax bill with 25 percent approval under a president with just 32 percent approval? That a Democrat would be elected senator from Alabama? Or that a Republican accused of molesting children would nearly win that seat?
Predicting is one tough business. Intelligence analysts work on it every day, trying to assess the future before it unfolds. The rest of us get a small taste of this dicey world every New Year's Eve, when we resolve to do things differently next year. But just a week into the new year, you can already hear the sound of resolutions shattering all over the country.
A few years ago, I vowed to make daily exercise my New Year's resolution. I was so committed, I bought a Fitbit and strapped that sucker onto my wrist, telling myself it was "exercise jewelry." By February, I had adopted a different catchphrase: "strategic Fitbit usage plan." I was 100 percent successful because I only wore my Fitbit on days when I was sure I'd hit 10,000 steps and get that glorious little wrist buzz. On days when I holed up to write, the Fitbit spent time "charging" in a drawer, so it didn't count. By summer, my Fitbit was living in that drawer full-time, alongside her dust-bunny friends. I have since stopped trying to fool myself. My 2018 resolution is: Eat more chocolate.
New Year's resolutions are predictions about the future. They are usually aspirational. And they are almost always deceptive. Like so many people, I did not end up doing what I said I would. And here's the thing: I failed at the easiest prediction possible—me predicting me, just a few weeks into the future.
Now imagine how hard it is for an intelligence analyst to predict how other people will behave—months, even years from now. And intelligence targets don't want to be accurately predicted. They are doing everything they can to mislead and hide from America's clever dot-collectors and connectors.
Many factors make prediction difficult. Usually we focus on the wrong ones—like believing that people are inherently unpredictable. Sure, people often do things that you wouldn't expect for all sorts of reasons—new options or opportunities arise, interests and affinities change, new partners or advisers exert influence, and sometimes life just intervenes. As the CIA's Sherman Kent learned with Nikita Khrushchev back in 1962, world leaders can zig when you expect them to zag, and those unpredictable moves can be especially consequential—in good ways and bad. Kent's shop missed signals of the Cuban missile crisis in part because the missile deployment was so out of keeping with past Soviet practice and because Kent viewed the move as "suicidal." Mao Zedong stunned the world in 1972 when he welcomed Richard Nixon to Beijing, setting China on a path from the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist revolution. Ronald Reagan was a Cold War hawk in his first term but a peacemaker in his second, nearly reaching a remarkable deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik to abolish all nuclear weapons. More recently, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Erdogan have been dragging their countries backwards, from democracy to autocracy.
Yes, people can be unpredictable. But it's the predictable weaknesses of our thinking that often blind us the most. Peering over the horizon requires overcoming the faulty wiring of our own brains.
Psychologists have found all sorts of cognitive biases that distort how we perceive and process the world around us. A big one is that we ascribe higher probabilities to events that we can easily recall—like sensational news stories. That's why, for example, Americans are more afraid of dying in shark attacks than car accidents, even though fatal car crashes are about 60,000 times more likely. In fact, many things have a higher probability of killing you than sharks, including being trampled in a Black Friday sale. A few years ago, the world was gripped by the Ebola outbreak, which killed an estimated 11,000 people from 2014 to 2016. ("Is the U.S. Prepared for an Ebola Outbreak?" blared The New York Times.) Meanwhile, influenza, the common flu, killed about 50 times more people during the same period worldwide—somewhere between half a million and a million people.
Psychologists have also found "confirmation bias"—the tendency for people to readily believe new information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and views but discount new information that challenges them. Any horoscope reader suffers from confirmation bias, believing only the good bits and whatever else resonates with their preconceptions of their astrological sign. "Yes, yes, that sounds just like a Taurus!"
We're also suckers for optimism. Optimism bias, or wishful thinking, can be seen in everything from investing to sports to politics. Research finds that people expect their own investments will perform better than average and that NFL fans will over-predict wins of their favorite team and under-predict losses even when they're paid money to predict accurately. Remember Brexit? It came as a surprise but it shouldn't have. Polls consistently showed the referendum was a very tight contest. Of the 35 polls conducted in the weeks before the referendum, 17 showed the "Leave" campaign ahead, and 15 showed the "Remain" side ahead. But many, it seems, were hoping that the U.K. would never really leave Europe, and looked only at the bright side of the numbers they saw. The night before the referendum, betting markets gave "Remain" an 88 percent chance of winning.
And then there's math. Even really smart people are often terrible with probabilities. Each year, when I co-teach a Stanford MBA class about political risk, I ask students whether they would take a pill that could make them look their all-time best, forever. The pill has been tested thoroughly and is 99.9 percent safe. Usually all but one or two students say they'd take the pill. Then I tell them there's a 1 in 1000 chance that ingesting the pill will cause instant death. How many would still opt for the beauty pill? Not so many hands go up—even though statistically speaking, 99.9 percent safe is exactly the same as a 1 in 1000 risk of death. The point of this exercise isn't the danger of vanity. It's the difficulty of communicating risk. The old saying that "numbers don't lie" is more of a lie than we think.
2018 will be full of foreign-policy surprises. Most will not be the good kind. We already know some of the big risks and events in store: rising tensions and the possibility of war with North Korea, the potential for even greater instability in the Middle East as Mohammed bin Salman embarks on a high stakes gambit to reform Saudi Arabia's economy, a no-holds barred U.S. congressional election season, and nefarious Russian cyber activities, to name a few. To deal with them effectively, policymakers would be wise to think more about thinking. Beware of misestimating the likelihood of events, discounting information that doesn't fit with prior beliefs, and optimism bias. These cognitive traps have serious consequences. And one can be certain that they aren't going anywhere.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 01:18 PM PST
On Monday morning, President Trump tweeted that the unemployment rate for black Americans had reached the lowest on record, and that the rate for Hispanic Americans will soon reach a similar milestone. He effectively claimed credit for these improvements, writing, "Dems did nothing for you but get your vote!"
The truth is, Trump has so far done little to contribute to the declines in unemployment among blacks and Hispanics—those declines are more a reflection of the sound economic policy of the past decade. And even though the black and Hispanic unemployment rates have improved over the past year, they are still much higher than the rate for white Americans—and that's a crucial piece of context missing from Trump's tweet.
For almost as long as unemployment statistics have been recorded (since around the time of the Great Depression), a gulf has existed between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. A good yet unfortunate rule of thumb is that the unemployment rate for blacks is generally about twice as high as the one for whites.
The latest jobs report indeed shows that these gaps had closed just a bit. In December 2017, the unemployment rate of the American populace as a whole was 4.1 percent. The racial breakdown, as usual, shows some sharp discrepancies: Only 3.7 percent of white Americans were unemployed at the close of the year. The unemployment rate for Hispanics was more than a percentage point higher, at 4.9 percent. And for black Americans, unemployment was just under twice the rate for white Americans, at 6.8 percent.
It's true that 6.8 percent is historically a fairly low unemployment rate for black Americans, but it's not a good or healthy unemployment rate by just about any measure. "If we had an overall unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, nobody would be cheering about that," says Valerie Wilson, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The last time the unemployment rate for the nation as a whole was that high was about five years ago, during a period when the economic recovery had yet to take off. And while it's true that the most recent jobs report shows that the gap has narrowed a little, its existence still points to troubling discrepancies in the labor market that can't all be explained away by differences in education and skills.
In truth, neither Trump nor Republicans can take much credit for the small amount of improvement that has occurred. According to research from the Federal Reserve, a slight narrowing of this gap, and an improvement in the unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics, is precisely what is expected after a period of prolonged economic growth. The United States is in the midst of one of the longest stretches of job creation in modern history. And most of that economic growth has been presided over by President Obama, and his appointee for Fed chair, Janet Yellen (whom Trump declined to reappoint).
