- Trump’s Attacks on Prominent Generals Are Corrosive
- The Real Challenge Facing Elizabeth Warren’s Candidacy
- How to Make the Senate Representative
- Uncovering the Roots of Caribbean Cooking
- How Young, Rich Evangelicals Give Their Money Away
- Jay Inslee Is Running for President
- How to Lose Tens of Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
- NASA Hits Its New Year’s Target at the Edge of the Solar System
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST
We've gotten used to so much in Donald Trump's two years in office, from the cruelty of his immigration policies to his childlike understanding of international trade, and from his apparent fear of Vladimir Putin to his whipsawing of the financial markets. Too many Americans have simply become accustomed to the president's antics as a normal part of the background noise of their lives. Sometimes, Trump's disjointed thoughts are merely an embarrassment; at other times, he makes dangerous policy changes or wipes out great amounts of wealth in a tweet.
Now, however, the president has opened a Pandora's box by escalating his attacks on senior U.S. military leaders. No American president has ever dared risk the American civil-military relationship for less cause, or with such childish malice.
American citizens don't think much about civil-military relations. That's good: It's a sign of a healthy polity. We don't worry about tanks rolling up North Capitol Street or paratroopers lolling about in Lafayette Square. We're not that kind of country. But the president has taken a dangerous path, excoriating retired military leaders who criticize him and lavishing praise and make-believe pay raises on the active-duty military voters whom he believes support him. A precious heritage built on the dual pillars of military obedience to civilians and civilian respect for military professionals is now at severe risk.
The president began New Year's Day with a blast at retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, who in a recent interview indicated that he would never be able to join a Trump administration because he thinks the president is "immoral." Trump, resorting to the limited vocabulary that has marked his later years, tweeted that President Obama had fired McChrystal "like a dog" and that McChrystal is known for his "big, dumb mouth," and that he is a "Hillary lover!" (The exclamation point, of course, is de rigueur.)
This wasn't Trump's first shelling of senior military leaders. In December 2018, he referred to unnamed critics of his slapdash decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria as "failed generals." During the 2016 campaign, he lashed out at Colin Powell and John Allen, Obama and Hillary Clinton supporters, respectively, not for their politics but specifically to ridicule their abilities as commanders.
Once elected, Trump hired a number of well-known generals, not only to assuage the fears of his own party, but in order to bask in the reflected glow of their stars. He put John Kelly at Homeland Security and, in a departure from tradition, sought a waiver from Congress to bring recently retired Marine General James Mattis into civilian government sooner than the law allows. Congress, relieved to have a man of Mattis's character and experience between Trump and the Pentagon, granted the request.
Of course, he also put retired Army General Michael Flynn—now a convicted felon—in the national-security adviser's chair. When Flynn had to be forced out, Trump reached out to an active-duty officer, H.R. McMaster, who could hardly say no to a direct request from the president of the United States. By the summer of 2017, generals headed the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the White House staff (once Kelly replaced the hapless Reince Priebus), and even the U.S. prison system.
This, in itself, was a bad idea. Retired generals and admirals are invaluable national resources who should be called back into government service sparingly and only for the most important reasons. Even when they retire, they can never really take their stars off, and placing them in positions of senior civilian leadership should be done with great caution. It should not be done purely to spackle over the cracks in a president's ego, or as a shot of political Xanax to calm the fears of a jittery nation. It is the most anti-republican of sentiments to have Americans reassuring each other, as they have for two years, that all is well because the generals are really in charge.
Worse, it is fundamentally anti-American to disparage the courage and ability of senior military leaders merely because they are exercising their First Amendment rights on return to civilian life. Trump's shots at everyone from John McCain to McChrystal should be regarded by any person of good will as despicable, but that is a personal judgment each of us much reach on our own.
From a political standpoint, however, what the president is doing is corrosively dangerous. He is impugning the character and competence of senior U.S. military leaders purely for political reasons. He is making clear that the "smart" generals and admirals are those who support him, and that "dumb" or "failed" officers are those who disagree with him. And he has no compunction about leveling blistering insults—in public—against some of America's most highly respected military leaders.
Think of how far we have come—or how far we have fallen—from the days of the Cuban missile crisis, when John F. Kennedy called his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, for advice. Each man knew the importance of his rank and position; more to the point, they respected each other'srank and position. Eisenhower—who was old enough to be JFK's father—even in private called him "Mr. President" and "sir." Kennedy, speaking to the man who only recently sat behind his own desk, called Eisenhower "General."
Yes, presidents have blown their stacks when hearing things they don't like from their military advisers. (Lyndon Johnson supposedly unloaded on his service chiefs with such fury in a private meeting in 1965 that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs thought of resigning.) The Oval Office and the Pentagon are places where the survival not only of the country, but of the planet, are decided, and tempers can run white-hot.
And yes, retired military officers have not helped matters. Many of them have spoken out against Trump, in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. (It is important to remember that as recently as 1992, there was considerable tut-tutting about retired Admiral William Crowe's endorsement of then-candidate Bill Clinton.) Retired generals including James Clapper and Michael Hayden are regular critics of the president; even retired General Martin Dempsey's Twitter feed, which never mentions Trump specifically, seems to be a continuing subtweet of the president, hashtagged under "#Leadership."
But it is the president, not the generals and admirals, who have made this unthinkable situation part of the new normal in the Age of Trump. No modern president has been so reckless in his criticism of both active and retired military professionals. When Trump said he knows more than the generals—a laughable claim from almost any civilian when it comes to military affairs—he apparently meant it. And that means he has no respect for military advice, from any direction. This, more than any personal clash, was the clear message in Mattis's resignation.
If Trump continues on this path—and he will—we could face the most politicized and divided military since Vietnam, or even since the Civil War. Generals and admirals could be faced with betraying their professional code either by giving the advice they know will keep them in the good graces of the president, or by ignoring the president's orders and protecting their troops in the field as they think best. The rank and file, meanwhile, will become accustomed to showing up at political rallies where their commander in chief will pander to them and air his grievances against other elected officials, all while they wave banners in uniform and cheer for a growing cult of personality.
I remain optimistic. The oath of the professional officer, like the oath of the federal servant, is to the Constitution. The men and women of the armed forces have withstood greater temptations than the empty praise and illusory bribes of a desperate president. But in civil-military affairs, as in so many other areas of our national security, we shall have much damage to repair before this business is over.
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST
Read enough news reports about Elizabeth Warren's declaration that she is running for president and you notice certain common features. In its story on her announcement, The New York Times noted that Warren has "become a favorite target of conservatives" and that, in a recent national poll, "Only about 30 percent [of respondents] viewed her favorably, with 37 percent holding an unfavorable view." The Washington Post observed that Warren's claim "that she was Native American" has "come under relentless attack from Republican opponents." It also quoted a Boston Globe editorial that called Warren "a divisive figure." On CNN, the elections analyst Harry Enten suggested that Warren's "very liberal record, combined with the fact that Donald Trump has already gone already after her" has made her a—you guessed it—"divisive figure," whose "favorable ratings are not that high."
These observations are factually correct. But they also help create a false narrative. Mentioning the right's attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her "very liberal record" and the controversy around her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her and many Americans don't like her very much.
But that equation is misleading. The better explanation for why Warren attracts disproportionate conservative criticism, and has disproportionately high disapproval ratings, has nothing to do with her progressive economic views or her dalliance with DNA testing. It's that she's a woman.
As I've noted before, women's ambition provokes a far more negative reaction than men's. For a 2010 article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, two Yale professors, Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto, showed identical fictional biographies of two state senators—one male and one female—to participants in a study. When they added quotations to the biographies that characterized each as "ambitious" and possessing "a strong will to power," the male state senator grew more popular. But the female state senator not only lost support among both women and men, but provoked "moral outrage."
The last decade of American politics has illustrated Brescoll and Okimoto's finding again and again. During the 2012 campaign, Republicans attacked Nancy Pelosi in television commercials seven timesas frequently as they attacked her Democratic senate counterpart, Harry Reid. In 2016, the disparity was three to one. Pelosi's detractors sometimes chalk up her unpopularity to her liberalism and her hometown of San Francisco. But Reid's successor as Democratic Senate leader, Charles Schumer, a liberal from Brooklyn, is far less unpopularthan Pelosi—and far less targeted by the GOP.
Or compare Hillary Clinton to the men who preceded her as Democratic presidential nominees. In a spring 2016 study, FiveThirtyEight.com subtracted the percentage of Americans who felt "strongly unfavorable" towards Democratic nominees from the percentage who felt "strongly favorable" at the same time in the presidential cycle. For almost every nominee between 1980 and 2012, the result was roughly zero. In other words, the percentage of Americans who really liked them equaled the percentage of Americans who really disliked them, which makes sense given the roughly even nature of America's partisan split. (The one exception was Michael Dukakis, who as a little known governor in the spring of 1988 enjoyed a net positive score of more than 10 points).
Then, in 2016, everything changed. The percentage of Americans who felt "strongly unfavorable" towards Hillary Clinton exceeded the percentage that felt "strongly favorable" by 20 points. Was Clinton uniquely liberal or uniquely dishonest or uniquely inauthentic enough—compared to the seven male Democratic nominees who preceded her—to explain such a large disparity? Probably not. Gender likely played a key role.
Now the same dynamic is playing out with Elizabeth Warren. Pollsters keep recording her unusually high unfavorability ratings. Last September, CNN found that Joe Biden's net approval rating among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents was 30 points. Bernie Sanders's was 18 points. Warren's was two points. In December, when Quinnipiac University surveyed Democrats, Republicans, and independents, Biden's net approval was 20 points. Sanders's was two points. Warren's was negative seven points. Warren's relatively low numbers appear driven by her unpopularity among men. When the University of Massachusetts asked state residents who they support in the 2020 Democratic primary, Warren tied Biden among women. Among men, she trailed him by 16 points.
These polls often find their way into newspaper articles. The New York Times cited the Quinnipiac survey in its article about Warren's presidential announcement. On CNN, Harry Enten discussed her polling ratings at length. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate.
The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender's role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren's unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them. Reporters dwell on issues like Warren's alleged Native American ancestry not necessarily because they think those issues matter but because they assume that voters think they matter. If voters didn't, why would Warren be so unpopular?
What all this ignores is the harsh truth that when women politicians—especially women politicians who embrace a feminist agenda—overtly seek power, many American men, and some American women, react with "moral outrage." They may not express that outrage in explicitly gendered terms, just as they may not express their anxiety about a black candidate in explicitly racial terms. They may instead cite DNA testing or hidden emails or San Francisco's cultural liberalism. Or they may simply say they find the candidate's mannerisms off-putting.
The media's role is to dig deeper: to interpret these specific discomforts in light of the deeper discomfort that Americans again and again express with ambitious women.
Journalists shouldn't ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren's comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than their male competitors. Unless they name that unfairness, journalists risk perpetuating it.
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST
In 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, "Sometime in the next century the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate." Perhaps that time has come. Today the voting power of a citizen in Wyoming, the smallest state in terms of population, is about 67 times that of a citizen in the largest state of California, and the disparities among the states are only increasing. The situation is untenable.
Pundits, professors, and policy makers have advanced various solutions. Burt Neuborne of NYU has argued in The Wall Street Journal that the best way forward is to break up large states into smaller ones. Akhil Amar of Yale Law School has suggested a national referendum to reform the Senate. The retired congressman John Dingell asserted here in The Atlantic that the Senate should simply be abolished.
There's a better, more elegant, constitutional way out. Let's allocate one seat to each state automatically to preserve federalism, but apportion the rest based on population. Here's how.
Start with the total U.S. population, then divide by 100, since that's the size of the current, more deliberative upper chamber. Next, allocate senators to each state according to their share of the total; 2/100 equals two senators, 3/100 equals three, etc. Update the apportionment every decade according to the official census.
Using 2017 census estimates as a proxy for the official one coming in 2020, the Rule of One Hundred yields the following outcome: 26 states get only one senator (having about 1/100 of the population or less), 12 states stay at two, eight states gain one or two, and the four biggest states gain more than two: California gets 12 total, Texas gets nine, and Florida and New York get six each. This apportionment shows how out of whack the current Senate has become.
In the new allocation, the total number of senators would be 110. The total is more than 100 because 10 of the smallest states have much less than 0.5/100 of the U.S. population but are still entitled to one senator each.
The obvious reply is, "This is impossible! The Constitution plainly says that each state gets two senators. There's even a provision in the Constitution that says this rule cannot be amended." Indeed, Article V, in describing the amendment process, stipulates that "no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."
This seems like a showstopper, and some scholars say it's "unthinkable" that the one-state, two-senators rule can ever be changed. But, look, when conservative lawyers first argued that the Affordable Care Act violated the Commerce Clause, that seemed unthinkable, too. Our Constitution is more malleable than many imagine.
First, consider that Article V applies only to amendments. Congress would adopt the Rule of One Hundred scheme as a statute; let's call it the Senate Reform Act. Because it's legislation rather than an amendment, Article V would—arguably—not apply.
Second, the states, through the various voting-rights amendments—the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth—have already given their "consent" by directing Congress to adopt legislation to protect equal voting rights, and this delegated power explicitly applies to "the United States" as well as the states. The Senate Reform Act would simply shift seats according to population. No state or its citizens would lose the franchise.
Note that even states that did not ratify the voting-rights amendments have, functionally, consented to them, and thus also to the constitutional logic supporting a Senate Reform Act. As Justice Clarence Thomas explained in 1995, "The people of each State obviously did trust their fate to the people of the several States when they consented to the Constitution; not only did they empower the governmental institutions of the United States, but they also agreed to be bound by constitutional amendments that they themselves refused to ratify."
Remember, too, that the Constitution is a complex framework document that has evolved over the course of more than two centuries. The Civil War inaugurated a century of ever-increasing recognition of voting rights through the aforementioned amendments, which created a new constitutional principle that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State" on specific grounds of race, color, sex, or age. All of these amendments include exactly the same enforcement provision as well: "Congress shall have the power to enforce this [amendment] by appropriate legislation."
Congress has exercised its power under these amendments in legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to declare Senate-like malapportioned state legislatures unconstitutional in a number of cases, such as Reynolds v. Sims in 1964, which established a "one person, one vote" standard. As recently as Bush v. Gore in 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed equal voting rights of all citizens as an essential constitutional value. Although the Court trimmed a portion of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, reaffirmed the authority of Congress to regulate in this field and endorsed a forward-looking orientation. "The Fifteenth Amendment commands that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color, and it gives Congress the power to enforce that command," he wrote. "The Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future."
Race and what W. E. B. Du Bois called "the color line" are crucially at issue here because the current Senate allocation is heavily biased in favor of small states with predominantly white populations, and against large states where whites are in the minority or close to it. For example, in California, 38 percent of citizens are white. In Texas, that figure is 43 percent. Compare the two smallest states: Vermont is 94 percent white, and Wyoming is 86 percent white. A comprehensive empirical review comparing the national population of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians with the median representation in each state found that "whites are the only group that Senate apportionment advantages." Other, statistically smaller inequalities are present with respect to sex, age, and other constitutionally protected categories, such as sexual orientation.
Constitutional originalists will surely argue that the Founders meant "equal suffrage" in Article V to mean one state, two senators, now and forever. But the Founders could never have imagined the immense expansion of the United States in terms of territory, population, and diversity of its citizens.
Remember also that even if one takes original intent as definitive, the intentions informing Article V at the founding must be balanced against those behind the voting-rights amendments adopted a century or more later. These amendments clearly and repeatedly authorize Congress to protect "the right of citizens of the United States to vote" against any abridgement "by the United States." The plain dictionary meaning of abridge is to "reduce the scope" of a right or to "shorten the extent" of it. Unequal Senate apportionment abridges the voting rights of citizens in large states, including nonwhite citizens in those states. This kind of inequality is within the delegated power of Congress to address.
Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School has recommended that when an earlier constitutional text conflicts with later textual amendments, we should follow "time's arrow." We should keep in mind that the original one-state, two-senators rule was written and ratified by property-owning white men, almost half of whom owned slaves, and that the voting-rights amendments were adopted after a war to end slavery. Frederick Douglass said the Civil War was fought to "unify and reorganize the institutions of this country," and otherwise would have been "little better than a gigantic enterprise for shedding human blood." He was right. Equality of voting rights is an essential constitutional principle that emerged from this struggle—and it's been expanded since then in women's suffrage, the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and beyond.
There are therefore two strong constitutional arguments in favor of a Senate Reform Act. It protects the equal right of every American citizen to a rough mathematical equality of voting weight and power in their national government—with a constraint, recognizing the virtue in federalism, of allocating one senator to every state at a minimum. And it corrects a heavy, unjustified bias favoring white citizens in the Senate. It doesn't go too far to describe the current Senate apportionment as a vehicle entrenching white supremacy.
Again, some originalists will stand against this argument, saying no state can lose a senator (old-style "equal suffrage") without its "consent." Again, this argument fails because states have already given their "consent" in the voting-rights amendments that give Congress the power—even the duty—to protect U.S. citizens against the denial or abridgment of equal voting rights.
An additional argument supporting the plausibility of a Senate Reform Act is that the Supreme Court might see fit to stay out of the mix. The unelected, nonrepresentative justices might revive an old but good doctrine against overturning a federal statute unless Congress makes a "clear mistake" about its constitutionality. Or the Court might defer to Congress on this issue by invoking the "political question" doctrine, which requires treading lightly in areas where a democratically elected branch has been explicitly granted constitutional power.
Several other structural benefits would follow from a Senate Reform Act. It would automatically mitigate the unrepresentativeness of the Electoral College, which allocates presidential electors to each state equal to the number of its congressional delegation—that is, the total number of representatives and senators. (I should point out also that if this reapportionment would have, hypothetically, occurred prior to the most recent presidential election, the result would not have changed. Red gains in Texas and Florida would have offset a blue gain in California, and blue losses in New England would have balanced red losses in lightly populated western states.)
In large states, the election of multiple senators could allow a broader spectrum of political representation—e.g., both Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke—which might help reduce the poisonous polarization that characterizes our politics.
Last but not least, a new minimum of one senator for small states could ease the path toward statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which are currently unrepresented in Congress. Adding one senator for each of these new states to a Senate of 110 would prove less difficult politically than adding four to 100.
The immediate political likelihood for passage of the Senate Reform Act is not great, in large part because it's not only more democratic than the status quo, but more Democratic, too. Taking the Trump electoral victory map of 2016 as a template, and applying it to the 110 senators created under the reform, yields a gain of plus-eight senators for Democrats and plus-two for Republicans. From a political point of view, then, Democrats should favor the reform—and one can imagine it passing in some alternative future, even if some Democratic senators from small states would have to vote in favor of fairness and principle rather than parochial and racial privilege. Republicans in large states might also be hard-pressed to vote against their own citizens' prospects for fairer and broader representation.