This is something that economists from across the political spectrum tend to agree about. When I talked to Wilson, she said, "The data and the evidence clearly show that the recovery of employment was well underway before President Trump took office." And Michael Strain, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told me last year that continuing existing economic policy could theoretically help groups with historically high rates of joblessness.
Specifically, economists have attributed the dropping unemployment rate to Yellen's decisions to continue suppressing interest rates—despite objections from the GOP and criticism from Trump during the campaign. It was sober economic policymaking over the course of a decade—not any single thing that's happened over the past year—that brought the black and Hispanic unemployment rates to where they are now.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 09:55 AM PST
Black clothing—particularly when that clothing is the high-end stuff of red-carpet couture—has a way of refining things, of clarifying things, of cutting to the chase: Stripped of bright color and its pretty distractions, the focus can become the details that allow fashion to double as art. The perfect tailoring. The artful seaming. The layering and beading and draping. The testing of craft—and of true skill and talent and artistry—that tends to come with constraint.
Black was the color of the evening on the red carpet of the 2018 Golden Globes: In sartorial solidarity with the Time's Up movement—which aims to fight sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond—celebrities rejected the fuschias and jades and bronzes that have made past ceremonies such beautiful spectacles and, instead, almost uniformly wore black. This was meant to inspire deeper conversation: about #TimesUp, about #MeToo, about Hollywood, about justice.
It succeeded, to the extent any such shift could have been expected to: The celebrities' outfits, which normally speak subtly—about their wearers, about their designers, about the culture of a moment—spoke, this time around, stridently. They forced conversations on the red carpet about fairness, about structural change: not "Who are you wearing?" but "Why are you wearing it?" And, so, there was a paradox at play on the red carpet on Sunday evening: The clothes in one way mattered more than ever. And the clothes, in another, mattered not at all. While the dresses and jumpsuits donned by invited celebrities were accessorized, often, with striking accessories and glittering jewels—a black dress can, on top of everything else, serve as a canvas for other forms of wearable art—the accessories most in demand were words.
Here, because of that—via the verbal outfits unveiled on the red carpet of the Beverly Hilton, and on the Globes stage, and on social media, from celebrities and activists and participants around the world—are some of the most striking looks from the Golden Globes of 2018.
Tracee Ellis Ross
Billie Jean King
Sarah Jessica Parker
William H. Macy
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 07:58 AM PST
Before the news cycle—and the president himself—got consumed with the new White House tell-all last week, Donald Trump made a good foreign policy decision, albeit seemingly in haste. The administration announced it was suspending security assistance to Pakistan, on the grounds that the country is continuing to arm, assist, fund, and provide sanctuary to a wide array of Islamist militant groups that are murdering U.S. troops and their allies in Afghanistan. Well-placed sources involved with calculating the relevant funds have told me that this was not a planned policy and took the other agencies, not to mention the Pakistanis, by complete surprise. Rather it was an ex post facto response to Trump's January 1, 2018 tweet vituperatively repining that:
With this move, though, the president may well stumble into a foreign policy success. Alternatively, he may break the U.S.-Pakistan relationship beyond repair while reaping few actual benefits. Which way it goes depends on the ability of his team to counter or even pre-empt likely Pakistani reprisals. So what might those be?
We've been here before.
In February 2011, Pakistan closed off ground routes America was using to resupply troops in Afghanistan, first because of the episode of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, who shot and killed two men linked to Pakistan's intelligence agency after they menaced him at gun point. When the CIA rescue vehicle came, it killed a bystander who was uninvolved in the event. Just as the relationship was recovering, in May the Obama administration staged a unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, which was in Pakistan less than a mile from the premier military academy. Then in November, NATO troops in Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani troops, when they attacked a position near the Pakistani border from which they claimed to have been receiving fire. Pakistan disputed the characterization. In my view, the evidence suggests that the most acute mistakes were made by U.S.-NATO forces rather than Pakistan. The ground routes thus remained closed for much of the year; Pakistan did not fully reopen them until July 2012.
The United States was well into the surge at this point; between NATO forces and Afghan forces, there were hundreds of thousands of troops to resupply, all of whom had relied on the routes through Pakistan. The need to find alternative routes by land and air—including through Central Asia—ended up costing the Americans about $100 million per month more than the previous arrangement. Many feared that while this worked to get supplies into Afghanistan, it would not be sufficient to get massive amounts of war materiel out of Afghanistan when the United States and NATO withdrew. Consequently, the U.S. government hoped that Pakistan would reopen the ground routes. But it turns out that weaning itself off them was not such a bad option after all.
I argued at the time that Americans should not fall for the cheap ground transport solution Pakistan seemed to offer, in part because what America later spent on air supply was cheaper than the so-called Coalition Support Fund payments they paid Pakistan to help guarantee the use of those routes. Moreover, having kicked the cheap ground supply habit, the United States could be in a better position to do what it needed to do if it wanted to win: Put real and costly pressure on Pakistan for continuing to support the Taliban, which was one of the principle reasons for the U.S. inability to prevail in Afghanistan.
Arguably, America is in an even better position now than in 2011, because it only has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan compared to 90,000 or so in 2011 (of a total of 132,000 NATO troops). America can certainly sustain this through air shipments, especially if it's pocketing savings by not paying Pakistan the nearly $1 billion a year in Coalition Support Funds, among other funding streams.
But Pakistan has aces in sleeve.
Pakistan now says the alliance is over—and good riddance. Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif complained that "This is not how allies behave." He is absolutely correct: U.S. allies do not take its lower and middle-class taxpayers' hard-earned money and hand it over to enemies such as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Asif went on to offer the usual protestations that Pakistan's military operations have cleared Pakistan of sanctuaries for these groups to hide in. But if there were such scoundrels on Pakistan's territory, he said that if Pakistan went after them, "then the war will again be fought on our soil, which will suit the Americans."
What is not clear in Asif's statement is what Pakistan will cease doing. (We know for certain that it will not cease supporting the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, or Lashkar-e-Taiba.) Will Pakistan do as it has done in the past: Close the ground resupply routes? Will it escalate and close down its air space to American resupply flights? If that happens, what will the Trump administration do? Will it consider this action to be an act of war?
There is still space for further escalation short of conflict. Washington has been silent about U.S. economic assistance to Islamabad, which has totaled more than $11 billion since 9/11 and is thus about one third of the total $34 billion given to Pakistan thus far. And there are several kinds of sanctions that could be applied against persons as well as the country. It is not likely that the administration has pondered the next steps that both capitals can or will take.
In the meantime, Pakistan has repeatedly said that its relationship with the United States is redundant because it now has China. In fact, after Trump's contumelious tweet, China's Foreign Ministry declared that it is "ready to promote and deepen" its cooperation with Pakistan. But as with all things that sounds too good to be true, so is the Chinese embrace.
Unlike Washington, which has given Pakistan mostly grant aid, the Chinese only disburse loan aid, largely designed to enable Chinese businesses to build infrastructure in Pakistan on terms favorable to the Chinese. Sri Lanka provides a case study of the risks: Unable to pay back a Chinese loan to finance a port, Sri Lanka was forced to relinquish sovereignty over it and now the Chinese hold the lease to the port for 99 years. China is not truly a substitute for the United States, and it will take time for China to assemble a suite of programs to replace U.S. aid.