If a Democratic wave continues into 2020, then who knows, a Senate Reform Act could make America a democracy again.
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST
It has been said that enslaved Africans wore necklaces of seeds for good luck, seeds from the ackee plant, when they were forced onto ships' hulls bound for the New World. Ackee, which is now known as the national fruit of Jamaica, is not indigenous to the land, but is native to western Africa. It made its debut in Jamaica in the late 18th century during a peak period of the British slave trade, which by its official end, in 1807, had brought more than 1 million Africans to the island.
Saltfish and ackee is one of the most popular dishes from Jamaican cuisine today. For those unfamiliar, ackee has a unique and earthy taste. It is a pear-shaped fruit whose skin ripens red, then opens petal-like, revealing three or four arils with black seeds atop each. As a source of protein, the fruit was essential for the survival of the women, men, and children forced to work grueling hours on the sugar plantations scattered throughout the Caribbean.
Salted fish was an imported commodity, too, from North America, and planters would occasionally share that bounty with their hungry slaves. African women, who were charged with arduous and unyielding labor on plantations, and who also had to generate sustenance for themselves and their families, mixed the leftover salted fish with ackee along with "Food," shorthand for the prepared combination of starchy root vegetables like cassava, yam, and taro, which they grew and cultivated themselves. Saltfish and ackee represents the unseen labor of generations of women who, in the two centuries since the end of slavery, shaped how millions eat and survive in the Western Hemisphere.
It is in this context that the sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau situate Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking, a lush and artful work—one part cookbook, one part canonical and historical text. A modern collection of vegetarian comfort-food recipes, the book details the lineage of the invisible contributions of African women, and the savvy meal refinement of their descendants, self-reliant and creative West Indians who innovated the region's most beloved foodstuffs.
The Rousseau sisters, who are both professional chefs, discovered through research of their own family stories that they are not simply outliers in their decades-long journey with cooking, entertaining, and entrepreneurship. Their path is, in fact, an inheritance. The sisters' great-grandmother, Martha Matilda Briggs, began as a domestic and became a business owner, opening a café selling her much-reputed patties, baked black crabs, and pastries. She later expanded to a restaurant in the downtown district of Kingston, Jamaica, in 1936—an unusual feat for a single mother of seven during that time. Yet, Briggs was the embodiment of the resourceful creativity demonstrated by multitudes of Afro-Caribbean matriarchs, who had to innovate with meager resources to feed and sustain their families.
Provisions is bookended by deeply researched stories mined from the 19th century: journals once belonging to planters' wives, rare narratives from enslaved women, and old cookbooks that give readers some sense of how Africans essentially made manna from heaven in the crucible of slavery. The Rousseaus draw a definitive line connecting the foods of survival from the past to their present iterations as delicacies.
Cassava, they highlight in the section covering recipes for ground provisions, is native to the region and similar to yam, a food familiar to African slaves. Yet, it was the indigenous communities of the Caribbean, the Rousseaus write, who taught early slaves "methods for its processing and consumption." For instance, when cassava is grated and dried, it can mimic the qualities of flour. This dried iteration lends itself to bammy, a Jamaican flatbread made from "grated cassava that has been soaked in water, transferred to a cloth, and pressed to extract as much liquid as possible. The cassava is then flattened into a thick, disc-shaped flatbread and cooked over dry heat." The sisters highlight this staple in their updated recipe for steamed bammy with coconut, pumpkin, ginger, and tomato.
Readers are also informed that plantains—ubiquitous in so many Caribbean dishes—did not originate in the area, but were also imported and planted everywhere to feed enslaved masses and supplement starchy provisions. In their modernized recipe for roasted ripe plantain with African pepper compote, the sisters write, "This knowledge has been passed down over generations, and it never ceases to amaze us how intricately connected we still are to our motherland, Africa … It is easy to see that the roots of our dining habits are deeply entrenched in a shared heritage with our ancestors from across the seas."
Provision grounds, small tracts of the least desired land, were allocated by planters to slaves so that they could grow their own food for their survival. The planters conceded to this arrangement to avoid absorbing the expense of feeding the slaves they imported to power their sugar plantations. The deal only compounded the burdens of the enslaved—specifically the women, who were charged with duties that sustained the operations of the plantation (as kitchen cooks, servants, seamstresses, or field workers), in addition to being responsible for preparing meals for other parties. Yet this subterfuge lent itself to expedient invention.
And it had to. In the Caribbean of the 18th and 19th centuries, sugar cultivation dominated the region, spiking the demand for labor. Moreover, as the New York Times columnist Brent Staples notes, it was "an industry that earned its reputation as the slaughterhouse of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by killing more people more rapidly than any other kind of agriculture." The enslaved were never really meant to survive. But on the backs of black women, they did. Through the sisters Rousseau's mindful curation of foods that generations have come to cherish, readers learn more about how women created a life out of such brutality. Their names may never be known, but their epicurean knowledge passed around kitchen tables in times of feast or famine will endure for posterity.
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST
If the 2016 election was a reminder that white evangelical voters can determine who wins the White House, the past few years have also been a testament to the influence of Christian cash. Betsy DeVos, a juggernaut funder of religious and Republican causes in Michigan, is the U.S. secretary of education. Foster Friess, a conservative mega-donor in Wyoming, was an early backer of Donald Trump. And the Greens, the Hobby Lobby–crafts–chain owners who rank among the richest families in America, helped secure the Supreme Court's consequential 2014 decision on religious freedom and birth control. They recently opened an elaborate museum dedicated to the Bible on the edge of the National Mall.
Donors such as these have helped solidify the identity of evangelicalism in the American popular imagination: a movement that's solely about politics and the culture wars. But behind the scenes, a group of Christian elites is quietly working to create new ways for rich evangelicals to affect the world around them—and to foster a different public image for the church.
As these elites work to shape the world of Christian philanthropy, they are joining a great generational wrestling match over the way Christians should accumulate and use power. The outcome will help determine what's ahead for the evangelical movement, including a new attitude toward the rightful role of the church in public life.
In 2005, Time magazine crowned Howard and Roberta Ahmanson the most powerful evangelical financiers in America. As an heir to the assets of Home Savings and Loan, a mortgage and insurance empire, Howard Ahmanson became an influential philanthropist, backing projects in Bible translation, art, and—perhaps most notably—politics. The Ahmansons poured millions of dollars into ballot initiatives and Republican campaigns in California; in 2008, they gave more than $1 million to support Proposition 8, which successfully banned same-sex marriage in the state. The couple back the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes intelligent design, and the Claremont Institute, which promotes limited government.
This history makes Howard Ahmanson's recent transformation all the more remarkable: One of the most stalwart backers of religious-right causes has become disenchanted with the GOP and many of its associated institutions.
"The Republican Party is a white-ethnic party. And I don't want to be identified with that," Ahmanson told me recently. He dislikes that white evangelicals are largely supportive of Donald Trump—"Whatever this is, it's not the Gospel," he said—and has stopped giving to groups such as the Family Research Council, an influential advocate for socially conservative causes in Washington. These days, his giving is focused on issues such as land use and zoning in California—connected to his father's work in facilitating home building—and he's funding a project to create a digital illuminated Bible. "God is using this time, and Donald Trump, to purge the church," he told me. "Are you about Christ and the Gospel first, or is your church just a Sunday extension of your political team?"
To say the least, Howard Ahmanson is not representative of American Christian philanthropists of any generation. His religious journey has been distinctive, and he has eclectic taste in causes. Moreover, several of the influential evangelicals who were Ahmanson's peers on Time's 2005 power-player list have redoubled their pursuit of national political influence: Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of the late Billy Graham, spent his summer on a political speaking tour across California, and Jay Sekulow, who runs the American Center for Law and Justice, is one of Trump's lawyers. Evangelical influence reaches all the way to the White House: Vice President Mike Pence has been a fixture at Christian-right events over the past two years, and political operatives such as Tony Perkins and Ralph Reed are enjoying greater influence under Trump than they've had in years.
Yet the question Ahmanson posed—about the right way for Christians to live out their faith in public, and how to put money behind that vision—is something that a number of people in evangelical philanthropy circles seem to be asking. In large part, Trump's presidency is not the context for this question. Evangelicalism, writ large, is going through intense cultural and structural shifts that are also shaping how wealthy Christians use their money.
The history of evangelical giving is best understood in terms of waves of institution building, said Andy Crouch, a former executive editor of Christianity Today. The first came after World War II, when a group of prominent organizations emerged. For example: World Vision, now one of the largest charities in the United States, was founded in 1950 as a missionary and relief organization. And Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, was started in 1951 to bring Christianity to college students. These groups, and others like them, are often referred to as parachurch organizations: They further the mission of the church, but aren't necessarily associated with a particular congregation or denomination.
Then came "a time of a lot of stress and ferment," Crouch said—the tide of Christian political activism in the 1970s and '80s. The rise of the so-called religious right "was driven by a lot of anxiety, and a sense of urgency: If we don't act, the country will be taken away from us," he explained. While a lot of money poured into this movement, from both wealthy backers and grassroots supporters, "it was always a smaller proportion of evangelical charitable dollars than you might think," Crouch said.
In the late 1980s and into the '90s, a new organization, the Gathering, was established to help guide wealthy individuals and families who wanted to give to Christian causes—the vast majority of them in nonpolitical ways. Thomas McCallie, one of the founders, said it was created in response to changes in philanthropy: A rising class of evangelicals who had been successful in industry or business had a lot of money they wanted to give away, but there weren't a lot of best practices available for them to draw on. The founders—who met at the Cedars, a gathering place for groups involved in the religious right—drew up an invitation list of industry titans "who had a reputation of being Christian," McCallie said. Then, as now, people were required to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars annually—with some giving significantly more—in order to attend.
In many ways, this is where the popular conception of evangelicalism gets stuck: The movement is still framed in terms of legacy, '50s-era institutions, and the religious right. But some Christian leaders—including and especially a new generation of wealth-holders—are slowly trying to redefine what evangelicalism looks like.
"What Christian philanthropists see now, maybe more than in past generations, is the full landscape of how they can deploy their [money] toward the entirety of what God cares about," said Josh Kwan, who was recently appointed the head of the Gathering—the organization's first new leader in its three-decade run. Several years ago, he helped found Praxis, which supports entrepreneurs and investors who are building for- and non-profit ventures fundamentally shaped by their faith. The organization was created out of a desire to widen the scope of Christianity's social influence. "God cares about more than just the realm of church-planting and politics and changing laws," Kwan said.
One of the clearest shifts among Christian mega-donors is demographic. Gen Xers and early Millennials are just starting to take the reins of legacy family foundations or come into their giving potential, and their sensibilities differ from their parents'. "From a young age, being involved in work that was serving others was something I felt really drawn to," said Robin Bruce, the 35-year-old president of the David Weekley Family Foundation, her family's philanthropic organization. It gave away roughly $7.1 million in 2015, according to tax documents, with roughly $114 million in assets.
"For a long time, especially with Baby Boomers, there was so much wealth created so quickly," Bruce said. "People just started giving where it was comfortable, which was usually local, with causes … they become familiar with … through their local church or network." By contrast, her generation wants giving away money to be part of who they are, she said: The causes they support, whether it's developing health clinics in Africa or mentoring kids in Houston, are central to their sense of identity.
As the shape of wealth in America changes, the shape of evangelical wealth is changing along with it: Some members of a new evangelical donor class made their money in entrepreneurship and are drawn to evidence of innovation, transparency, and accountability in the organizations they support. This "generation is … more concerned with outcomes, with causes, with getting things done," said David Wills, the former head of the National Christian Foundation, which has given more than $10 billion in grants since it was founded in 1982 and is one of the largest donor-advised funds in the country.
This overlaps with another trend in the evangelical-donor class: Over time, it may become more diverse. Kwan described a community of second- and third-generation Asian American Christians in Silicon Valley who "aren't necessarily beholden to the culture wars of the past," he said. The causes that have come to be associated with evangelicalism—issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and religious liberty—don't necessarily resonate outside a specific, white-evangelical milieu. As money shifts, those concerns will shift, too.
All of these trends have shaped the way Christian dollars are spent. In a 2018 study, Giving USA and Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found a sharp decrease in religious giving over the past four decades, declining from well over half of all giving in the late '70s through the early '90s to roughly a third as recently as 2017. This does not necessarily mean evangelicals are giving away less money, said David King, the director of the university's Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Instead, they may be donating to organizations and causes that aren't explicitly associated with church and parachurch organizations.
This matters, because it suggests that wealthy Christian influencers are reaching outside traditional Christian worlds to have an impact. For leaders who are thinking about their giving in terms of public witness—the way they can fundamentally shape perceptions of the church—this change is huge.
"If you look at the current perception of the American church now, compared to historic witness of the church, there is a gap," said Joshua Crossman, one of the board members of the Pinetops Foundation, a relatively small, new family foundation. He pointed to data from the Pew Research Center showing a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who believe houses of worship contribute a "great deal" to solving social problems. In 2016, only 38 percent of religiously unaffiliated people said that was the case. "It would behoove all Christians to think about that gap and to figure out what we can do to best be a witness for Christ in our communities," he said.
Above all, this seems to be the greatest shift in how rich evangelicals are thinking about their influence at a moment of juncture for their church: At least some of them seem more interested in living out their faith than in asserting an agenda onto American culture. "One of our deeper hopes … would be that praxis, which means faith in action, would be the reputation of the church over a long term—not in the brand, but in posture," said Dave Blanchard, who helped found Praxis along with Kwan. "That we would be more known for redemptive action than political position."
The kinds of changes that are happening in American evangelicalism right now don't bear out in two-year election cycles. They take root over the course of decades. While Trump has rocked evangelical politics, this era of American evangelical history had already taken shape before he came on the scene: "The church may be moving toward a time of the church in exile rather than the church as the dominant cultural institution," as Kwan put it.
In previous years, evangelicals responded to a sense of declining cultural power with anxiety—that is what yielded the age of "ferment" that Crouch described. But at least among this subset of next-generation evangelical mega-donors, there doesn't seem to be much of a desire to fight the culture. Their hope, instead, is that they will be known by their fruits.
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 02:00 AM PST
OLYMPIA, Wash.—What if a meteor were hurtling toward the Earth, about to kill millions and reshape life on the planet as we know it?
And what if the president, instead of doing anything to help, made it worse in just about every way, and called it a hoax (and any solutions a scam) instead of the very real, very clear disaster taking shape?
And what if all the Democrats running to beat him in the next election went on and on about how concerned they were and how it's our most pressing problem—but none had ever done much more than talk about the problem, and for the most part only started doing that in just the past few years?
That's where Jay Inslee thinks America is when it comes to climate change. And that's why he's going to run for president.
"When you've been working on something for over a decade, and now seeing people awakening to that, it's just really gratifying and heartening," the Washington governor recently told me, sitting in his private study on the top floor of the governor's mansion. When it comes to climate change, there now appears to be "an appetite for someone who has credibility and a long track record and, most importantly, a vision statement. It's changed to show an opening in a Democratic primary, I believe."
Inslee has been on the expansive list of would-be Democratic presidential contenders since the 2016 election, mostly because he was then one of the few Democratic governors left in the country. He didn't take the talk seriously at first, nor did anyone else, and he certainly wasn't doing anything to help it along. But as the 2018 midterm campaigns came to an end, he read through searing international and federal climate-change assessments, took a trip to view the wildfire damage in California, and thought through the larger moment for the country—and he shifted.
Now "we're laying the groundwork that would make this a feasible thing in the relatively short term," Inslee told me.
If there is a new Democratic president come 2021, he or she will get pulled in all sorts of policy directions. Inslee says he has one priority: global warming. It's not theoretical, or a cause just for tree huggers anymore. Putting off dealing with it for a year or two or kicking it to some new bipartisan commission won't work, he says. He plans to focus on the threat that climate change poses to the environment and national security—the mega-storms and fires causing millions in damages, the weather changes that will cause mass migrations, the droughts that will devastate farmers in America and around the world.
Even more so, he wants to talk about the risk to American opportunity. "We have two existential threats right now: one is to our natural systems, and one is to our economic systems," he said.
As he did in Washington State, Inslee would propose a mix of government investments and incentives to spur other investment, restrictions on power plants and emissions, and programs to promote R&D and job growth. An endless number of jobs can be created in the climate arena, Inslee says. It's the way to make a real dent in income inequality and have the Democratic Party bring tangible solutions to communities in rural America that have been left behind. With his inaction, President Donald Trump—Inslee calls him "the commander in chief of delusion"—is engaged in a "disgusting selling-out of the country," a "crime" against the aspirational optimism of America.
Inslee is lining up donors and adding them to the political-action committee he launched in December. An official presidential exploratory committee is next. Aides note that he's attracted new supporters and fans after serving as the Democratic Governors Association chair last year; with Inslee at the helm, Democrats in November picked up seven governorships. He's put together an email list of 200,000 climate advocates, which could become a beachhead of support around the country. Friends have offered to move to Iowa for him.
His campaign, such as it is, seems a lot more seat-of-the-pants than the machines Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have slowly assembled. For now, he seems to be counting on being able to stand out on his record—and preparing for future battles with Trump by testing out zingers like "I wish nothing but the best for Donald Trump, including having the top bunk."
Inslee has been in politics for 30 years. He started off in the Washington State legislature and served for more than a decade in Congress. He was elected governor in 2012 and has, without much national notice, pursued arguably the most progressive and greenest agenda in the country, with fields of solar panels, fleets of electric buses, and massive job growth to show for it. And years before anyone was tweeting about the "Green New Deal," Inslee wrote a climate-change book while he was in Congress: Apollo's Fire, a 2007 blueprint for how much economic and entrepreneurial opportunity there is in saving the planet.
Other Democrats are, suddenly, talking about climate change. Bernie Sanders prioritizes it in all his speeches, and a few weeks ago he held a "national town hall" on what he called "the great crisis facing our planet, facing humanity." Michael Bloomberg used a screening of a documentary on clean-energy alternatives as the feint for a trip to Iowa last month, and says he'll push his fellow candidates to develop climate-change plans. Booker, Harris, and Warren have all voted in the Senate on progressive environmental bills, and Tom Steyer has written huge checks to many green causes.
Inslee is the only one who has actually run a government that has made climate-change policy central. He points to the towns in Washington that have become solar-cell farms, among other accomplishments. There's also his plan to expand the use of electric ferries. "Without having a vision and having a sense of what could be, we would not be launching that effort right now," says Brian Bonlender, the outgoing director of the state commerce department and Inslee's longest-serving aide. "As a country, we're certainly not going to be able to do it if we're hiding from facts from the world around us."
A poll from September caught the governor's eye. Among the qualities that 500 Iowa caucus-goers said they were looking for in a candidate, "someone who will reestablish America's leadership in the fight against climate change" scored highest. True, Inslee wasn't listed among the 13 possible candidates they could choose from in the poll. But he sees good news anyway. This is like gay marriage, he figures: America is at a tipping point. Things are about to change. And voters will be looking for leaders who were already out front on the issue.