Still, Pakistan likely suspects it has the upper hand, and for good reason: It has cultivated a global fear that it is too dangerous to fail. This is why many Americans have been afraid to break ties with Pakistan and have never encouraged the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations to cut off the country and let Pakistan wallow in its own mess. Pakistan believes it has effectively bribed the international community with the specter that any instability could result in terrorists getting their hands on Pakistani nuclear technology, fissile materials, or a weapon. In fact, Pakistan has stoked these fears by having the world's fastest-growing nuclear program, including of battlefield nuclear weapons. It is conceivable that Pakistan could use funds from a future IMF bailout to service its burgeoning Chinese debt.
Still, one positive side effect of having an erratic head of state is that the United States now has a genuine and credible threat to act against Pakistan. America has not been in such a position since 9/11, when it used its position of leverage to coerce Pakistan to facilitate the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Whereas Pakistan had long comforted itself that neither Presidents Bush nor Obama would seriously alter course, due to the petting zoo of Islamist militants that Pakistan cultivated as crucial tools of foreign policy, and to its nuclear weapons, Pakistan will have to seriously consider that Trump means what he says. Since the early months of the war on terror that began in October 2001, the United States has ultimately swerved when confronted with Pakistani brinkmanship. Pakistan can't count on that this time.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 02:13 PM PST
Richmond is hot in the summer. August days in Virginia's capital feature the kind of heat that shimmers in waves from the pavement and even in the evenings plasters suit shirts to skin like wet towels. On one such evening last year, that heat did a little extra sticking, even as a group of people gathered packed in a tiny room behind the governor's mansion.
In the middle of the group, Governor Terry McAuliffe stood, relishing the attention despite the heat. He'd shown his visitors through the traditional attractions of his home, like the room where the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly lodged during his 1820s tour of the United States. But he reserved the most gusto for the pieces of the mansion and its history that many previous inhabitants had preferred to skip: a thin staircase leading to the warrens and passageways where house slaves were expected to move and work unseen, and the handiworks of generations of enslaved people who'd been shuffled in and out of the house like furniture. The visit to the slave quarters was his pièce de résistance, a heavy dose of symbolism for a program whose beneficiaries he'd invited to dine with him.
McAuliffe's ten-person audience represented a cross-section of people who'd been granted pardons under the governor's sharply expanded clemency program. That program is one component of a campaign that his office has embarked on to change a state criminal-justice system rooted in Jim Crow that has disenfranchised and stripped civil rights from people—disproportionately black people—for decades. And while McAuliffe's term is up in a matter of days, that campaign has already affected the politics of Virginia and the lives of thousands of its citizens, and could someday prove transformative, both for Virginia politics and its criminal-justice system.
* * *
Virginia hasn't made life easy on people who go through that system. George H. Spicer's story is a testament to that fact. The 75-year-old journeyman preacher from the Tidewater region considers it his life work to help guide young black men—often his parishioners—who've been caught up in that system in their uphill battles to find jobs, to avoid recidivism, and to rejoin society and regain their rights. But, for most of his life, Spicer dealt with his own uphill battle to pursue his own dream in Virginia.
"When I was 17 years old, I got into a little trouble," he told fellow visitors to the governor's mansion over dinner. In 1960, still growing up in a Virginia gripped by Jim Crow laws and racial strife, Spicer, said he and his friends got in a fight with a white teenager.
"There was five of us, and I was the youngest of the group," Spicer continued. He said that he had not thrown a punch, but had still been present when his friends jumped the boy, who sustained some unspecified injuries during the fight.
Spicer was charged along with all of his friends, but was given the choice to accept a felony assault charge—and prison time—or enlist in the Army with a misdemeanor. He accepted the latter, and wound up fighting in Vietnam, later attending seminary, and using his close brush with the law as inspiration to help other black men who'd been less lucky. But over 50 years later, that misdemeanor would come back to haunt him.
"I got to thinking about retirement, and I wanted to go to try and be a substitute teacher," Spicer said. But when he applied, he was informed that despite his career spent in the community and a resume that would've otherwise been accepted, the qualification that his assault charge had been committed "with the intent to maim" could qualify as a "crime of moral turpitude."
Although since a 2015 state supreme court ruling Virginia has been perhaps the most stringent state on teacher's qualifications—barring all people with any felonies from working as a teacher in any district—throughout the South's history, prohibitions against people with crimes of moral turpitude of any degree have gone hand in hand with legalistic efforts to disenfranchise black people and permanently render them second-class citizens. People in Virginia charged with such crimes, even misdemeanors, cannot work as teachers, marriage therapists, real-estate agents, or registered nurses, and may lose or be denied licensure for dozens of other jobs.
Spicer met the governor in 2013 on the campaign trail, when the preacher was the interim pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Hampton Roads, and when McAuliffe was the Democratic candidate seeking critical support from black communities in the Tidewater. Under its late pastor Jake Manley and then Spicer, Bethany had built its own initiatives to help shepherd black men with felonies back into everyday life, and also to advocate for the restoration of their rights.
Three years after Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, the policy ramifications of mass incarceration in black communities had become clear, especially at the intersection of old Jim Crow laws and civil-rights abridgements today in places like Virginia. But Democrats—then, as now—have been slow to embrace some more substantive criminal-justice reversals that might meaningfully reduce the rolls of people with felonies, and those who've had their rights impaired. People like Spicer at places like Bethany often pleaded for help from state politicians in easing some of the state's most severe restrictions on people with felonies, to little avail. But during his campaign stop at the church, McAuliffe picked up this thread, promising the beginnings of what became a restoration-of-rights campaign, and also promising to come back to the church as governor.
Four years later, the piece of that campaign that has received the most attention has been the state's massive push to restore the voting rights for people with felonies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Virginia has historically been one of the most zealous states in the country in disenfranchising people with felonies, with even those who finish probation having what amounts to a lifelong severance of voting rights unless the governor reviews their case and restores their rights personally.
Also unsurprisingly—like dozens of similar laws in other states—that restriction was created with explicitly racist intent. At the turn of the 20th century, with a white backlash fueling the dominance of a Redeemer government that took power after Reconstruction, white-supremacist politicians began to craft the laws that constituted both the beginnings of a state-codified carceral system, and the bedrock of Jim Crow that was the disenfranchisement of Negroes. To get around the obstacle of the 14th Amendment's prohibition of explicitly discriminatory laws, the crafters of the state constitution relied on the criminalization of blackness and the penalty of "civil death" as one particularly effective way to ensnare black citizens in the dragnet of disenfranchisement.
"I told the people of my county before they sent me here that I intended," delegate R.L. Gordon said, "as far as in me lay, to disenfranchise every negro that I could disenfranchise under the Constitution of the United States, and as few white people as possible."
The resulting web of laws survived over a century, through the civil-rights movement. In Virginia, it survives to this day. Even when McAuliffe issued an executive order in April 2016 declaring that all people with felonies who'd completed parole—some 200,000 persons—would have their rights immediately restored, it didn't change the underlying laws, and meant that future restorations would still rest solely with the authority and the will of the office of the governor. When Republicans in Virginia's state legislature revolted at that executive order and won an August 2016 Virginia Supreme Court decision blocking restorations en masse, McAuliffe took another route, with his office reviewing thousands of felons' records and the governor restoring their rights individually using an autopen. The number of restorations completed that way only stood at 13,000 of the planned 200,000 in August of 2016. But the administration has been persistent, and now Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson tells me 172,298 people have had their rights restored as of Friday, with more on the way in the last week of the governor's term.
That may represent a small percentage of the state's 5.5 million registered voters, but it is not a negligible number. Republican David Yancey just won the 94th District of the House of Delegates and extended Republican control of the chamber by a drawing of lots after he tied with Democrat Shelly Simonds at 11,608 votes apiece. Republicans decried McAuliffe's move as political self-service, and during the 2017 election Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie slammed lieutenant governor Ralph Northam, now the governor-elect, in political ads for the "reckless policy" of "automatic restoration of rights for violent felons and sex offenders, making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries."
McAuliffe has preferred to downplay the political ramifications of the move. When we spoke in May of 2016, he said that it was up to parties to gain the allegiance of new voters. "I tell the Republicans, 'Why don't you go out and earn these folks' votes?,'" he said. McAuliffe focused on the social-justice ramifications of the move, telling me that "the whole genesis of what we're talking about here today goes to the core of racism in this country."
Still, the social and political motives and outcomes of moves like McAuliffe's cannot be so easily separated. In Virginia, somewhere over 40,000 of the newly enfranchised citizens registered to vote. If they voted in the 2017 gubernatorial and state legislative races at comparable rates to the population, that would add 19,000 new voters, or somewhere just under 1 percent of the electorate. A 2016 study by the governor's office showed that 46 percent of all of the newly restored citizens were black. If that demographic breakdown was still true in November 2017, it would have meant that somewhere around 9,000 new black voters voted—and virtually all black voters in the state cast their ballots for Northam. That's a small number, but it's again a non-negligible percentage (2 percent) of the strong black turnout of over 500,000 voters.
But those percentages are only part of the electoral equation. It's possible—probable, even—that such a massive undertaking on behalf of a population heavily skewed toward African Americans motivated family members, friends, and communities of newly-restored people to vote, and also energized black voters in a post-Charlottesville contest in which racism became the key issue. Efforts at mobilization, linked to infrastructure created to get black people with felonies into the restoration process, injected energy into majority-black neighborhoods. In a purple state where politicians already jockey for the any marginal advantages via gerrymandering and voting-rights restrictions, changes don't have to be large in order to be meaningful.
Those lessons carry weight beyond Virginia's borders, as well. In Alabama, surprisingly strong black turnout buoyed Democrat Doug Jones to a victory over Republican Roy Moore in a dramatic special election for the state's open Senate seat. When I talked to black organizers in the state—which disenfranchised as much as 16 percent of black voters by way of felony restrictions in 2016—they pointed both to a change in state law eliminating some of the weight of its "moral turpitude" restrictions and to increased attention to registering people in jail and people with felony convictions as key factors in their victory. (It is legal for people without felony convictions to vote in jails in Alabama.) More broadly, the Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 13 black people in America was barred from voting by felony disenfranchisement in 2016, as compared to 1 in 56 non-black people. Although states like Virginia, Alabama, Iowa, Florida, and Kentucky have increased restorations in recent years, there are still millions of potential voters and communities that can be activated by simple policy changes. Perhaps that's why those changes are so rarely made.
Even so, the political calculus doesn't come close to addressing the real meaning of rights-restoration and clemency for the people who receive such reprieves, and for their families. Long excluded by and alienated from the political community, they feel a restored sense of faith. When I talked to activist Karen Fountain, who helped register newly-restored people with felonies with the New Virginia Majority group, she told me that the single decision had exhilarated hundreds of people and given them a sense of belonging and hope. "The majority tell me they'll be voting from here on out," Fountain told me of her newly enfranchised charges. "All of them—it's been so many years that they've not been able to do that. It's their voice—they have a voice. When they make that check, they have a voice."
The newly restored voters agree. Virginia now hosts a website that features dozens of testimonials of newly-enfranchised voters. One voter, Lynette, said "I feel like I can finally live as a whole citizen," since her restoration in October 2016. Another, Licia, said that "this opportunity has given me the strength to no longer look at myself as a second-class person, but an upstanding citizen, leader, and community advocate."
For those who have yet to be restored, perhaps the best news is that Virginia's experiment, although not codified in law and still subject to executive authority, will likely continue at least through the next term. Thomasson, the state official overseeing clemency and restorations, is staying on. "Governor-elect Ralph Northam has said every time he's had the opportunity to say it that he's proud of the work that we've done and wants to continue it," he said.
* * *
The outgoing governor and his administration don't necessarily see their clemency campaign and restorations of rights campaign as part of the same project. According to Thomasson, although McAuliffe has issued 201 pardons, what might stand as the most pardons of any governor in Virginia history, the two fronts—one of which involves restoring civic life to people who've largely done their time, and the other which means actually forgiving people for perhaps even violent crimes—are different both optically and procedurally. "From a process standpoint, they're very different," Thomasson told me. "From a standpoint of believing in second chances, they're very similar."
Even in what amounts to a radical scheme under McAuliffe, it's much more politically feasible to offer blanket restorations of voting rights to felons who've completed their time than it is to give blanket pardons. And in both cases, the programs carve out the so-called hardened criminals, the recidivists, those still undergoing probation and parole, and those still serving time.
But in both cases, McAuliffe has employed the rhetoric of second chances, and has stated that racial disparities in who gets those chances among his major motivations. In his opening presentation to the guests at his August dinner, McAuliffe said that "for me, it's pretty simple. I think everybody deserves second chances in life." In response to Spicer's life story, the governor responded that "any of us, at 17, we could've had a mistake here or there. I'm not kidding. When I grew up I had one serious fistfight a week. I was notorious."
"They called me 'Mad Dog McAuliffe,'" he added.
Although the administration's officials took great pains to preserve the optics of that dinner and its clemency campaign—again, clemency is an even more volatile political issue than restorations—the very stories of the people before them suggested that in efforts to challenge a criminal-justice system quickened in the belly of Jim Crow, the "redeemable" and the "irredeemable" can't be so easily separated at first glance.
Perhaps the most complicated case that came before the governor's desk was that of Robert Paul Davis, who in 2003 confessed to a double murder, and was sentenced to 23 years in prison when he was only 18. In 2011, one of the other two suspects implicated in the murders signed an affidavit admitting he'd thrown Davis's name out to deflect suspicion, and that police had extracted a confession from the 18-year-old under intense pressure. Davis, who is white, attracted the attention of the Innocence Project, and his confession became the subject of a Dateline NBC episode. But when he petitioned then-Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in 2012 for clemency, the governor denied his application.
Then, in December 2015, he received a call to the warden's office, one that he believed to be news about his ailing mother. "My lawyer said 'You might want to hurry up, before the governor changes his mind,'" Davis said. "So, I started walking faster. And I was told that I would be given a conditional pardon."
Now 31, after serving 13 years of his sentence in a prison that wouldn't teach trades, instruct in basic adult living skills, or give inmates a college education, Davis is reintegrating into his native Charlottesville, where since receiving an absolute pardon he's been able to find and hold a number of jobs, and has built a new life with his girlfriend and her daughter. "I work four jobs now," he told me. "I can check 'no' on job applications when asked about felonies." Although it's still tough for him to afford insurance and manage certain elements of life as a free man, like budgeting, he's now often seen in the streets of Charlottesville, leveraging his tight-end's frame as a security guard.
At the governor's mansion, Davis proudly announced that he'd worked 20 hours over the weekend, and that he'd worked nonstop in the week before. He'd just secured a job in private security, and his first assignment with that job had been securing perimeters protecting the funeral of Heather Heyer, the Charlottesville counter-protester who'd been killed a week earlier amid now-infamous violent rallies held by white supremacists.
"Here's what second chances get you," he told the governor.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 07:48 AM PST
For months, the world has wondered whether North Korea might try to cause trouble for South Korea during next month's Winter Olympics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's behavior in 2017 and his continued missile and nuclear tests gave observers in South Korea and the United States every reason to expect the worst. Then, in his New Year's speech, Kim announced a proposal to renew dialogue with Seoul, initially focusing on the North's participation in the games. South Korea responded positively, agreeing to the first North-South talks in two years, slated for January 9th.