"Forty years ago, it was not easy to get people's sustained attention for this looming crisis. It's much easier now," says former Vice President Al Gore, who spent years getting made fun of for talking about global warming.
Gore and Inslee met on the House basketball court in the early 1990s and have stayed in touch. Recently, they've been checking in with each other on the phone and talking about plans for the future. "He's demonstrated leadership on this issue for a long time, both in the Congress and as a successful governor," Gore told me. "He's written about it, he's spoken about it, he's legislated about it, he's made bold proposals."
Gore said he won't be endorsing a candidate in 2020. But he is eager to see Inslee's candidacy and how it will boost the conversation about climate change.
"This election in 2020 is almost certainly going to be different from any previous presidential election in that a number of candidates will be placing climate at or near the top of their agenda," Gore said. "I think that by the time the first primary and caucus votes are cast a year from now, you're going to see a very different political dialogue in the U.S."
Inslee wants to be the climate guy. But some of the people around him worry that if he is actually going to do this, he can't be only the climate guy—written off as an issue candidate who's not a serious contender to be president. In a field this big, with candidates running hard against Trump, the rest of the field could try to pigeonhole him as a flake who's not really part of the top tier.
Inslee's answer to that anticipated attack is "the other Washington": the experiment in progressive governance that he's led for the past six years that's cut against the conventional wisdom of economics. On his watch, the state has boosted health care, increased access to early-childhood education and college, raised the minimum wage, expanded paid family leave, invested in infrastructure, and established in-state net neutrality, all while leading the country in job growth, overall personal-income growth, and GDP. As other states shed residents, people are moving to Washington. It's hard to drive through the parts of Seattle where Amazon has sprouted neighborhoods of coffee shops and artisanal seafood kitchens and argue that the lefty policies Inslee's been pushing have had the kind of economic downside that their opponents always warn they will.
"We have blown up that myth," Inslee said. "That's a fundamental message that many Democratic politicians can talk about, but I have the unique ability to show the proof in the pudding that we've actually done this."
Mark Schoesler, the Republican state-Senate leader, says Inslee is trying to claim credit he doesn't deserve. "I don't think things would be appreciably different if he never would have been elected governor," Schoesler says. "Market forces, consumer demands, commonsense policies would have done about the same thing that we've had under six years of Jay Inslee."
Schoesler argues that Inslee is incidental to most of the state's environmental policy, too. Inslee calls this kind of argument sour grapes coming from an out-of-touch Republican.
Inslee's voice, even on the attack, sounds like he's constantly marveling, his midwestern accent from a few generations back crossed with the northwestern spruce trees. He has an ever-present good-natured goofiness. He likes to brag that Washington has "the best weed in the United States of America," and he paints Christmas books for his grandchildren every year. (In the 2017 edition, he and his wife, Trudi, his high-school sweetheart, appear as colorful bears.)
He can come off as the happy, easygoing jock. But he has always been hard-edged about winning. When I told him I'd found out that his nickname on the high-school basketball team was "The Black Hole" because he never passed the ball, he said it was simple: He would have happily thrown the ball if he'd seen anyone on the court with a higher shot percentage, but he never did. "I tried passing once, but the ball didn't come back," he said.
To him, a key part of the formula for running against Trump is being ready to take him on directly. He's had some experience in that. It was March, during the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., and he was at the White House with the other governors for a lunch. Every year, a few governors get up and ask questions, and so the night before the event, Inslee and a few staffers brainstormed how to make the best use of the chance.
The governor didn't like any of their suggestions, and ended up improvising a question inspired by his brother-in-law, a teacher, about the proposal Trump was pushing after the Parkland shooting to arm teachers with guns. Inslee called it ridiculous. He told the president to stop tweeting and start listening. He watched the president's arms cross into his telltale grumpy self-hug, his hands shoved back behind his armpits, elbows up, lips pursed. ("If he's ever carved on a mountain, it won't be Mount Rushmore, it'll be Mount Petulant," Inslee told me later. "And that's the pose.") Other governors in the room were considering jumping into the presidential race. None of them said anything.
Want to know what Inslee 2020 would be like? Like that, he says.
"I'm really happy to be in a confrontation with this person. I'm comfortable in that conversation," Inslee said. "You have to do two things in beating Donald Trump: One, you have to show dignity and that you can help America to become united again, and you can help America rise to the better angels rather than our lower behavior—[while] at the same time, demonstrating a strength of character and a core conviction that you're not going to be pushed around or bullied, and you've had it with his lower human behavior."
People who love Inslee—who have been loyal to him for years, who gush about him and his record—know this is all a bit kooky. Come on: He has no name recognition. He's done nothing to prepare for running. There's no team of consultants; there's no operation.
But … maybe?
"He wasn't ever working to become president. That was not his operational goal," says Bonlender, the outgoing commerce-department director. "He would observe what the president was doing, any given president, in particular those that he wasn't fond of, and would have no problem viewing himself doing a better job."
Truth is, Inslee might not be in a much worse position than the so-called front-runners in the race. They're barely known, so he's not that far behind. He's not showing up in any polls, but neither are most of the people the D.C. crowd has been playing fantasy baseball with for years.
One factor that could be a liability is his identity as an older white guy at a time when many in the party say they've had enough of those. When I bring the matter up, he notes that he just did a 30-mile bike ride, and that his record of reaching out and working with minority communities is long—it goes all the way back to one of his first votes as a young state legislator, when he supported extending unemployment benefits to the mostly Latino farmworkers in the Yakima Valley.
"I've never had somebody refuse to look at my résumé because I had a name that sounded like it was African American. I've never walked into a store and had someone follow me around because of my ethnicity," Inslee said. "I've never had those experiences. You have to recognize the humility of that—and that humility leads you then to be really dedicated to doing everything you can to embrace what you have to do to deal with our implicit biases."
If he'd been cooking this campaign for a while, Inslee said, he might have schemed a little better. He might have had the Democratic Governors Association invest more in the New Hampshire governor's race. Or he might have spent the midterms parked in Iowa or Nevada or South Carolina. Instead he spent the Friday morning before the election on a side trip to Miami Beach, where he went on a private tour with the mayor to see how the city has already had to raise the boardwalk to deal with sea-level rise.
Scheming is what he's up to now—and not only for the presidential race. When Inslee first became governor, the state Senate was under Republican control. A 2017 special election gave Democrats a one-seat majority, and 2018 was even better. Inslee nos has a 10-seat majority, and a chance to further build a legislative agenda that he can tout to American voters while his competitors in Washington, D.C., keep talking about what they might do, what they'd want to do, if only they had power.
"He's obviously got his eye on the shiny object in Iowa," Schoesler scoffed.
Around the conference table in his office at the end of December, Inslee and his top aides held a brainstorming session for his State of the State address. Washington's spike in homelessness and the local orcas facing extinction were both on the table. The time might be right, they discussed, to tease his plan for a public health-insurance option, or to explain how he's going to pay for the green agenda he announced earlier that month.
"How do you argue, at the same time, unbelievable success and urgency? Is that too discordant in the human mind?" Inslee asked.
"Is the rallying cry that we're the state that steps up?" an aide offered.
Before breaking for the morning, his deputy chief of staff quickly ran through the state's contingency plans to handle the federal shutdown.
The governor was seated in his chair at the head of the table, the high leather back embossed with the worn-in seal of the state: George Washington's softly caricatured head, framed in a circle. He marveled at what had become of the negotiations in D.C.
"I want to play poker with Donald Trump," Inslee said. "I really do."
Posted: 02 Jan 2019 02:00 AM PST
It was only after they'd sunk $40,000 and nine months of precious nights and weekends that Jordan McDowell and William Bjork realized how hard it is to make a passive income selling things on Amazon.
The couple had hoped to strike it rich—or at least quit their day jobs—buying goods from China and reselling them on the e-commerce site. Instead, they lost their savings. For that, they blame Matt Behdjou and Mike Gazzola.
In late 2016, McDowell and Bjork stumbled across a podcast hosted by Behdjou and Gazzola, normal guys who claimed they were making thousands of dollars working less than two hours a day on Amazon. The pair promised that anyone could do the same—all they needed to do was pay $3,999 for three months of coaching that would teach them everything they needed to know about the business. They'd learn how to source and ship a product from China, how to list it for an attractive markup on Amazon's third-party marketplace, how to advertise it to consumers, and how to get them to leave good reviews. Amazon would take care of the logistics of storing and shipping, for a fee, through its Fulfillment by Amazon program. Behdjou and Gazzola even provided class participants with a manufacturing contact in China, and organized paid tours of Chinese merchandise markets.
At the time, the couple was living in a tiny New York apartment, struggling to make rent. McDowell was working a job she hated. Behdjou and Gazzola were offering a way out, and they seemed credible. They even posted screenshots showing the money they had made from selling supplements on Amazon. Bjork emailed a few people who had taken the class, all of whom said they were happy with their experience.
So the couple put the class fee on their credit card, started attending Monday night webinars, and picked their first two products: a glass wine decanter and plastic wine aerator, both sourced from China. Following Behdjou and Gazzola's advice to purchase the minimum mass order possible, they ordered 3,000 decanters and 1,500 aerators and had them shipped directly to Amazon warehouses across the country, from which the company would send them directly to consumers.