While many pundits have portrayed Kim's initiative as an effort to drive a wedge between a United States intent on pressuring North Korea and a South Korea convinced that dialogue will lower tensions, it's also possible to view Kim's recent opening as an opportunity. While President Trump's remarks on Saturday, in which he supported inter-Korean dialogue and expressed his own willingness to talk to Kim, may indicate recognition of this emerging reality, the administration would do well to follow Ronald Reagan's example.
In November 1987, two North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 aboard. Yet only a year later, in December 1988, the United States and North Korea began official talks in China. How did a Cold-War hawk like Reagan pull off such a feat? Careful diplomacy, and a particularly savvy use of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
While the circumstances of 1988 and 2018 are by no means exactly alike, there are striking similarities. Ahead of this year's games, there is an opportunity for Washington and Seoul to coordinate their strategy and move from confrontation to dialogue. That strategy could consist of small confidence-building measures, ultimately intended to lead to talks that address each side's concerns—particularly the North Korean nuclear threat.
In the late 1980s, South Korea, emerging from decades of military rule, viewed the Olympics as a coming-out party for its new, democratically-elected government. But the sense of celebration was undercut by fears that the North would try to disrupt the event. Indeed, scaring off participants in the games may have been one objective of the 1987 bombing. Still, soon after taking office in February 1988, South Korea's President Roh Tae U, a former general, began considering a new approach: dialogue with North Korea if the Olympics went off without a hitch.
Washington was also rethinking its approach to Pyongyang. Since the end of the Korean War, its overriding objective in the region was to provide political, military, and economic support for the South while isolating the North, which not only posed a serious threat to its friends but was also aligned with its Cold-War adversaries, the Soviet Union and China. However, the Reagan administration came to realize that the only way to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula was to reach out to the North. By 1987, Washington had already begun discussions with the South over the possibility of easing its policy of isolation. Thus, Roh's initiative found fertile ground.
According to declassified U.S. government documents and interviews with former officials, the Reagan administration devised a roadmap for engaging North Korea, dubbed the "modest initiative." It was not intended as a grand bargain to resolve all outstanding Korea-related issues. Rather, the new approach aimed to align Washington with Roh, while paving the way for a new U.S. policy towards Pyongyang.
The key to the Reagan strategy was that it did not depend on reciprocal steps by Pyongyang. In other words, if the Kim regime merely showed restraint by leaving the Olympics alone, Washington would encourage unofficial, nongovernmental visits by North Koreans to the United States, ease financial regulations impeding travel to the North by U.S. citizens, permit limited commercial export of humanitarian goods to the North, and allow State Department officers to hold substantive discussions with North Korean diplomats. When the Seoul Olympics concluded without disruption, the Reagan administration approved all four steps.
But the modest initiative didn't end there. The Reagan administration decided that, in lieu of requiring reciprocal measures by North Korea, it would ask for a "positive, constructive" response. Five suggested steps were conveyed to Pyongyang via its ally, China: Demonstrate tangible progress on North-South dialogue; return the remains of Americans missing in action from the Korean War; stop the drumbeat of anti-U.S. propaganda; implement confidence-building measures along the demilitarized zone; and offer credible assurances that it had abandoned state-backed terrorism.
President Reagan's policy laid the groundwork for the historic 1992 session between Arnold Kanter, President George H.W. Bush's undersecretary of state, and a senior North Korean official, to discuss the nuclear challenge. That set the stage for the Clinton administration's 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, which stalled Pyongyang's efforts to build nuclear weapons. The "modest initiative" also helped South Korea reach a number of landmark bilateral agreements with the North in the early 1990s that eased tensions.
If Trump chose to follow Reagan's playbook, he could launch a policy that both supported South Korea and signaled its intent to start serious talks if Kim agreed not to meddle with the upcoming Olympics. The announcement last week that the Joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to take place during the games would be postponed until afterwards could be a useful start.
On Saturday, President Trump seemed to take another positive step in this direction, expressing his support for inter-Korean dialogue. "I always believe in talking," he said. He also said that he would "like to see them getting involved in the Olympics," and expressed his own willingness to talk to Kim—a statement that would mean even more if he stopped lobbing personal insults at the North Korean leader.
While maintaining "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang through sanctions, in its own small ways, Washington should build on what has happened so far to signal to Kim that the diplomatic door is being cracked open. For one thing, it could help fix problems encountered by the United Nations and private organizations that provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea. This would stem the exodus of donors frightened off by tighter international sanctions (even though these do not prohibit assistance). The Trump administration could also consider relaxing the restrictions on North Korean diplomats at the UN, who are currently barred from traveling beyond a 25-mile radius from New York.
Following Reagan's precedent, the Trump administration could ask Pyongyang for a "positive, constructive" response. It could suggest North Korea grant Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang consular access to the three Americans still being held in its prisons, play a constructive role in advancing inter-Korean dialogue—particularly in military-to-military talks—intended to reduce tensions, and clearly state that it opposes international terrorism, including acts involving chemical, biological or nuclear devices and materials.
The argument will be made that none of these steps directly address North Korea's nuclear weapons and its increasingly capable arsenal of ballistic missiles. Of course they don't. But neither does the current course. These first steps have a different aim: initiating a process to pull us back from the edge.
Critics may also charge that the North Korean nuclear threat makes today far more dangerous than 1988, and that, in the end, Reagan's approach and those that followed did not prevent the current standoff. The latter criticism is based on a shallow reading of the history, focused on what eventually happened, but not why. His modest initiative did what it set out to do: It sparked a long period of productive interaction with Pyongyang.
With this year's Olympics, history has offered us a chance to try again. If the United States and South Korea ignore the lesson of 1988, the window will close. When the last athlete turns out the lights and leaves the Olympic village, the opportunity that exists today will vanish.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 07:24 AM PST
Washington, D.C. (January 8, 2017)—The Atlantic is adding two voices to its political coverage: Elaina Plott will join the publication as a staff writer and Reihan Salam has signed on as a contributing editor. Plott and Salam will begin writing for The Atlantic at the end of January.
As a staff writer, Plott will primarily focus on covering Congress and national politics, augmenting the political reporting The Atlantic has been significantly expanding over the past two years. She joins The Atlantic from Washingtonian where she was a staff writer. Before that, she was a Buckley Fellow at National Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Observer, GQ, and Harper's Bazaar.
Salam, who remains the executive editor of National Review, will write frequently for The Atlantic on all manner of U.S. and international politics. This a return to The Atlantic for Salam, who wrote for the magazine as an associate editor from 2008-2010. Salam is a contributing editor of National Affairs, and has worked for NBC News, The New York Times, the Council on Foreign Relations, and The New Republic. He's also on the board of the Breakthrough Institute and an advisor to the Niskanen Center.
2017 was a year of significant audience growth for The Atlantic. Monthly unique visits to TheAtlantic.com grew nearly 30% year over year, with the month of May setting a new monthly record of 42.3 million unique visitors (Omniture). The Atlantic also reached its highest print circulation in a decade, with more than 570,000 subscriptions.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 09:27 AM PST
The women of the 2018 Golden Globes collectively (almost) wore black. On the red carpet, many of them brought as their dates not husbands and partners, but activists for gender and racial equality. They talked about endemic sexual harassment in America and a sea change sparked by industry-shattering stories from The New York Times and The New Yorker about the abuse perpetrated for decades by Harvey Weinstein.