Six months later, they had sold only about 100 decanters and a few hundred aerators. Customs taxes and shipping costs were starting to add up. The aerators kept breaking, and so Bjork and McDowell had to pay for returns. Amazon changed a seller fee of $39.99 a month, a per-piece fulfillment cost of a few dollars a unit, and a storage fee of 70 cents per cubic foot that increased during the holiday season. Then there was the cost of advertising, which they needed to actually get their product noticed amid the thicket of other people also selling wine accessories, also bought cheap from China, also on Amazon.
Maybe worst of all, the couple told me they were left alone to deal with all these headaches: Though their payment guaranteed them three months of coaching, they couldn't reach Behdjou after the first few days, they say. (Behdjou disputes that he and Gazzola disappeared, writing in an email that all students get a response within 24 hours Monday through Friday.)
Within six months, McDowell and Bjork had spent nearly $40,000, with almost nothing to show for it. So they auctioned off what inventory they could, paid Amazon to destroy the rest, and got out of the business. "It's not a passive income; [it's] a ton of work," McDowell told me. "We lost all our savings—everything we had."
They're frustrated with Amazon, which they say is making money off the failures of people like them. But they're even angrier with Behdjou and Gazzola and their company, which was, at the time, called Amazon Secrets. "It's a scam," McDowell said. "They take your money and don't deliver."
Behdjou and Gazzola deny these allegations. They say that one of the first things they teach students is to make sure the product will be profitable, and that anyone who loses money simply isn't following their advice. Losing $40,000, Gazzola told me, would be very difficult following their methods. In an email, Behdjou told me that nearly 1,000 students have paid to receive training from him, with only a "small handful of complaints." People are quick to complain when they aren't making money, yet are less forthcoming when they succeed, he said. Some, he said, generate more than $200,000 a month in revenue.
Behdjou and Gazzola declined to put me in touch with any of their clients, even happy ones. But I spoke with 34-year-old Travis Tolman, who sells a travel product—he didn't want me to say what specifically, in case competitors tried to copy him. He makes roughly $4,000 a month, he said—enough to allow him, his wife, and four children to leave Houston after Hurricane Harvey and travel throughout Southeast Asia for four months, working just an hour or two a day.
But Behdjou and Gazzola have a growing list of unhappy clients. One, Molly Cox, lost around $40,000 selling meal-prep containers on Behdjou and Gazzola's advice. Others told me they're out $4,000, $4,600, $9,000. In a secret Facebook group, dozens of them have gathered to discuss attempts to get their money back and seek advice about how to unload hundreds of unsold jar openers, locking carabiners, and lemon squeezers.
They all thought they'd bet on the right horse: Amazon captures nearly half of all online retail spending in the United States, and more than half of its sales come from third-party sellers. It's where America shops online.
But if selling things on Amazon is the new internet gold rush, the web abounds with people pledging to help followers find the treasure, for a hefty fee. They have names like Amazing Wealth System and Sellers Playbook, and their pitch is not dissimilar from the various iterations of "make millions working from home" schemes that have cluttered chumboxes since the dawn of the internet. Yet instead of touting shadowy multilevel-marketing schemes or obvious scams, they're pitching something we can all understand: Amazon, opaque as it is lucrative, and the bottomless appetite of the American consumer, who can't seem to stop buying wine aerators and meal-prep containers and insulated water bottles. It's an irresistible sell to a nation that loves the side hustle.
In the first nine months of 2018, 48 consumers filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about "business opportunity schemes" regarding Amazon, according to data obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Atlantic. That's up from 18 in 2017, and 14 the year before that. Nearly half of those complainants say they lost more than $35,000. One of them, who described himself as a disabled veteran, lost $45,000 trying to sell a work-out kit on Amazon. Another said he had just lost his job, and used his retirement savings to pay for coaching.
In March, the FTC sued the three men behind Amazing Wealth System, alleging that it made unsubstantiated earnings claims. Vulnerable people—including retirees, students, and non-native English speakers—were lured in through free "Amazon workshops," where they'd be pitched on a three-day, $1,995 seminar, according to a complaint filed by the Washington State attorney general. After that, the proprietors would offer more "education" packages that cost anywhere from $4,000 to $35,000, and would encourage people to apply for multiple credit cards or obtain third-party financing to pay for the workshops, according to the complaint. A settlement in June required the defendants to pay $10.8 million to the FTC. (In the settlement, the defendants neither admitted nor denied the underlying factual allegations.)
And in July, the agency charged Sellers Playbook, run by the former Apprentice contestant Jessie Conners Tieva and her husband, Matthew Tieva, with making false claims. According to the complaint, the Tievas charged customers up to $32,997 for Amazon coaching sessions, raking in more than $15 million through credit-card payments from April 2017 to May 2018. In November, a Minnesota district court required the defendants to surrender any assets related to the company, requesting $20.8 million in a judgment. (In the settlement, the defendants neither admitted nor denied the underlying factual allegations.)
Neither Matt Behdjou nor Mike Gazzola have been accused of any wrongdoing by the FTC. The agency prohibits deceiving customers about moneymaking potential, and requires that any earnings claims be supported by proof. But it leaves a crucial bit of wiggle room: If sellers say somewhere in tiny print that their method doesn't work for everyone, they can still promote the stories of their successful clients without mentioning that hundreds of people have lost money. Behdjou and Gazzola both make those disclaimers in their promotional materials.
Amazon declined to provide comment about Behdjou or Gazzola. A spokesperson told me the company worked closely with the FTC to bring both of last year's cases. Entrepreneurs and small businesses are important to Amazon, according to the spokesperson, "and we aggressively pursue those that attempt to harm their selling experience."
In 2016 and 2017, Behdjou and Gazzola were a coaching powerhouse—in the summer of 2017, their podcast about earning a passive income on Amazon reached No. 3 on Apple's charts. But in February, they parted ways, and now offer competing coaching services, Amsecrets.com and Amsecrets.net, respectively. They say they're both doing well on their own. Gazzola told me his videos have been downloaded "millions" of times and that he's helped "thousands" of people; Behdjou, meanwhile, told me that he has trained "thousands upon thousands" with his free and paid classes.
Because Behdjou and Gazzola no longer work together, I spoke with them individually. Gazzola told me that in the beginning, the two just wanted to share the mistakes they had made selling on Amazon, so other people didn't make the same ones. People need coaches, he said, because Amazon changes its rules so often that it can be difficult for an individual to keep up. But he still maintained that students could make a lot of money following his advice, and when people don't succeed, it's usually because they quit too early. "There's no such thing as get rich quick," he told me. "But it would be hard for you to fail if you literally worked your butt off."
Behdjou told me largely the same thing: that many of his clients have actually made a lot of money selling on Amazon. He recently put out a series of video "case studies" with happy students, some of whom say they're making hundreds of thousands of dollars. "You can't deny video proof," he said. Those who have failed selling on Amazon, he maintains, usually haven't followed the steps he outlined. Besides, people who fail aren't bitter, he said—they understand that selling on Amazon is a financial risk, and it's a risk they're willing to take. What's more, it's a risk they can afford. "Looking at people in the red, it's not like they're losing their shirts," he told me. "It's a loss anyone can take. It's not like they're losing their home because of this."
Indeed, none of Behdjou and Gazzola's former clients—those who paid thousands to join what the pair call the "Inner Circle"—told me they lost their home. But several lost their savings, or went into deep credit-card debt, or took time off from high-paying jobs to pursue what they thought was a can't-miss opportunity.
It may seem surprising that so many people—many with stable finances and professional careers—gave money to two strangers they'd met on the internet. But Behdjou and Gazzola's disappointed former clients told me it took them a while to discover the many obstacles to making a passive income on Amazon.
One of them is Jeffrey Sanders, a 61-year-old white-collar aerospace-industry worker who lives in Seattle. He told me he believes that Behdjou and Gazzola's pitch is deceptive by design. Customers pay for three months of webinars and coaching, but, he told me, it takes much longer for products to actually arrive in Amazon's warehouses from China and start selling. The fees from Amazon don't start accumulating until then, either. (Gazzola disputes this, saying many people could actually start selling in two to three weeks.) By the time people realize that selling on Amazon is harder than it looks, he said, the three months have passed, credit-card companies won't refund the money, and Behdjou and Gazzola tell clients they need to pay more for more advice. "They advertise all this money you'll be making, but by the time the bottom drops out, they say, 'Too bad, it's been more than three months,'" he said. "It's really the perfect scam."
Eight former clients told me that Behdjou and Gazzola failed to deliver even on their promise of basic coaching. When the clients asked for help, they'd either be told that their coaching had expired, or given an answer that didn't help at all. "They can help you with rudimentary problems," said Sanders, who lost $4,000 trying to sell wine-bottle openers. "But as soon as it gets below surface depth, they have no answers." He founded the secret Facebook group to share tips about solving problems Behdjou and Gazzola wouldn't address, he said.
Brian Ash, who signed up for Amazon Secrets in October 2016 and tried to sell miniature camping tarps, told me that when he mentioned in a webinar that he was having trouble signing up to sell on Amazon, Behdjou's solution was for him to email Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO. He also told me that although Behdjou and Gazzola promised one-on-one coaching and small group sizes, they often took weeks to respond to questions. He and others were asked to write positive reviews of their coaching experience in exchange for a chance to win a financial prize that never materialized, he said. Ash said that it seemed that while the pair were good at marketing, they actually knew little about how Amazon worked. "I don't want to sound like a sore loser, but it's definitely deceptive," he told me. "They hyped how easy it is and disguised the risks."
Some of the advice Behdjou and Gazzola gave the group violated Amazon's terms of service, Ash said. According to six former clients, Behdjou and Gazzola told them to use their Inner Circle Facebook page to encourage other members to buy their products and write five-star reviews, after which the sellers would compensate the buyer for the cost of the product through PayPal. Amazon has banned the practice of giving away products in exchange for reviews since 2016, but, according to the former students, Behdjou continued to tell them to use the method to boost reviews.
One former client sent me a dozen screenshots from Inner Circle members who had bought his product and asked to be compensated via Facebook in 2017, long after Amazon had changed its policies. (Gazzola told me that Behdjou handled the Facebook group, but Behdjou said that both were in charge of it. Behdjou said that he never advised students to compensate one another for products, or to solicit five-star reviews.) When Amazon figured out what the Inner Circle members were doing, it wiped the reviews from the site. Products without reviews rank lower in search results, so many clients saw a precipitous drop-off in sales as a result.
Molly Cox and her husband flew from Texas to China on a trip organized by Behdjou and Gazzola, only to find that the prices quoted by Behdjou and Gazzola's Chinese suppliers were higher than ones they could find online, she said. Behdjou and Gazzola were often unavailable for questions, and when they were reachable, they gave bad advice, Cox told me. "They are selling free information, all of which you can find yourself online very easily," she said. "But they package it up and market it as if it's some secret that only they can tell you, which is very misleading."
Behdjou told me, in an email, that he and Gazzola merely introduce clients to a sourcing agent, and that some students do find better pricing on their own. He again denied that he was unavailable for questions, and said that he never encouraged students to give away products in exchange for compensation. As for violating Amazon's terms of service, he said, the rules change all the time, and he encourages students to understand them and keep up to date on changes.
Sanders said that Behdjou and Gazzola give students too little information about the challenges of selling on Amazon, though. They brag about how much money they've made, he said, yet seem unable to help most students follow a similar path, disappearing when complicated problems arise. Indeed, he said, they make struggling students feel like failure is their own fault—a way to mask their lack of knowledge about the intricacies of selling on Amazon. "They say, 'Nobody else is having problems,'" he said. "'It must be you.'"
In late July, Behdjou invited me to attend his Ecommerce Mentors LIVE Mastermind seminar, held over two days at a Marriott in Woodland Hills, California, amid the sunny sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. It was free to Inner Circle members, though attendees still had to pay for their own airfare and lodging. About 50 of them had, coming from places as far as New York; one couple had driven all night from Arizona. They included an ER doctor who wanted a passive income so she could get a vacation home in Cancun, a young couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, and a man who owned a brick-and-mortar medical-supplies store trying to migrate his sales online.
Behdjou, who is 31, opened the seminar by repeatedly emphasizing his success stories. He pointed to two young men in the back of the room who he said were making $100,000 a month selling sunglasses on Amazon, and encouraged people to seek advice from those in the room who were "killing it" with their business. Another man, who said he'd made $30,000 from selling a wrist exerciser on Amazon, implored his fellow guests to "trust the process—it's amazing."
But most of the attendees were not so effusive. When Behdjou asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves, many said they were struggling. "I have launched, but I really need to crank up sales," said Alicia Nager, a 52-year-old from New Jersey. She launched a knife-sharpener business in October 2017 after deciding to stay home with her son, who has juvenile Huntington's disease. Another man noted that he'd made money in Bitcoin but hadn't been able to crack Amazon yet, despite trying to sell vitamins for eight months. A Maryland woman, Allyson Pippin, who sells slime, said she was about ready to scrap her product and start all over. Henry Serrano, the man with the brick-and-mortar store, had spent $4,600 on wholesale medical kits, and hadn't made any money back at all.
The first day of the seminar was broken up into lectures by Behdjou and other experts. Much of the content was focused on how sellers could get onto what those in the Amazon business reverently call "page one": the first page of search results, placement on which is widely considered to be crucial to moving products. Their names included "Finding the Hottest Products that YOU can run on Page 1 in 10 days or less," and "Keyword Research & Optimization for Page 1 Ranking."
Behdjou's spiel was similar to the one he gives online. "If you just stick with this, you will get amazing results," he said. "It's not going to guarantee that you make money. But it's going to be very difficult to lose money." He reminded attendees to pay for a subscription to a site called Jungle Scout, which monitors which Amazon stores have good sales, so they could then pick a product in one of those stores that can be retailed for five to 10 times what it costs to produce it in China. He advised clients to find keywords that will rank their product top in search results, and to offer discounts and giveaways that generate a lot of web traffic.
Behdjou is no stranger to coaching businesses. In October 2015, he paid $25,000 to attend a seminar put on by Russell Brunson, an author, an entrepreneur, and a self-described marketing expert. There, he met a few people who were making thousands of dollars selling stuff on Amazon, so he decided to try it out. He and Gazzola, who previously coached people on how to make money investing in real estate, started selling supplements on Amazon. In their first 90 days, they had $60,000 in sales, Behdjou told me. They launched their coaching program in 2016.
Yet Behdjou himself isn't a particularly convincing authority. He loses his train of thought easily. His lectures are punctuated by phrases like "I forgot how I got sidetracked," and "Where was I? What was my damn point?" He spent much of one session teaching attendees how to pick the right keywords to sell a baby carrier, because "anything having to do with babies is pretty much going to sell well"—but then seemed to know little about why people would buy baby carriers or what search terms they'd use. When attendees asked simple questions like how many words they could have in their product description, he didn't know.
And then there are the everyday issues that come with shipping and selling internationally: People at the seminar told me the products they'd ordered from China were defective, and customers started leaving bad reviews. Or they got hit with a copyright-infringement lawsuit and Amazon took down their listing, even if they'd diligently researched their product to make sure it did not violate any copyrights. Advertising on Amazon is necessary and expensive, storage fees are unavoidable, and new competitors pop up every day undercutting prices.
"It's not as easy as it looks," said Nager. Though Behdjou said at the seminar that people who followed his methods "will always get to page one" of search results, Nager said she had never made it anywhere close. Altogether, she'd spent around $4,000 on her product, shipping, and storage, and $5,000 on the class. She doesn't blame Behdjou completely—Amazon's algorithm changes all the time, the page-one system is nebulous, and what it takes to sell products is changing as more sellers go online. But, she told me, "there is a little bit of deceit to it. They're making it out to be a little easier than it is. I don't even know if they really know what they're doing." After attending the seminar in Woodland Hills, Nager decided to give up selling on Amazon. Her disabled son is requiring more and more care, she said, and it turns out that selling things on Amazon is actually closer to a full-time job.
Behdjou disputes all these accounts. He told me that Nager must not have read his disclaimers that say selling on Amazon is not a get-rich scheme. He said that he, like all entrepreneurs, is learning and growing, and never claimed to know everything. And when I expressed doubt that it was easy to make a passive income on Amazon without working very hard, he wrote to me this: "That's funny my new store is doing 100k per month on Amazon and I work on it maybe 3 hours per week because I have a team who handles it for me. So I can easily prove that it is very possible to make passive income with Amazon."
Many of the seminar attendees I interviewed seemed determined to keep following Behdjou's methods on Amazon, even if it cost them more money. When I asked Pippin why she thought her slime hadn't sold, even though she'd followed Behdjou's advice, she blamed herself. She'd picked the wrong item, she said, and because she works a 9-to-5 job as an IT consultant, she hasn't been able to put in the hours at night to work on her site. Like many of the clients I spoke with, she had come to the seminar because her products weren't selling, and emerged from it more determined than ever to make her business work. The world is moving online, Pippin told me, and she doesn't want to miss out. "Amazon is going to take over the world," she told me.
It may seem obvious to an outsider that most people aren't going to become rich by selling things on Amazon. But that's the thing about gold rushes: Some people do find gold, and it is sometimes hard to tell what distinguishes the people who make it from those who don't. Travis Tolman, the travel-product seller, is about to launch his second product on Amazon, and said he thinks he'll be able to make about $8,000 a month. When I asked him why he succeeded while so many others at the seminar failed, he said he wasn't quite sure. "I think I just did a really good job of following directions," he told me.
There's something uniquely American about believing that with a little bit of hard work, anybody can make money fast. In the 19th century, advertisements promised people exclusive selling rights to a certain product, for a fee. They'd pay the money, and then find out that the product didn't exist, or that dozens of other people were selling it. "In the U.S., the depth of commitment to social mobility and uplift seems to give some degree of distinctiveness to how fraud operates," said Edward J. Balleisen, a professor at Duke University who has written a book on the history of fraud in America.
The success of the Amazon-coaching market says something about the current state of the economy. As the American middle class disappears, many people feel as if they've lost their financial footing and are seeking an easy shortcut back to stability. "The best indicator of whether someone will be amenable to being defrauded has to do with financial insecurity," David Vladeck, the former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, who is now a professor at Georgetown, told me.
Earning extra money is especially appealing to people who look around during economic booms, see all the people benefiting, and wonder how they can benefit, too. They hear the pitch and think they are that one gold digger who is going to strike it rich. "There is a really strong democratic ethos that suffuses the marketing—anyone can do this, you just have to have the guts," Balleisen said.
It's not low-income people who fall victim to online frauds, Vladeck said—they don't have the thousands of dollars needed to pay scammers in the first place. It's people who have a little bit of extra money, and want to invest it to get more breathing room. When, during the Great Recession, millions of families lost jobs or saw their income reduced, business-opportunity scams proliferated, he said. Many of the people I talked to at the seminar said they just wanted a little bit more money than they had—to build a bigger retirement fund, work less, buy a vacation home.