The men of the Golden Globes wore (some of them) Time's Up pins. On the red carpet, they were asked less about Weinstein and #MeToo than about their work. They shifted uncomfortably when the actress Natalie Portman emphasized the "all-male" directing nominees in film. Accepting their awards, they thanked their mothers, their wives (in one case their wives and their girlfriends), their agents, the nation of Italy for its great food. The composer Alexandre Desplat observed that this award was a different color to the previous one he'd claimed. But, facing a sea of women wearing black, not one of the dozen-plus men who received an award seemed particularly compelled to note that anything about the night was different. For the men of the Golden Globes—with the exception of the host, Seth Meyers, who delivered a series of jokes skewering Weinstein—it was business as usual.
It was a notable disparity on an evening in which women had, for the first time in awards-show history, coordinated their color schemes to draw attention to similar imbalances in the entertainment industry and beyond. But the women of the Golden Globes didn't just wear black—they also used, for the most part, their minutes on the public stage to talk thoughtfully and inclusively about sexual harassment and assault in America and around the world. Accepting the evening's first trophy for her role playing a domestic-assault survivor in the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman praised "the power of women" and talked about the scourge of abuse. "I do believe, and I hope, we can elicit change through the stories we tell and the way we tell them," she said. It was a moment that set a tone for the evening: Subsequent winners from Laura Dern to Rachel Brosnahan to Elisabeth Moss to Oprah used their platforms to speak about the need for women's voices to be heard. Many mentioned the Time's Up campaign specifically, in a coordinated effort. But the subtext men seemed to hear was that women's voices are the only ones that matter when it comes to advocating for change.
Alexander Skarsgård, who played the abuser of Kidman's character in Big Little Lies, praised the "extraordinarily talented" group of women he had the privilege of working with on the show. He wore a Time's Up pin on his lapel. But he said nothing about the themes of the evening, or even the themes of the show he'd just won an award for. Martin McDonagh, whose film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about a grieving mother seeking public justice for the rape and murder of her daughter, also said nothing about how uncannily the topic of his award-winning work intersected with the state of Hollywood in its post-Weinstein moment. Bruce Miller, the executive producer of the Golden Globe–winning drama The Handmaid's Tale, was the only male award-winner of the night who even alluded to #MeToo, stating, "To all the people in this room and this country and this world who do everything they can to stop The Handmaid's Tale from becoming real, keep doing that."
What this meant was that the 2018 Golden Globes split neatly into two very different ceremonies. In one, Laura Dern urged everyone in the room to support "restorative justice," and to teach their children that "speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture's new North Star." Frances McDormand spoke of "a tectonic shift" in the entertainment industry post-Weinstein. "Trust me, the women in this room tonight are not here for the food," she said. "We are here for the work." Barbra Streisand talked about being (still) the only woman to win a Golden Globe for directing. Salma Hayek, who wrote an extraordinarily powerful essay about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, appeared onstage having brought Ashley Judd, another Weinstein accuser, to the ceremony as her date. Oprah Winfrey delivered one of the most rousing speeches in awards-show history, praising the women "fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say 'me too' again."
In the other ceremony, awards were claimed and key figures were thanked without much sense at all that anything in Hollywood had changed. The actor James Franco, grinning, brought Tommy Wiseau to the stage while accepting an award for The Disaster Artist. The director Guillermo del Toro scolded the orchestra for trying to play him offstage. Gary Oldman quoted Churchill. McDonagh wished his mother a happy birthday. It was almost as if Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and the subsequent tsunami of accusations against powerful men in Hollywood and beyond had never happened. Women were largely left with the labor of explaining why wage parity matters, and why telling diverse stories matters, and why having more women and people of color occupying positions of power in all industries in America matters. (The actor Sterling K. Brown didn't mention #MeToo, but he powerfully praised This Is Us's creator, Dan Fogelman, for writing a role specifically "for a black man.") The women were left to try and transform a pivotal moment for Hollywood from a painful scandal into a necessary reckoning. And as their male co-stars and directors and producers mostly made clear, they were—and they will be—doing all this by themselves.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 04:00 AM PST
Scientists have been been studying the DNA of microbes for a quarter-century, and in that time, they have sequenced about 2 million microbes. By one estimate, as many as 1 trillion microbial species may live on Earth.
Progress? 0.0002 percent.
Only a tiny fraction of the tree of life has been filled in. In fact, whole branches are likely still yet to be discovered: branches of microbes living in remote environments like hydrothermal vents, branches of microbes that might be the link between simple cells and the complex life that became humans. At the current rate, says Mads Albertsen, it would take thousands of years to get a complete microbial catalogue of the Earth.
So Albertsen, a microbiologist at Aalborg University, decided to do something about it. His lab has come up with a clever new way to find previously unknown microbes. In the past three years, they have catalogued about a million DNA sequences from microbes. More than half of the potential species they found were unknown to science.
Albertsen and his team looked for new species in only the most prosaic of places: water, dirt, mud, sewage, the human gut. A concerted effort to sequence all types of samples will expand the tree of life—and perhaps eventually fill in all the missing branches. "That's really in reach now," he says.
The new method may be particularly useful for discovering the most intriguing microbes—the ones unlike anything previously discovered and thus most difficult to identify.
Microbe species are catalogued by identifying variations in one particular gene called 16S rRNA, which is so common that it is found in all known living species. Traditional sequencing methods are usually biased toward finding microbes whose 16S rRNA gene is similar to ones previously sequenced. That's because these methods rely on a process called polymerase chain reaction, when an enzyme makes several copies of the gene (in this case 16S rRNA), for later sequencing. The enzyme, however, needs to attach to something called a "primer" to start copying. The primer is essentially a tiny snippet of DNA designed to bind to the exact gene you want to copy and sequence. But if you've never sequenced it before, then you don't know what the primer needs to bind to.
There you have the chicken-and-egg problem: "Every PCR primer is designed based on a previous sequence out there," says Chris Miller, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado at Denver who was not involved in the study. "PCR primer bias is big."
Albertsen's team got around primer bias with a few clever tricks. First, they realized it's possible to add extra letters to the ends of any microbe's 16S rRNA gene. These extra letter, whose exact sequence they knew, could act as generic primer binding sites. So there was no need to know the underlying gene sequence, and no primer bias. They put this together with a method that allowed them to use high-throughput sequencing machines to test a lot of samples quickly and relatively cheaply. Soon, they were on their way to getting nearly 2 million 16S rRNA sequences.
Having a catalogue of microbes means that scientists can know when they're talking about the same one. "It seems like a stupid problem, but it's a really large problem," says Albertsen. They're too small to see with the naked eye, and even when you put them under a microscope, different microbes can look very similar. If Albertsen, who usually studies microbes in wastewater, sees one type of bacteria show up when, say, the pH drops, he wants to be able to talk to his collaborator in another city about whether they're seeing the same microbe.
The most exciting new microbes they found appear to be related to the recently discovered Asgard microbes—the ones that may link simple and complex life. Thijs J. G. Ettema, a microbiologist at Uppsala University, has discovered Asgard microbes in several sites including Yellowstone National Park and deep-sea vents near a Japanese island. Albertsen's came from the mud around Denmark. Ettema thinks that the method could help identify more environments where Asgard microbes live. "It can't be understated that these 16S sequences are being used a lot," he says. "This will revolutionize this field."
Ettema has one note of caution. The method requires quite a bit of genetic material from microbes, and samples from extreme and hard-to-reach environments might not have enough material for this type of sequencing. He and other scientists will continue to use other sequencing methods to study novel microbes.
In addition, scientists how hope to sequence entire genomes rather than just the 16S rRNA gene, which would give a fuller picture of what novel microbes are actually like. Tanja Woyke, a microbiologist at the Joint Genome Institute, specializes in sequencing whole genomes from just a single microbial cell.
For now, what 16S rRNA sequencing and this novel method can do is create a roadmap for those undiscovered branches of life. It's a relatively quick and easy way to sample a new environment. And if there's something intriguing, scientists can swoop in with even more powerful genomics tools to study the microbes more closely. The tree of life will keep getting bigger and bigger.
Posted: 08 Jan 2018 06:40 AM PST
When Travis Busch graduated from high school in Jefferson, Iowa, in 1999, he followed many of his classmates on the well-plotted and well-trod path to college. Busch took classes at Iowa Central Community College during the day and worked part-time at night on the floor of a local factory that made stock tanks for horse and cattle farms. But after a year and a half in college, he dropped out to work full time.
"I didn't want to go to college in the first place," he said. "I was already making money. I didn't see why I needed it."
Fast-forward to January 2017. The factory where Busch worked was sold to a company that moved its operations to Kentucky and laid off the workers in Iowa. Before he lost his job, Busch met with local workforce officials who presented him three options: apply for an apprenticeship, go back to college, or try his luck on the job market with only a high-school diploma.
"I had a long conversation with my wife and decided that I didn't want just a job, but I wanted a career," Busch said. "I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn't have that feeling they are going to lay me off. I wanted job security."
For Busch that job security would come from installing and repairing heating and air-conditioning systems. But on the day he went to sign up for the HVAC program at Des Moines Area Community College, the coordinator he was scheduled to meet with wasn't there. Instead he bumped into the head of the tool and die program, Charlie Peffers, who took Busch on a tour of the college's labs. "He showed me the machines and really sold the program," Busch said.
What ultimately persuaded Busch to give the tool and die program a try were Peffers's comments about the job outlook for his graduates, who make parts for a variety of industrial machines. Most second-year students in the program were already working part-time. Companies came to campus every other week to recruit students, offering full-time jobs that started around $40,000 a year. And some students graduated with multiple job offers.
* * *
Busch, who began classes in the tool and die program this fall, is the type of worker that politicians love to trot out when they talk about how job retraining is the answer to putting Americans back to work. But in many ways, Busch is one of the lucky ones. A relatively small chunk of the Americans who missed the conventional on-ramp to higher education and a career out of high school are now getting a second chance at a well-paying job through retraining.
Worker retraining is a classic chicken-or-egg dilemma. Employers don't want to expand or relocate without the availability of an already-skilled workforce. Workers who have been laid off through corporate downsizing or because their jobs were shipped to a foreign country don't want to dedicate the time and effort needed to go through retraining without the pledge of a sure-fire job with the same or a better paycheck.
So when you plug real people into the easy fixes designed by policy wonks, the situation suddenly becomes more complicated: Older workers who haven't seen the inside of a classroom for decades are frightened by going back to school. Men don't want to train for the jobs that are left in town, particularly in health care, because of the stigma of being employed in occupations traditionally filled by women—a phenomena that Lawrence Katz, a Harvard University labor economist, has frequently called an "identity mismatch," rather than a skills mismatch. And in a country founded by people on the move, unemployed workers are unwilling to relocate to find work.
No wonder President Trump was able to tap into the nostalgia of unemployed and underemployed workers in working-class communities during last year's presidential election with promises to bring back jobs in the coal mines, the textile plants, and the steel mills. Such blue-collar workers, most of them lacking a college degree, are these days being hit particularly hard by job losses on two fronts. The first is a wave of automation that has caused nearly nine in 10 manufacturing jobs to disappear since 2000, according to an analysis by Ball State University. Second is trade. A paper published last year by three economists concluded that Chinese imports alone eliminated some 2.4 million jobs in the U.S. since the beginning of the century.
For many dislocated workers—or employees who were terminated and are unlikely to return to that job or even that industry—it's often easier to collect unemployment or other cash benefits that come along with training and then either remain jobless or patch together work that doesn't require learning a new skill or acquiring a college degree. But that's not a recipe for sustainable careers or even long-term work. As a result of the 2008 recession, the U.S. shed 1.6 million manufacturing jobs requiring just a high-school diploma; only 200,000 returned.
The fastest-growing jobs in the country require training and education beyond high school. Between now and 2024, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will be home to some 16 million openings for middle-skill jobs—those that require more education than a high-school diploma but typically not a bachelor's degree. Some 40 percent of them pay more than $55,000 a year; another 14 percent pay more than $80,000. The National Skills Coalition has found that these jobs in sectors such as computer technology, health care, construction, and high-skill manufacturing account for 53 percent of the labor market, but only 43 percent of middle-skill workers are sufficiently trained.
"The U.S. faces a serious skills gap," said Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in June when announcing the administration's executive actions to expand training opportunities, mostly through apprenticeships. Referring to the discrepancy between what employers need and what skills workers have, he pointed out that the U.S. has 6 million jobs—1 million in the health-care sector alone—the most since the Labor Department started keeping track since last decade.
But even as members of the administration pay lip service to job training, it has joined other politicians in making cuts to the programs. Dollars delivered to the states through the federal government's primary workforce-retraining program have been slashed by 22 percent since 2009, and in his first budget earlier this year, President Trump proposed further cuts. Despite decades of investments by the federal government in a patchwork of job-retraining efforts, most have been found to be ineffective according to numerous studies over the years, and it remains unclear to experts whether the programs are even up to the task of preparing workers for the new economy.
Take the program aimed at workers whose jobs have moved overseas: the Labor Department's Trade Adjustment Assistance fund. It has been around since the early 1960s, and in recent years has paid upwards of $11,500 per eligible person for training. But a 2012 assessment of the program found that, four years after completing training, only 37 percent of its employed participants were working in their targeted industries. Women and younger workers were more likely than other workers to undertake training through the fund, and the incomes of older participants, in particular, never caught back up to their earlier wages.
The trade-assistance program is just one of 47 federal job-training programs across nine agencies that the Government Accountability Office identified in a 2011 report. Most were tiny and mainly served the unemployed struggling to find work. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act signed by President Obama in 2014 was a bipartisan attempt aimed at consolidating the hodgepodge of programs.
Still, federal retraining programs remain rooted in the industrial era in which they were created and have largely failed to evolve with the global information-based economy in which technical know-how trumps muscle.
"In previous decades, we'd have down cycles where workers were laid off and then they'd be called back," said Mary Alice McCarthy, the director of the Center on Education & Skills at the left-leaning think tank New America. "Now there is a restructuring in most industries where people aren't ever going to be called back or ever find jobs in that industry again—and we don't have training systems that allow for that."
Workforce-development officials and labor economists describe four main trends in the job market that make the road from unemployment to retraining more treacherous now than it was even a decade ago. These trends, according to observers, have turned the government programs to support dislocated workers into relics of the past.
First, entire occupations and industries are expanding and contracting at an alarming pace, and the skills needed to keep up in almost any job are churning at an increasingly faster rate. As a result, there is often a gap between the jobs employers need to fill at a given moment and the skills of available workers. Both employers and trainers are partly to blame for this mismatch. Companies typically are reluctant to reveal their hiring plans too far in advance of filling the actual openings because they don't want to tip off competitors. Meanwhile, colleges can take months, even years, to design and advertise new programs; the requirements for a degree take another two years, further delaying graduates' entry into the workforce.
The federal government has called for better cooperation between industry and community colleges in designing programs that prioritize what it refers to as "demand-driven training," so that dislocated workers aren't learning skills that are outdated by the time they graduate. Some schools, like Des Moines Area Community College, have expanded their non-credit programs to get new classes up and running more quickly than in the past and teach students just enough to start a career. The college now offers 15 non-credit certificate programs enrolling roughly 450 students; the classes cost as little as $89 and as much as $1,000-plus a pop. Some 85 percent complete the programs, compared to just 39 percent of community-college students nationwide who graduate within six years.