Investigating potential fraud is hard: Regulators have to find the bad actors, get proof of the claims they made, subpoena their records, talk to credit-card companies, see how many of their clients actually lost money, and engage in the thorny business of separating the criminally defrauded from the merely naive. The Federal Trade Commission is staffed "significantly" below where it was in the early 1980s, Vladeck said. And it can be difficult for investigators to even learn about get-rich-quick schemes because so many people are embarrassed that they've been so gullible.
"One of the constant themes is the silent sucker—the person who was taken in but doesn't want anyone to know," Balleisen told me. Today's America is very pro-entrepreneur, anti–big government; many Americans don't have sympathy for people who lose their money to these kinds of schemes, he said. We celebrate the self-made man who starts a successful business from scratch, but mock the people who get duped trying to do the same thing. No one wants to admit that they're the only one who can't make it work.
The Internet has made it easier for salesmen like Behdjou and Gazzola to find a potential audience, but it has also made it easier for those who believe they have been victimized to find one another. One D.C. woman who lost thousands trying to sell balance boards on Amazon with Behdjou and Gazzola's help told me that she might still be trying to sell on Amazon had she not been invited to Jeffrey Sanders's secret Facebook group. In the original Inner Circle Facebook group, everybody was positive, she said, and no one discussed the troubles they were going through. It wasn't until she signed onto Sanders's group that she realized that lots of other people were losing money, she said.
Behdjou seems determined to quiet malcontents. Though people who paid to take the class were guaranteed "lifetime" membership in the Amazon Secrets Inner Circle Facebook page, he kicked out anyone who joined Sanders's separate Facebook group, McDowell, Ash, and Sanders told me. In emails to his original Facebook group, Behdjou warned members that they were allowed to post only "POSITIVE" comments, and that he had a "zero tolerance" rule for negativity. He demanded that Sanders shut down his separate Facebook group, saying another client asked for a refund after seeing that group. "We do not want any of our members in that group under any circumstances," he wrote to Sanders. Behdjou told me, in an email, that coaches were available to answer questions about setbacks, and that he was trying to create a positive environment in the Facebook group. "If anyone was removed it was for good reason," he wrote. He acknowledged that he had told Sanders to shut down the secret Facebook group, and said that group was in violation of the terms of the class.
In August 2017, Nick Sanders, Jeffrey Sanders's youngest son, responded to a Quora thread asking if amazonsecrets.net is a "get rich quick" scheme. In it, Sanders alleged that Gazzola and Behdjou had breached contracts with customers, censored criticism, and faked podcast reviews, and that when he traveled with them on a trip to China, they wrote him a $2,000 check that bounced. They sued him for libel. In the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in October, Behdjou and Gazzola alleged that Sanders's Quora post has lost them $300,000 in revenue. Gazzola told me that Sanders is a "disgruntled employee" and said that his check bounced because Sanders had tried to cash an American check in China. In separate court filings, Sanders denied all of Behdjou's and Gazzola's allegations and requested that the court dismiss the libel suit. The case is currently stayed, pending Sanders's appeal of the trial court's rejection of his motion to dismiss.
Yet below Sanders's Quora post, there are other skeptics of Behdjou and Gazzola, as well as many answers supportive of the pair. One supporter of Behdjou and Gazzola, "Huxley Finch," is accompanied by a photo that appears to be of a Yemeni boy who talks in a BBC video about cutting off his leg to escape a burning building after a bombing; another, "Nail Brain," uses a photo of a male model named Heath Hutchins; another, "Tomas Kulo," is accompanied by a photo of Jeff Bezos. (Some of the accounts that support Behdjou and Gazzola are real—I corresponded over email with an actor named Anthony Preston, who told me that "their coaching is stellar and I've made good money on products.")
While the Sanderses characterize Behdjou as confrontational, in person, he can be affable and relaxed, and admits that as Amazon changes, he's trying to understand the changes, too. Watching some of his and Gazzola's early videos, it's easy to see why someone might sign up for the class: Dressed in button-down shirts in a dimly lit room, speaking earnestly into a webcam, they seem like two average guys who had cracked the code and wanted to share their knowledge. They would talk about how many people had tried to get into the course and how many weren't able to join, and listeners might feel as if they'd stumbled across one of those rare and wonderful secrets of the internet.
"Time freedom is more valuable than anything," Behdjou says in the introductory video for his solo project, telling people that if they work all the time and don't see their spouse and kids, "that is not living." He talks about how he's now able to take care of his mother, pay her rent every month, and buy her a new car. "It's up to you to decide whether you want to be typical or nontypical," he says. He has figured out how to sell something online that people didn't need, and he is making a good living doing it. For all the people out there who don't believe in what he does, Behdjou is living proof: There are people out there willing to give away their money online. You just have to perfect the art of the sell.
Posted: 01 Jan 2019 12:39 PM PST
After Pluto was discovered, in 1930, astronomers wondered whether the solar system stopped there. For decades, they peered through their best telescopes, searching for hints of more objects in the darkness. In the early 1990s, when telescope technology became powerful enough, they found one. The object was thousands of times fainter than Pluto, but it was there. A few months later, they found another. And then another. And another. With each new discovery, the edges of the solar system expanded.
More than 3,100 similar objects have been found in this cold, dark region, known as the Kuiper Belt, named for an astronomer who predicted their existence. On New Year's Eve, for the first time, one of these objects received a visitor.
At exactly 12:33 a.m. Eastern time, as people on the East Coast drained their champagne glasses, a NASA spacecraft about the size of a grand piano approached a Kuiper Belt object about the size of a city. The object was 2014 MU69, which NASA has nicknamed Ultima Thule, an ancient phrase meaning "beyond the known world." Ultima Thule orbits about 4 billion miles from Earth, making this the most distant encounter with another celestial object in the history of space exploration.
Like New Year's revelers back on Earth, the spacecraft, known as New Horizons, snapped many photographs to capture the experience. And it had to do it fast. This mission was a flyby, not a visit, and Ultima Thule, measuring just 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, was a difficult mark to hit. New Horizons came within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule's surface. Then, traveling at a brisk pace of 32,000 miles an hour, the spacecraft left as quickly as it arrived, continuing on to the very ends of the solar system.
At a distance of 4 billion miles, it takes some time for data from New Horizons to reach Earth. The spacecraft called home for the first time since the flyby on Tuesday morning. Engineers reported that systems were working properly and packed with tantalizing new data. Scientists plan to unveil the first close-up images of Ultima Thule on Wednesday.
For now, the best view they have of Ultima Thule is this fuzzy, elongated blob, which resembles a snowman (or a peanut, or a bowling pin), taken on New Year's Eve:
Ten hours earlier, on Monday night, hundreds gathered at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Maryland, where New Horizons was built, to celebrate the flyby. The mood was festive. There was cheese and crackers, glittery party hats and kazoos. String lights draped across the walls gave the room a soft glow.
It felt like any other New Year's Eve soiree, except it was clearly obvious that no one actually cared about New Year's Eve. Brian May—the curly-haired lead guitarist for Queen who became a professional astrophysicist about a decade ago—debuted a recording of a song he wrote specifically for New Horizons. Guests cheered with more enthusiasm for the flyby than they did for the arrival of 2019.
All night, scientists buzzed about what sights New Horizons may reveal. From Earth, these objects look like tiny pinpricks of light. The faint glint can be used to calculate the objects' orbits, but little else. Scientists think that Ultima Thule, like most Kuiper Belt objects, is icy. They suspect it will likely be reddish in color, thanks to billions of years of exposure to the radiation that permeates space. They don't even know whether it's one object or two; Ultima Thule could be two objects orbiting in close contact as one, or two objects orbiting each other.
The flyby data will provide answers to this and other questions. New Horizons's science instruments were instructed to collect data about Ultima Thule's composition, determine whether it has an atmosphere, and search for moons or rings. (Yes, even very tiny, icy worlds in the farthest reaches of the solar system, well beyond the glare of the sun, can have the kinds of features we associate with giant planets.)
"I'm hoping to see something I've never seen before," said Kelsi Singer, a planetary scientist on the New Horizons team who planned some of the spacecraft's observations. "I'm hoping that there'll be features that we've never seen anywhere else in the solar system."
It's happened before. New Horizons left Earth in 2006, eight years before Ultima Thule was even discovered. In 2015, the spacecraft swept past Pluto. The encounter produced unprecedented observations of the dwarf planet, which lost its status as a full-fledged planet in 2006, a demotion its fans fulminate against to this day. The images revealed, in tremendous detail, 11,000-foot mountain ranges made of ice and smooth plains of frozen nitrogen. Some land features suggested that Pluto may even be geologically active.
"There were things on Pluto that we never would have guessed were there, because they're literally only on Pluto," Singer said.
Scientists hope their observations of Ultima Thule will provide new information about the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Objects in the Kuiper Belt are cosmic leftovers, remnants of a tumultuous process that swept some debris into planets and scattered the rest. Thanks to their distance from the sun, the objects orbit in an extremely cold environment that has left them virtually unchanged for billions of years. This means they contain the same materials that formed the planets. For planetary scientists, Ultima Thule is a cosmic time capsule in pristine shape.
For now, the arrival is thrilling enough. The New Horizons team has waited three and a half years for the spacecraft to approach Ultima Thule. Scientists have had plenty of time to daydream about the object's landforms and make their predictions. And they're well aware that they may be wrong.
"I always feel like we ought to call it exploration and discovery, because the whole point of exploring is to go places no one's ever been before, to see things no one's ever seen, and to find out what's there," said Andrew Chaikin, a space historian. "Every time we've gone someplace that we've never been before, we've been surprised."
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