Unlike the associate's-degree programs offered by Des Moines, the goal of these weeks-long boot camps isn't to teach students everything they need to know to be great in a job, said Michael Hoffman, the college's executive director of continuing education. "They need a job tomorrow, not two years from now," Hoffman said. "So we ask employers what a base program would be to get them the skills to secure an interview."
As an example, Hoffman pointed to a local hospital that was struggling to hire food-service employees. It partnered with the college to design a semester-long culinary program that teaches students just enough to get a job at the hospital. Once on the job, graduates of the program can retroactively apply to receive credits for the classes they completed that count toward further education if they wish to pursue it. "Our programs are very fluid because we want to get students into the job market as soon as possible," said Kay Maher, who helps students enroll in workforce-training programs at the college.
States themselves are often an obstacle in getting displaced workers back on the job. The second major development in retraining displaced workers for new careers is that states have increasingly added onerous licensing requirements for many jobs to ensure safety or quality of services. A study by the Brooking Institution's Hamilton Project estimated that, because such requirements discourage people from pursuing some careers, the rules have resulted in 2.85 million fewer jobs nationwide. The study found that around 30 percent of American workers need a license to perform their jobs; in the early 1950s, less than 5 percent did. About 800 occupations—from emergency medical technicians to cosmetologists to interior designers—are licensed by at least one state.
Third, as Hoffman alluded, speed matters when it comes to enrolling into training programs workers who were recently laid off. A significant delay—a wait of a year or more—often permanently hinders a worker's chances at finding a new career and limits his or her lifetime earnings. Retraining is most successful when workers actually start it before they leave their old job. "If you wait until they are out of a job, the emotion of losing a job comes into play; they start to get accustomed to not working, they get rusty," said Jane Oates, who was an assistant secretary in the Labor Department during the Obama administration.
Indeed, the analysis of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program conducted for the Labor Department in 2012 found that those who enrolled in training within 13 weeks of applying for unemployment benefits ended up working significantly more weeks, and earned more, than workers who entered training a year or more after a job loss.
The fourth major development is that the pathway to retraining these days almost always runs through a college campus. Even most manufacturing jobs now demand some sort of education after high school. But many of the workers who require retraining dropped out of college, if they went at all. Perhaps the biggest hurdle in retraining displaced workers is that some of them have little interest in going back to school.
For a few, a rejection of higher education might seem rational. After all, why would someone in his 50s who hasn't been in a classroom in decades dedicate a few years to train for a new job surrounded by people half his age and then start on the bottom rung of the career ladder? So for many of these displaced workers, it is just easier to opt out of the workforce altogether, particularly for men. The share of American men in their prime working years (25 to 54-years-old) but not employed has jumped sharply in the last four decades. Today, one in five of them isn't in the labor pool at all. "We can't build an economy with that many people not participating at all," Oates said.
* * *
As automation and foreign trade have accelerated the pace of decline in manufacturing across the country, community colleges have become a key cog in the wheel of programs that retrain workers. Some 34 percent of the roughly $114 billion the federal government spends annually on workforce development and education goes to higher education, with much of it flowing to two-year colleges.
In Iowa, Des Moines Area Community College has long been seen as a leader in workforce development and worker retraining. That was put to the test a decade ago, when the Whirlpool Corporation bought Maytag, which was headquartered in Newton, 35 miles east of Des Moines and where the college has one of its six campuses (and that was built on land donated by Maytag). At its peak Maytag employed one out of every five people in Newton, more than 3,000 in all. But in 2007, after the purchase of Maytag, Whirlpool announced it was pulling all of its operations out of Newton.
"This was a company town," recalled Kim Didier, who at the time headed up the Newton Development Corporation, an organization responsible for attracting businesses to Newton, and who had previously worked for Maytag herself. "The biggest obstacle we had to overcome in retraining was that there was this culture in workers, a hierarchy developed from years of working at Maytag. So when we started putting out ideas and plans to support entrepreneurship, for example, or get people back in school, we often heard from displaced workers, 'We can do that?'"
When workforce-development experts are asked where government-retraining programs have worked well recently, many point to Newton as one of the success stories. In the aftermath of the Maytag layoffs, local officials sketched out a revitalization plan, and within a year had attracted more than 1,200 jobs in advanced manufacturing and high-tech industries, including positions in a large factory that makes wind towers and turbines. (In 2012, then-President Obama paid a visit to Newton to speak about job creation.)
At the same time, Des Moines Area Community College officials discovered how best to serve large swaths of students of different generations and with varying education experiences. "We learned most of all to be flexible," said Joe DeHart, provost of the Newton campus, "because higher education is usually seen as being inflexible to the needs of students." The college experimented with multiple start dates for programs instead of forcing laid-off workers to wait for the beginning of traditional semesters in September and January. It also created some cohort-based courses to mimic a typical work-week in which students attended classes every day instead of only two or three times a week.
The goal was to ease the anxiety that the word "retraining" triggers in many workers who suddenly lose a job or are depressed by the prospect of figuring out a new career. When Jenny Michael was laid off from Maytag she was nervous about trading in what had been a decade-long secretarial career for a plan to return to the classroom in pursuit of a two-year degree in business administration. "I hadn't been in school since I graduated from high school in 1977," Michael said. In a mantra repeated often by her co-workers, she added: "I thought I'd spend my career at Maytag." She'd been happy assuming it'd be a job for life.
Nearly 50 years old at the time, Michael was one of the oldest people in her classes, and at times felt out of place. She had no idea how to study. She struggled through her first few weeks. Then she started to get a handle on how to study. "My husband is an engineer, and he told me that I didn't need to know the whole book," she said.
Slowly, Michael gained the confidence she needed. "I put so much pressure on myself," said Michael, who had two children, one in college and one in high school at the time. "I was expecting them to do well, so I needed to do well, too." Six months before she graduated, she lined up a job at a new company that made towers for wind turbines. Two other jobs have followed since, and now she is back at Des Moines Area Community College—this time as an employee working in the financial-aid office. "I'm glad I made the decision" to go back to school, Michael said, "because that piece of paper matters so much in terms of having a career now."
* * *
After completing the degree in the tool and die program next year, Travis Busch is looking forward to finally having a career and "making some real money." Peffers, the program's head, describes Busch as an exemplary student who has quickly risen to the top of his class. But if not for a random encounter on the day he visited the college, it's very possible Busch would have been enrolled in the HVAC program, if he was in school at all. Who knows what retraining would've led to.
And that's the dilemma facing many workers as they consider whether to enroll in retraining programs: They don't always know what they're best equipped to do and so pick new careers that might be familiar to them, rather than something that is a good match. The Labor Department's study of the trade-adjustment program found that job trainees who received career assessments were more likely to get a job after training than those who didn't because they made better-informed choices about the training options that were most beneficial.
The update to the Workforce Investment Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2014 prioritizes programs that help workers understand the connection between continuing education and work. It authorizes the use of federal funds, for instance, to pay for instruction in math and literacy skills when training for a specific occupation, something that wasn't allowed before as basic education and training were seen, and in many cases still are seen, as two separate services by Washington policymakers.
"Retraining is held up as some sort of savior to displaced workers," said Didier, the former head of the Newton Development Corporation, who now works at Des Moines Area Community College where she helps the college link up with businesses that have training needs. "But without a specific job at the other end, no one is going to waste their time retraining just to retrain." Because when it comes to learning and work, the most important thing is work itself.
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